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American Public Diplomacy & Foreign Policy at a Crossroads by William P. Kiehl


William P. Kiehl

American Public Diplomacy & Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

There is one foreign policy issue in Washington today upon which everyone can agree --- the failure of United States public diplomacy. America once boasted a formidable public diplomacy. The Office of War Information in World War Two and the United States Information Agency during the Cold War proved that the United States could conduct public diplomacy to inform, persuade and "win hearts and minds" as well as any nation. America's recent public diplomacy failures have come not from any lack of expertise but rather because of an absence of will and resources.

With the end of the Cold War, American policy makers saw no compelling need to continue to fund a U.S. Information Agency that they saw as a "relic" of the Cold War. Successive administrations and Congresses cut USIA's financial and personnel resources from the late 1980's through the late 1990's because the agency's raison d'etre was called into question. Finally, in 1999 with the consolidation of the foreign affairs agencies, the remnants of USIA were absorbed by the Department of State. The programs, products and personnel of the Agency, seriously weakened by neglect in the decade following the Cold War, were disbursed and diminished even further through reorganization. America's least costly and arguably most effective instrument of national power was rendered impotent.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and America's realization that it was at war with a new enemy - international terrorism--it became clear that the weakened and rudderless public diplomacy in the State Department was just not adequate to the task. A number of solutions have been proposed in recent years.(1) Each points to chronic and systemic problems that must be addressed in any renewal of American public diplomacy. Among the most serious are:

A failure to understand that public diplomacy is not just public affairs directed abroad;

Absence of true integration of public diplomacy with traditional diplomacy;

Lack of any central authority over public diplomacy operations;

Inadequate funding for public diplomacy programs.

Public diplomacy is not an overseas version of public affairs. The military separates public affairs from psychological operations because it recognizes that the two elements can be contradictory. Public affairs programs deal principally with the media and are essentially reactive, in response to an event or news story or to preempt the media. The public affairs time line is usually measured in a minutes to days. To be sure, modern public affairs have evolved from strictly providing information to controlling the spin but at its essence it is providing information to the public.

Public diplomacy (2), like peacetime psychological operations, is pro-active. Effective public diplomacy is not just about providing information - it is about developing relationships. It deals with the media to be sure but it also deals with the whole spectrum of society. Effective public diplomacy seeks to change attitudes and persuade the target audience. The public diplomacy time line can be measured in months, years or even decades to achieve success.

If public diplomacy is ever to be at the heart of the foreign policy process, it must reside there. One cannot "call in" the public diplomacy team when needed. Public diplomacy officers must be among those who would be doing the "calling in." Senior leadership of the real power centers of the Department of State, the regional bureaus, must include senior public diplomacy officers at least at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level. Since the reorganization of the foreign affairs agencies in October 1999 there have been less than a handful of public diplomacy officers assigned to senior positions in these regional bureaus.

For the most part, public diplomacy officers in the Department of State are seen to be specialized technicians rather than real diplomats and with few exceptions are relegated to their specialized functions. Although they may be physically located in the Department of State, they and the expertise they could bring remain largely outside the formulation of foreign policy. An effective foreign policy must be based on an understanding of how that policy will be perceived abroad. Public diplomats listen to their audiences as well as address them. Without public diplomacy's active engagement and input, the formulation of foreign policy is at a serious disadvantage. No amount of selling the message through public diplomacy output can make up for a message flawed because it has not had public diplomacy input.

Ironically, the single most serious flaw in the 1999 reorganization plan was the inclusion of the regional USIA offices as Public Diplomacy offices within the regional bureaus of the Department. This was seen to be an opportunity for public diplomacy to be "in on the take-offs as well as the crash landings" of policy. But without leaders at the top of this rigidly hierarchical system, public diplomacy was most often ignored. The regional bureaus, as the supervisors of overseas missions and formulators of policy, call the tune. No amount of "interaction" with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs can alter this fact. The result is that the Under Secretary has full responsibility for the conduct of worldwide public diplomacy but lacks authority over that worldwide public diplomacy - and that is a recipe for failure.

More money can help but it alone is not the solution. In the war on terrorism some modest additional funds have come to public diplomacy mainly for the Islamic world. But this money is only a down payment on an effective public diplomacy for one or two world regions for a limited time Potentially, America's public diplomacy failure is just as serious in Europe and other world regions as it is in the Islamic world. Currently, America's public diplomacy budget would not even match a mid-sized global business advertising account yet we have learned that informing and persuading foreign publics about U.S. foreign policy, values and motives is far more complex than selling Uncle Ben's Rice or Coca-Cola. Increased funds are necessary across the board, but without basic reform and restructuring of public diplomacy additional monies will not result in more effective public diplomacy.

A serious renewal of American public diplomacy must find a middle ground between the independent USIA of the past and the weak structure that currently exists. The Public Diplomacy Council's recent A Call for Action on Public Diplomacy (3) proposes needed transformations of the structure, organization and funding of public diplomacy for the 21st century. Renewal of America's public diplomacy as a strategic element of national power is at a crossroads and can not be postponed any longer.

© William P. Kiehl 2005

William P. Kiehl is Senior Partner of PD Worldwide, consultants in global public affairs, public relations and cross-cultural communications based in Washington, D.C, and serves as an Instructor in Public Diplomacy, School of Professional and Advanced Studies, Foreign Service Institute. He is the Executive Director of The Public Diplomacy Council at the School of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University. He was Diplomat in Residence at the U.S. Army War College Center for Strategic Leadership and Senior Fellow of the U.S. Army Peacekeeping Institute. Mr. Kiehl served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State during a 33 year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.

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