Executive Summary: Reforming U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21stCentury


Executive Summary: Reforming U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21stCentury

November 20, 2008 4 min read Download Report

Authors: Tony Blankley, Helle Dale and Oliver Horn

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 contradictory.

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 U.S. government.
  • 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.


Tony Blankley


Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Oliver Horn

Bradley Fellow in Education Policy