Public Diplomacy Needs a Commander, Not a Spokesman

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Public Diplomacy Needs a Commander, Not a Spokesman

September 30, 2005 3 min read
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

There is little doubt that Karen Hughes's arrival as the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at the Department of State is a welcome event. As a former close advisor to President George W. Bush, her appointment demonstrates the Administration's seriousness about improving America's image overseas. But there are signs the White House still doesn't know what's wrong.

Ms. Hughes is the third appointee to take over the Department's troubled public diplomacy function since President Bush first took office. Both predecessors, advertising executive Charlotte Beers and veteran bureaucrat Margaret Tutwiler, quit early, failing to make it hum as it once did as the independent U.S. Information Agency (USIA).

To be charitable, Congress and the Clinton Administration merged USIA into the State Department just before President Bush was elected. It has turned out to be a lousy place to put a global public relations operation. Gregarious public diplomacy types, trained in communications and accustomed to seizing initiatives, clashed with State's cautious, deliberative diplomats-leading to misunderstanding and dysfunction.

The Bush Administration did little to remedy the situation. It modeled White House communication efforts after political campaigns. But campaigns are short-term operations designed to quickly sell candidates and ideas to segmented audiences. They rely on camera angles, spin, and message control.

After September 11, the Administration created crisis response teams and a White House "Office of Global Communications" to try to sell its policies to the world by crafting winning messages and sticking to them-just like in a political race.

Meanwhile, as senior diplomats at the State Department were freezing public diplomacy officers out of policy deliberations and using them in consular and administrative positions, foreign communications initiatives were largely thwarted by a bureaucracy attuned to preserving the status quo.

Outside, the Department of Defense developed its own strategic communications capability in the Middle East and later contracted for polling, media content analysis, and document exploitation in ongoing public information and psychological operations.

Even the U.S. Agency for International Development has taken advantage of the similarities between national cheerleading and foreign aid by creating its own public diplomacy program to support the Administration's Middle Eastern Peace Initiative. All the while, the majority of our government's expert communicators have sat twiddling their thumbs in a cabinet agency that doesn't want them.

One sign the Administration still hasn't found its groove is Karen Hughes's September "listening tour" of the Middle East that included cameras from four U.S. television networks and an entourage of reporters. Like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ms. Hughes made worthwhile comments on democracy in Arab society, but her trip seemed more a photo opportunity for the Administration to restate its policies than a platform to solicit feedback.

In contrast, former USIA director and presidential confidant Charles Wick often traveled alone to public diplomacy outposts to find out what resources his officers needed and to get the lay of the land from his foreign hosts and the U.S. embassy staff. His findings helped inform USIA program decisions and briefings for President Reagan.

Another troubling sign is the State Department's tightening grip over contacts between its diplomats and the media. According to new instructions, U.S. ambassadors and all subordinates need prior approval from the Department's Public Affairs Bureau to speak to U.S. or international journalists overseas. In the United States, they are told not to expect approval at all. Permission can take days. So from the diplomat's point of view, it's better not to visit with reporters at all.

Over at the Pentagon, the U.S. military generally permits soldiers to talk about what they know, as long as they avoid speculation and divulging secrets. Senior leaders get briefed on appropriate messages should they happen to encounter a journalist. Military doctrine encourages public affairs officers to disseminate news expeditiously to show good stewardship of personnel and resources-making daily deposits into what the armed forces call the public bank of goodwill.

While President Bush may need able spokesmen to counter policy misperceptions at home and abroad, he doesn't necessarily need Karen Hughes to be one of them. Rather, he needs her to take charge of a broken bureaucracy, empower its officers, coordinate its actions among various government agencies, and extend its reach toward all points of the compass, not just the Middle East.

Public diplomacy is not the same as selling a candidate. It is cultivating positive relations with foreign publics over time using personal contacts, news, and exposure to culture. Moreover, it is a national function, not to be confused with defending an administration's policies. In this, Karen Hughes need not be the general who leads every charge, but the commander who ensures every foot soldier can accomplish the mission.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst