Center for Strategic Communication

Richard Stengel. Image Credit: David Shankbone

Richard Stengel. Image Credit: David Shankbone

News has broken that the new nominee for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department will be Richard Stengel, who is leaving his position as Editor of Time Magazine. If confirmed, he will be the 8th Under Secretary since the creation of the position in 1999.

Stengel will be replacing Tara Sonenshine, who left the R Office this June.

It is interesting to note that both Stengel and Sonenshine come from journalism backgrounds. Stengel has also been subject to British public diplomacy, participating in academic exchange through the Rhodes Scholarship.

Of course, the question on everybody’s mind, aside from what Stengel will plan to do in his new position, is how long he will serve as Under Secretary. The position has been characterized by relatively short tenures, and prior to Sonenshine, was vacant roughly 30% of the time.

Additionally, Stengel will still be subject to the confirmation process, which could add yet more delays to establishing leadership to a vital U.S. mission. Both the President and the Senate should make efforts to speed this confirmation through and work to keep that 30% vacancy period on the decline.

Charged with leading America’s efforts to “inform, influence, and engage” foreign publics in support of foreign policy objectives, the Under Secretary position comes with its set of challenges. Issues of audience reach, effectiveness, and State Department bureaucracy have continuously faced those taking the reins of U.S. public diplomacy.

While no predictions can yet be made on what Stengel is planning for his time at the wheel, there are a few issues that will likely be at the forefront. This includes reinvigorating an American narrative during a time of great international upheaval, working with major changes in leadership at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and setting precedent for how the U.S. public diplomacy apparatus will operate in an environment less-restricted by the Smith-Mundt Act.

This is an interesting time in public diplomacy. As I advised previously to Under Secretary Sonenshine, Stengel should avoid getting too caught up trying to change the bureaucratic structure of public diplomacy at State, and should instead focus on building a portfolio of successful case studies that will help give PD a leg to stand on—both in terms of policy planning and budget justification. PD cannot be a fix-all, or be expected to substitute for well-thought out policy. As long as Stengel focuses on building relationships with foreign publics, and fortifying American credibility, he will be on solid footing for a successful tenure.

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