Fill the Public Diplomacy Leadership Vacuum

Report Global Politics

Fill the Public Diplomacy Leadership Vacuum

February 3, 2012 3 min read Download Report
Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale
Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
Helle’s work focused on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

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:

  • Funding for the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a decades-old institution advising the State Department, is on hold in the Senate, causing the commission to effectively go out of business.
  • At the State Department, acting Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy Ann Stock has been holding down the fort since the resignation of Judith McHale in July and may soon be replaced by another “acting” under secretary. Confirmation hearings for a new, well-qualified political appointee, Tara Sonenshine of the U.S. Institute of Peace, were held in December, but there are no signs of a vote on her nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after which follows a Senate vote to confirm.
  • Last week, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Walter Isaacson, abruptly submitted his letter of resignation to President Obama, citing a new time-consuming writing assignment after his biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s departure leaves the nine-member board leaderless at a time when U.S. international broadcasting faces extensive restructuring, according to the agency’s new strategic plan adopted under Isaacson’s leadership in October last year.
  • All the remaining eight members of the BBG are serving on expired terms, and some are able to make only very sporadic appearances due to other professional commitments.

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:

  • Send up nominations for vacant positions and vote on confirmations in a timely fashion, indicating the seriousness of the U.S. government’s need to communicate with publics around the world.
  • Consider reorganizing U.S. international broadcasting, making the leadership more streamlined, more professional, and more accountable to Congress and the State Department—for instance, replacing the board with a director appointed by the Secretary of State.
  • Renew funding for the Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy. As an advisory board for the State Department, it has a role in generating new ideas, keeping a record of best practices, and reaching out to other government departments with public diplomacy functions.

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.


Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom