America’s Public Diplomacy at a Crossroads

America’s public diplomacy (PD), the process by which the U.S. builds relationships with foreign publics and uses communications techniques to advance foreign policy objectives, is at yet another crossroads—and it is one we have seen several times before. The story of U.S. public diplomacy over the past 14 years is akin to that of traveling a road in the shape of a figure-eight—that is, it the path followed constantly returns to the same problematic intersection.

There are several immediate and recurring issues the United States is facing in the PD realm.

With last week’s departure of Tara Sonenshine as the seventh Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, this position continues a damaging tradition of rapid turnover and extended vacancy. Up until Sonenshine’s 2012 appointment, the Under Secretary’s job had been vacant 30% of the time since its creation in 1999.

While most PD professionals have praised Sonenshine’s work to strengthen public diplomacy at home and abroad, her departure highlights the need for an equally strong leader to take the reins for a longer term and without the typically long vacancy period.

Unfortunately, her departure also comes at a critical time for the strategic image of the United States.

In late June, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a report resoundingly criticizing the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). Essentially America’s “PD factory,” IIP is primarily tasked with producing public diplomacy materials—and while there is room for praise, it has been criticized and reorganized previously for these issues of leadership, function, and metrics.

Another major concern involves the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which handles America’s official overseas broadcasting elements such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In her departing letter, Sonenshine highlighted that the “BBG is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities.” Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on BBG that labeled the organization “defunct.” The nine-member Board currently only has four slots filled, rendering it without a quorum. Questions about its leadership and mission have remained unresolved for years.

Also last week, after Senator Ted Cruz vowed to block all State Department nominations until a new Inspector General was appointed. Two days later, an appointment was finally announced after more than five years of vacancy. The State Department noted that the appointment had already been in the works for some time.

As all of this is occurring, the U.S. faces yet another image crisis over the recent NSA surveillance leaks, creating a security vs. privacy paradox which the government has exercised strategic confusion in addressing.

There is, however, some good news amongst the doom and gloom. This week, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act goes into effect, finally allowing PD materials to be distributed domestically upon request. Though providing the legal basis by which the U.S. Government conducts public diplomacy overseas, Smith-Mundt has also long prohibited the American public from legally accessing the materials and programming produced for this purpose. This restriction has been based on the premise that allowing Americans to view the materials produced for overseas audiences could be tantamount to subjecting them to propaganda from their own government.

So while America’s “PD factory” has issues, its international broadcasting is a mess, and there is no leadership in sight, there are things we can do to improve the situation.

  1. Nominate and confirm a new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, respected by both parties, with strong leadership and a passion for PD. Ideally, this person should have the President’s ear, and like Sonenshine, have the professional experience to make a difference.
  2. Build the constituency for PD at home. Americans must have a better understanding of why public diplomacy is important to them individually, and why it must be more than simply “better explaining” America’s story. An important step in this process has been reached with the modernization of Smith-Mundt, giving the American public a chance to get a better idea of what the U.S. government is doing and saying overseas on its behalf. Americans stand to benefit from people-to-people interaction with foreign populations, whether that comes in the form of tourism-related jobs, advancements in science and health, or cultural awareness.
  3. Establish a new strategic vision for how to convey the American message. This vision must go beyond the aura of enthusiasm surrounding social media and must find ways to strengthen real-world relationship building. While social media should be a component of this, it should be viewed primarily as a tool to strengthen or build real-world relationships—not likes and followers. Don’t give this strategy a 2.0, 3.0 or other tech-sounding name. Institutionalize it, and focus on building relationships where short, medium, and long-term metrics can be applied. The U.S. must ensure the various branches of PD have clearly defined missions, and establish continuity of vision beyond 1 to 2 year periods.

The past decade has seen America moving from crisis to crisis, whether that comes in the form of tweets gone awry, prisoner abuse, or leaked classified documents. Though these types of incidents each present challenges of their own, what the U.S. desperately needs is a more effective, coordinated system for establishing, building and maintaining relationships with publics abroad—and the average American needs to feel they are a part of it.

Matthew Wallin is a Senior Policy Analyst at the American Security Project and holds a Masters in Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California.