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.
Missing: a Department-wide public diplomacy strategy
A yet to be finalized and publicly available (read-parts-yet-to-be-redacted-to-protect-the-guiltiest-before-release) 2013 inspection of the International Information Programs bureau begins - I understand - with the damming observation that “the lack of a Department-wide public diplomacy strategy tying resources to priorities directly affects IIP’s work. Fundamental questions remain unresolved.. . . Absent a Department-wide strategy, IIP decisions and priorities can be ad hoc, arbitrary, and lack a frame of reference to evaluate the bureau’s effectiveness. . . “
A public diplomacy management review that might have addressed or at least highlighted some of these nearly cosmic departmental short-comings recommended in a 2004 inspection report was never conducted. In addition, the bureau is reportedly overloaded with contractors. As much as, forty-three percent of the staff is composed of indeterminate-term contractors. In the end, such contractors are not a bargain: they cost substantially more that civil servants and it’s clear they do not bring the added expertise needed. To the contrary. And IIP overuse of contractors is not alone in today's State Department.
Alice-in-Wonderland Cascade of Contracters
Instead the picture presented is one of an Alice in Wonderland type cascade of contractors supervising contractors supervising subcontractors. It’s amazing anything gets done. This is a prime example of government waste and mismanagement.
When I left that team-based, free-flowing and creative bureau in early 1998, we had very few contractors, morale was high, equipment up-to-date and its experienced staff of civil servants and Foreign Service Officers at the cutting edge of information technology. The expertise, equipment and morale have eroded over the years since the bureau went under State. We also, by the way, didn’t have the exalted titles bestowed by State on its current occupants - titles that might have looked better on a resume than ours –but we also didn’t have to suffer under bizarre unidentifiable names for offices that sound as if they came out of some weird wizard’s wardrobe.
Yes, it would indeed be welcome and also novel to see a qualified someone appointed as the next Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He or she will more than have his or her work cut out for him or her. Nevertheless until and unless the State Department’s culture, structure and institutional priorities undergo radical surgery – and it will take the White House and Congress to rethink and redo America’s entire approach to foreign publics – expect this Under Secretary’s door to revolve endlessly.
Three takes elsewhere about the Under Secretary letter:
May 24, 2013 Diplopundit, Former Ambassadors Urge Appointment of a Career Diplomat to State's Public Diplomacy Bureau,
May 24, 2013, Washington Times, Letter Highlights Needs for Public Diplomacy Champion.
May 24, 2013 Public Diplomacy Council, Ambassadors Call for a Public Diplomacy Professional at State Department.