Foreign Policy Blogs

Banking on Brookings

The latest report on how to improve America's public diplomacy has its merits, but overall it inspires deja vu.  We’ve been in this place before, trying to figure out how the world's most influential culture and most powerful government might finally achieve a public diplomacy organization that operates at the same level.   The Brookings Institution report, for all its wise observations about the problems with U.S. public diplomacy, fails to offer a new or particularly viable prescription.  What's more, there's no sign that the Obama Administration, including the Secretary of State-designate, wants to change the structure of public diplomacy very much.

It's worth asking again what has stymied all previous efforts and — it would appear — this one too.

Structure and funding are the two challenges that every study of U.S. public diplomacy has had to address.  Is the fundamental problem with our public diplomacy that we don't properly organize public and private sectors to do this work, or that we don't properly fund what we set out to do?

In the Nineties, the dominant view in Washington was that the problem was structural.  Consequently, the U.S. Information Agency was placed within the State Department and all of its staff placed under the direct control of the Secretary of State.  This was supposed to ensure that the State Department paid due attention to public diplomacy concerns.  Immediately thereafter, however, funding for the State Department's public diplomacy activities was reduced, causing many to question the wisdom of this move, and leading to a slew of reports crying out for more money and a different structure.

The Brookings report, written by Kristin Lord, follows this trend, recommending a government-initiated 501(c)3 to carry out innovative public diplomacy activities that government employees at the State Department are either unable or unwilling to conduct.   While this is presented as a relatively minor structural change, the new public-private foundation would in fact be a fairly radical departure for the U.S. Government.  This is because government (Congress and the Executive Branch) almost always expects to control organizations that it funds, especially when foreign policy issues are concerned.  Lord imagines that government would give this new foundation, notionally called the USA-World Trust, the same degree of autonomy accorded the National Endowment for Democracy or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  But these venerable organizations have no funding or other link to the State Department.  A State Department charged with more government-wide responsibility for public diplomacy would have trouble letting go of a foundation whose mandate so closely overlaps that of the Department's own Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy.

The report accurately points out that numerous other studies in recent years have advocated some sort of new body, combining public and private expertise, that would marshal resources for public diplomacy activities.  It may well be that some sort of new body could serve a useful purpose.

But the final truth of U.S. public diplomacy is that it deserves its own entity — public or public-private — where all public diplomacy activities desired by the U.S. Government are directed and managed.  It should not receive funds via the Pentagon nor should the public diplomacy entity pursue a greater role in intelligence community-inspired messaging to foreign publics.  This would only serve to undermine the credibility of the public diplomacy activity, which must emphasize openness, dialogue and transparency in order to be credible.

The Brookings report wanders briefly from academic/organizational analysis to propose that President Obama announce, in his first “public diplomacy” initiative, a date for closing down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.  Nothing better illustrates the relationship between policy and public diplomacy.  Closing down Guantanamo is fundamentally about policy;  announcing the end of this unpopular and much reviled institution, restoring habeus corpus, will be so warmly received around the world that the manner in which the change is announced — in other words, the public diplomacy of the event — will be almost irrelevant.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy