February 3, 2012 | WebMemo on Public Diplomacy
The U.S. government’s public diplomacy institutions are running on autopilot. While other nations, such as China, are ramping up public diplomacy and soft-power capabilities, the attention of the political leaders in this country is focused elsewhere: the budget deficit, the economy, the presidential election, etc. The effect is that the people who should be advocating for the importance of public diplomacy and think about its strategic role in U.S. foreign policy are simply not in place, so much-needed leadership in this area is lacking.
Lack of Attention
The neglect of U.S. public diplomacy has manifested itself in several ways over the past few months:
Unfortunately, this lamentable state of affairs is nothing new. Public diplomacy and international broadcasting positions have been left unattended, meaning that we are disarming ourselves in the war of ideas. As noted by Matt Armstrong, the last executive director of the Public Diplomacy Advisory Council, positions simply go unfilled for years on end. This is in part because of executive branch disinterest, in part because of congressional lack of action, and in part because the relevant institutions are poorly designed.
Consider for instance, the position of under secretary for public diplomacy, which was created under President Clinton when the United States Information Agency was incorporated into the State Department in 1999. This key policy position has been unfilled 30 percent of the time and been a veritable revolving door—under President Bush occupied by Charlotte Bears, Margaret Tutwiler, Karen Hughes, and James Glassman. Judith McHale, who held the position from May 2009 to July 2011, is in fact the longest serving under secretary for public diplomacy. Until December, it was not clear that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even wanted to fill it before the presidential election.
Meanwhile, the BBG operates on a system of staggered terms, which members fill as their nominations are approved by the Senate. The Obama White House took its time submitting its slate of eight nominees (the ninth member is the under secretary for public diplomacy representing the Secretary of State), and the Senate took its time voting on them, as Senators demanded a stringent vetting process. As a consequence, Isaacson’s term had expired in August 2011, and all other board members are on terms that have expired. Some are on terms that expired just four weeks after they took up their appointments. This is clearly no way run a broadcasting operation with a budget close to three-quarters of a billion dollars.
In order to improve the performance of the U.S. government’s public diplomacy institutions, including international broadcasting, the White House and Congress should:
An Indispensable Tool
In spite of the challenges facing the United States over the past decade, the last President who truly appreciated the significance of public diplomacy was Ronald Reagan, who considered it a powerful and indispensable tool in ending the Cold War. As a consequence of President Reagan’s leadership and the stellar team he gathered for the war of ideas, public diplomacy was a key element in policy toward the Soviet Union.
In today’s international environment—as China asserts its ambitions for global leadership, radical Islamists continue to recruit on the Internet, and democracy activists struggle against autocratic regimes in the Middle East—American ideas and information are no less important in maintaining U.S. global leadership.
Helle C. Dale is Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.