By Patricia H. Kushlis
Will persistence pay off or does hope just spring eternal? The former would be nice.
On May 24, 2013, 51 former US Ambassadors and senior US government officials with extensive overseas and Washington experience in foreign affairs wrote to Secretary John Kerry (copying NSC Advisor Tom Donilon) urging the new Secretary to appoint a career foreign affairs professional as the next Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. This position is being vacated by Tara Sonenshine, Hillary Clinton’s final political appointment to the office. Sonenshine lasted less than a year.
The letter signers are right.
The position has been a revolving door since its creation in 1999 in the wake of the destruction of the US Information Agency which left a gaping hole in America’s ability to interact systematically and effectively with foreign publics abroad - a vacuum that the new soft power mandate for the State Department has miserably failed to fill.
As the letter points out, the position has been vacant more than 30% of the time since its inception according to the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. It was never occupied longer than the two years George W. Bush’s high profile and controversial appointee Karen Hughes held it soon after 9/11.
None of its occupants have been career officers. All but one was unfamiliar with the ways of the department or really knew how the US government conducts business abroad. In contrast, State's Under Secretary for Political Affairs has never been left without a director for more than 5% of the time and its occupants have been drawn from among the ranks of the highest career officers in the department.
State Department Cultural and Structural Impediments
What the signatories don’t point out, however, is that there are both structural and cultural reasons why the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs position has usually been filled with less than the best – and even these people haven’t stuck around long enough to make a difference if they could have.
Namely, the position has little power – the Under Secretary has neither budgetary nor personnel control beyond a front office that has expanded exponentially since its inception and oversight of three functional bureaus (Education and Cultural Affairs, International Information Programs and Public Affairs) lodged under the Under Secretary.
Power in the State Department concentrates in the geographic and management bureaus: these are the places where money is allocated and all important personnel decisions made.
Yet public diplomacy’s rubber hits the road overseas –through public diplomacy professional staff working out of Embassies, Missions, Consulates, and Centers. The Under Secretary has no say over overseas public diplomacy appointments (except for certain specialists like reference specialists), staffing or even the qualifications or experience required for assignment as a public diplomacy officer abroad.
In reality, State has allowed public diplomacy to wither on the vine both as a career track and a skills set. No Condi – “we all don’t do public diplomacy now” – most State Department officers never did, never have and never should. They provide other kinds of needed expertise.
The sad truth is that the State Department has never understood nor valued what public diplomacy can offer US foreign policy.
State’s culture is that of secrecy, stove-piped information and rigid hierarchy: traditional diplomacy occurs behind closed doors, with surreptitious handshakes, negotiated treaties, barrages of demarches to foreign ministries, and “no dis” cables. Whereas, public diplomacy is about openness: about sharing information with foreign publics. It is grounded in the view that transparency helps provide the foundation for mutual understanding between peoples of different cultures and upon which traditional diplomacy can more easily operate.