Margaret Thatcher once said that America is the only nation in
the world "built upon an idea." It is therefore both frustrating
and ironic that the United States should have such difficulty
conveying ideas today. Seven years into the war on
terrorism, it is apparent that final victory must be won not
only on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the
hearts and minds of people. However, the institutions tasked
with strategic communications (informing and influencing
foreign publics) operate with too few resources and virtually
no effective interagency coordination. Their messages, as a result,
too often have been ineffective, incoherent, and sometimes
While there is no easy fix, the next President and Congress need
to reform the strategy, doctrine, and structure of strategic
communications to engage in the war of ideas seriously and
effectively. This requires a new institutional framework based
on a U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications, substantial
reforms of the Department of State, and greater utilization of the
Pentagon's combatant commands.
Institutional Inadequacy. Folding the U.S. Information
Agency into the State Department in 1999 has proven to be an
exercise in placing square pegs into round holes. Former USIA
employees were incorporated into geographic bureaus, and public
diplomacy became simply another element of public affairs. The
long-term efforts of public diplomacy were subordinated to the
short-term rapid-reaction goals emphasized by public affairs,
leading to a disregard for outcomes and further dysfunction.
Although successive Under Secretaries of State for Public Affairs
and Public Diplomacy have since made several substantive reforms,
the structural problems remain.
In contrast, the Department of Defense (DOD) has worked
aggressively to bolster its own information capabilities,
citing strategic communications as "crucial" to shaping consistent,
effective messages. Yet the DOD has neither the capabilities nor
the desire to become the lead agency for informational outreach.
Its roles and missions are vastly different from public diplomacy,
and its personnel lack the necessary skills and expertise--all of
which are found in the nation's civilian agencies.
Congress Steps In. To alleviate public diplomacy's
shortcomings, several Members of Congress have introduced pieces of
legislation. The Smith- Thornberry amendment (H.A. 5) would bolster
the existing institutional framework by strengthening interagency
coordination and providing additional resources for strategic
communications research. The Brownback bill (S. 3546) would
fundamentally reshape the current institutional framework. Although
the two pieces of legislation differ significantly in their
proposals, both offer effective schemes to enhance strategic
communications and public diplomacy.
However, both pieces of legislation fail to address a key
problem--defining the methods of informational outreach--that
has beset government strategic communications and public
diplomacy efforts since the Cold War. Too often, officials use
their own communications capabilities to advance their own
interests and ignore or contradict efforts both inside and outside
of their agencies. Without an interagency definition of strategic
communications, dysfunction will likely continue regardless of
structure or resources.
A New Framework. Nevertheless, both legislative
vehicles have elements that could serve as the foundation of a new,
viable strategic communications institutional framework. The
best outcome would combine the most effective elements of both with
additional components that address their shortcomings.
Specifically, the President and Congress should:
- Establish a U.S. Agency for Strategic
Communications to serve as the focal point for U.S.
informational outreach capabilities. Under the guidance of the
Director of Strategic Communications, it would craft and
implement an interagency strategic communications strategy,
oversee U.S. broadcasting, and administer grants to nonprofit
groups engaged in useful information operation activities. The
director would be responsible for interagency coordination of
strategic communications, including coordinating the
Pentagon's regional information activities with the rest of the
- Establish a new strategic communications strategy that
specifically defines the elements of information outreach. As
one of its first tasks, the agency should define strategic
communications. The purpose and goals of public affairs,
public diplomacy, international broadcasting, and information
operations should be specifically defined so that their
implementers understand where they fit in the overall strategic
communications strategy and process.
- Reform the State Department. Congress should transfer
all functions and assets of the Under Secretary of State for Public
Diplomacy and Public Affairs to the Director of Strategic
Communications, except for the Bureau of Public Affairs, which
would continue to serve as the State Department's public outreach
arm. The State Department would focus exclusively on
state-to-state, regional, and multilateral affairs.
- Make use of the Pentagon's combatant commands.
Strategic communications should be implemented not only at the
country level, but also at the regional level through the
well-established combatant commands, one of the few
established mechanisms capable of monitoring and coordinating
government efforts across wide geographical areas.
Conclusion. For America, whose purpose is rooted in the
aspirations of freedom for everyone, winning hearts and minds is a
critical part of any effective foreign policy. Yet without
substantial reforms in its structures and methods of public
diplomacy, the United States will remain, as Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates has said, "miserable at communicating to the
rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture,
about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals." It
is time for Congress and the President to ensure that the United
States fully engages in the war of ideas by creating a
comprehensive strategy and framework that utilize strategic
communications as an effective, proactive foreign policy tool.
Tony Blankley is Visiting Senior
Fellow in National Security Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Helle C. Dale is Deputy
Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison
Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Davis
Institute, at The Heritage Foundation. Oliver L. Horn is a
Research Assistant in the Allison Center. The authors thank the
numerous current and former officials from the State Department,
Defense Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development
whose insights helped to make this report possible.