Ten Reasons Why We Don't Need an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Mar 23, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

1. Nobody with a normal jaw can pronounce this title, a mouthful of a name that is a bureaucratic offense to the English language.

2. Most foreigners (and many Americans as well) have no idea what the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs actually does, although some suspect the job is somehow connected with propaganda. Overseas, they usually have Ministers of Information of Ministers of Culture, not Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

3. The dozens of reports that have appeared since 9/11 on public diplomacy have come to a similar general conclusion: the State Department's public diplomacy -- which it defines on its homepage as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences," an important activity if there ever was one, but which it is not institutionally willing or equipped to handle -- has failed miserably, given the continuing unpopularity and suspicion of the United States the world over. In this connection, it's worthy of note that the initial public diplomacy achievements of the Obama administration -- the President's Al Arabiya interview and the Secretary of State's visit to Asia -- were attained without a PD/PA Under Secretary yet having been chosen. Indeed, an Under Secretary putting herself in the public limelight overseas a la Karen Hughes only confuses foreigners about who from the top layers of the State Department is presenting and representing America abroad.

4. For concerned American citizens who care about meaningful distinctions, is it proper for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to handle both public affairs -- outreach to Americans -- and public diplomacy -- outreach to foreign publics? Doesn't the meshing of these two different activities violate the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits the State Department from propagandizing domestic audiences?

5. Many diplomats at the State Department, while increasingly aware of the importance of world public opinion, still have a tendency to dismiss public diplomacy, considering it an oxymoron. How can diplomacy, they would say, ever be "public," since diplomacy is, at heart, about confidential negotiations and classified reporting? And does PD ever result in any "real" diplomatic achievement, like a treaty or international agreement?

6. For most of its existence, the Department did not handle public diplomacy. In the Cold War, for example, the USIA (United States Information Agency) was in charge of PD (this agency was referred to as "Useless" by State employees, a pun on its overseas designation, United States Information Service [USIS]). No wonder that in the State Department today, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs -- the position has existed for less than ten years -- has little real influence or power. PD field officers are not even evaluated by the Under Secretary's office. And there are rumors that the yet-unnamed new State PD czar for the Obama administration won't be granted a proper office at Foggy Bottom.

7. As for the military, when trying to change the behavior of bad guys without killing them, they'll take psyops any day, and much prefer "strategic communications" to State Department PD as a way to defeat the enemy. The PD/PA Under Secretary just gets in the Pentagon's way. No wonder the military now has its own PD office.

8. A large number of media experts believe that State Department PD and USG-supported international broadcasting should be kept completely separate (see, for example, the outstanding blog, Kim Andrew Elliott Discussing International Broadcasting and Public Diplomacy). For Voice of America employees, the less State Department interference in their work the better.

9. Many internationally-minded Americans believe people-to-people exchanges are best carried out outside the government, i.e., without the State Department getting in the way with its "public diplomacy" precepts. The words of a member of a pet society, involved in contacts with foreign counterparts during the Eisenhower administration, are perhaps not irrelevant in this connection: "Dogs make the best Ambassadors."

10. Finally, and on a slightly humorous note, the word public is all too often misspelled, leaving the "l" out, potentially creating embarrassing situations for government officials. Consider this quotation from Strategy Research Project: The Role Of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Global War on Terrorism (2005): "Further, the paper will discuss world opinion of USG policy, assess whether the U.S. military should carry the burden of public diplomacy to 'win the hearts and minds,' and provide a recommendation for improving the USG Pubic Diplomacy posture in our current global war on terrorism."

RECOMMENDATION (and I'm sure there are better ones):

To handle USG information, educational and cultural programs meant to engage, inform, and influence key international audiences, create a small, flexible government agency, giving it a name that clearly describes what it does. And call the head of this new entity "Director." Everybody knows what a director is. It's a person who actually makes a difference, unlike -- at least up to now -- the Under Secretary of State for Pubic Diplomacy -- sorry, Public -- and Public Affairs at the Department of State in Washington, DC.

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John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles The Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, Version 2.0 at publicdiplomacypressandblogreview.blogspot.com