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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The White House stumbled all over itself, organizing and reorganizing, setting up a laughable Office of Global Communications that served as more of a domestic PR mouthpiece than a real office of strategic communications. And it had no real authority over the State Department’s public diplomacy portfolio. National Security Council staffers seemed powerless to do anything significant, grasping at straws about how to implement impactful information and communication campaigns that would make a difference around the world. When NSC staff met in a room, they would refer these questions to the State Department representative, who would either act as if everything were under control or simply shrug that nothing could be done. Neither of Bush’s national security advisors, Condoleezza Rice nor Steve Hadley, would create a billet on the NSC staff exclusively for strategic communication and staffed by a capable veteran of ideological conflict. And when Rice became secretary of state,  Hadley continued her non-engagement policies and remained deferential to her desire to keep strategic communication under her domain.

So the State Department insisted on—and got—responsibility for and control of public diplomacy and strategic communication at large. But what has it really done? It issued a simplistic, lackluster public diplomacy strategy in 2007, and effectively declared victory. Not until the last fitful months of the Bush Administration did a serious person with a meaningful understanding of communications strategy come to the fore, and even then, it was too late for him to do anything. James Glassman, a professional communicator with a good deal of strategic thinking under his belt, was named Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 2008. Glassman did his homework. He placed the job in the context of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and waging ideological counteroffensives around the world. At least, that’s what Glassman told supporters he intended to do; actually executing it within the State Department was another matter. Moreover, Glassman coordinated as effectively as he possibly could prior to his Senate confirmation with the military combatant commanders around the world so that when he was finally allowed to take his post, he could hit the ground running. This advance coordination with the military is what won him support from pro-defense operatives in Washington. But the Bush Administration didn’t pull out all the political stops to get Glassman into his post, clumsily handling his nomination and alienating a conservative Republican senator to the point that he put a Helms-like “hold” on Glassman, delaying things for months as men continued to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once Glassman made it through the Senate, he took his office at State only to find that the bureaucrats had gone on a spending spree, deflating his office’s accounts for the rest of the fiscal year. He could do almost nothing to reform public diplomacy, and with the election of Barack Obama, was shown the door.

Nobody has been held accountable for the public diplomacy mess. Yet everybody seems to want the State Department to continue its role as the leader in wartime strategic communication.

In the eight years since 9/11, the State Department has not once asked Congress for a budget for a world-class, information-age public diplomacy capability befitting the world’s only superpower. Instead, it relied on money re-programmed from the Pentagon. It has not reorganized itself, and the old and decrepit former U.S.IA bureaucracy now under its control, to face the post-Cold War challenge. Most of the veteran public diplomacy professionals from the U.S.IA years quit or retired long ago. By contrast, the Defense Department went through a thorough, top-to-bottom reorganization simultaneously as it managed two wars. State, however, has neither devised a real grand strategy, developed a strategic communications doctrine, nor configured itself to move very far beyond its slow and bureaucratic ways of doing things. 

Please Share: