New Leadership, New Hope for Public Diplomacy

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New Leadership, New Hope for Public Diplomacy

March 15, 2005 3 min read

Authors: Stephen Johnson and Helle Dale

On March 14, the White House announced it would nominate part-time Bush adviser and veteran communicator Karen P. Hughes as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Having counseled the President since he was governor of Texas, she has his confidence and ear-something predecessors lacked. Hughes should press for reform of the Under Secretariat and reinvigoration of public diplomacy.


The bad news is that Hughes will take over a bureaucracy that is in disarray, in a department that doesn't want it. When Congress and the Clinton Administration folded the U.S. Information Agency into the Department of State in 1999, State devoured and scattered its personnel and bureaus. Next, senior managers created the Under Secretariat as an advisory position with no significant budget and no authority over public diplomacy (PD) personnel.


Under Secretaries in the Bush administration found the job frustrating. Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive considered a warm body by the administration and shunned by the Department, left after 17 rocky months. Former State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler fiddled with the job for six months, then quit. On and off, the position has been hard to fill and went vacant for a total of 25 months.


Instead of crafting campaign messages-for which she has a knack-Karen Hughes will have to leverage her influence with the President to clean up a botched merger at a time when challenges in foreign communication are the greatest since the beginning of the Cold War. Moreover, she will have to buck those in the Administration who think effective public diplomacy is repeating a slogan slowly and loudly enough until the audience "gets it."


In fact, public diplomacy is only partly about message. Its core mission is to promote U.S. interests and security through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.


That means giving timely news to foreign journalists, providing information on U.S. values and policies directly to foreign publics through various media, sponsoring scholarships and exchanges to the United States, showcasing American arts, and transmitting balanced, independent news to captive people who have no information source independent of a repressive government.


It requires a pro-active strategy, a commitment to build long-term relationships with segmented audiences through multiple channels, and a willingness to coordinate the efforts of several government agencies.


Besides State, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have public diplomacy roles.


Defense conducts information warfare, USAID programs help train foreign media, NED disseminates information on democratic governance, and the BBG is supposed to broadcast balanced news and cultural programs through the Voice of America network and surrogate outlets such as Radio Free Asia. Since the Reagan Administration, these entities have gone on to operate in separate universes-much like America's intelligence agencies before September 11.


If she wants to bolster America's sagging foreign communications efforts, Karen Hughes should not accept the status quo. She must reform the system. Here's how:


First, she should convince the President and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to give her reporting authority over PD personnel and assets at the State Department. PD has unique equipment and staffing needs that the Department's sluggish bureaucracy can't support. PD officers should be evaluated by other communications professionals, not by officers who barely understand the mission. Scattered units such as the Office of Public Opinion Research, now buried in the Intelligence Bureau, should be returned to Public Diplomacy in State.


Second, she should urge the White House to establish a public diplomacy coordinator position at the National Security Council to put other agencies with missions like information warfare, media development, and foreign broadcasting in sync. That individual must take charge of ensuring that cabinet agencies have mutually supportive PD programs.


Third, although Secretary Rice presented her as someone who will reach out to Muslim nations, Ms. Hughes needs to re-energize public diplomacy worldwide. In Latin America, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is creating a South American television network to propagandize against the United States 24 hours a day. U.S. academic and subject-matter exchanges are still at an all-time low and U.S. foreign broadcasting to Latin America survives by a thread.


Fortunately, State's Foreign Service Institute has increased the number of public diplomacy courses. But State should not rest on its laurels. State's PD education does not yet match the intensity of Department of Defense public affairs training at the Defense Information School.


Congress and the Clinton Administration believed the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the need for public diplomacy. The Bush Administration inherited the wreckage of a flawed USIA-State Department merger. Karen Hughes has an opportunity to get public diplomacy up and running again by strengthening her Under Secretariat at State.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst in, and Helle Dale is Director of, 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

Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy