Getting serious about strategic influence: How to move beyond the State Department’s legacy of failure

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by J. Michael Waller

A decade has passed since the Clinton administration and the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) joined hands in destroying America’s public diplomacy machinery. The shocking development occurred for a combination of reasons: a turf-conscious State Department that wanted total control of public diplomacy that previously had been the purview of the semiindependent U.S. Information Agency; an administration that thought public diplomacy was only for fighting the Soviets and now, with the end of the Cold War, no longer needed; and a staunchly conservative senator who had some bones to pick with U.S.IA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Not even the 9/11 attacks and two major wars would bring that machinery back, even as eminent scholars and former senior officials popularized concepts like “soft power” and its successor, “smart power.”1 The U.S. government continues to flail fecklessly in the international scene as public diplomacy officialdom regurgitates stale ideas with a myopia rivaling that of Quincy Magoo. The State Department’s sense of urgency is no more impressive, and its continued primacy in the public diplomacy mission equally perplexing.

Public diplomacy and public affairs need to be put in their proper places, as part of a larger discipline called strategic communication. Its mission must be similar to the mission of the armed forces: to project American power and influence and provide a permanent system through which to ensure the national interest globally. The mission must not be communication for communication’s sake, or simply to make the United States a player in the “global marketplace of ideas.” The mission must be to dominate that market. It must be to fight to win. It must be run strategically, like a permanent political campaign. To do so, it must be run not by diplomats and public affairs pros, but by real strategists and practitioners in the art of political action.

Failed stewardship 

Why, after all these years, do bipartisan majorities in Congress and mainstream public diplomacy advocates insist that the State Department be the nexus of the nation’s strategic communication effort? The George W. Bush Administration hobbled itself from the beginning by re-wiring the federal government’s tangled public diplomacy circuitry, and routing virtually all international communications efforts—including military psychological operations and information operations—through the office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Yet for half of the eight years of the Bush presidency, the post of under secretary stood vacant. And when the position was filled, did it really matter?

Can we name a single significant enduring positive public diplomacy legacy from under secretaries Charlotte Beers, Margaret Tutwiler, and Karen Hughes? Or, for that matter, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice? Forget about whether or not one agreed with the “War on Terror” policies at the time; did the people on duty step up to the plate? Can anybody point to a wartime reorganization of what almost everybody admitted was a moribund, ineffective public diplomacy machine? Was there a resolve at State that matched the wartime urgency of the U.S. military and the intelligence services? Where was the big hiring surge? What about the revolution in training new recruits and re-training  those in place? Apart from international broadcasting, an oddly autonomous system with a bickering bipartisan board over which the State Department has little influence, where were the big budget requests from Congress? 

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