In an article in the Journal of International Security Affairs (“Getting Serious About Strategic Influence”) Professor J. Michael Waller in the fall of 2009 criticized the decision to leave public diplomacy to the State Department alone. Excerpts below:
The semi-independent U.S. Information agency had earlier been responsible.
Waller is critical of the State Department handling of strategic influence matters. Not until 2008 did the administration of President George W. Bush named a professional communicator to the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman:
“Glassman did his homework. He placed the job in the context of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and waging ideological counteroffensives around the world. At least, that’s what Glassman told supporters he intended to do; actually executing it within the State Department was another matter. Moreover, Glassman coordinated as effectively as he possibly could prior to his Senate confirmation with the military combatant commanders around the world so that when he was finally allowed to take his post, he could hit the ground running…Once Glassman made it through the Senate, he took his office at State only to find that the bureaucrats had gone on a spending spree, deflating his office’s accounts for the rest of the fiscal year. He could do almost nothing to reform public diplomacy, and with the election of Barack Obama, was shown the door.
Nobody has been held accountable for the public diplomacy mess. Yet everybody seems to want the State Department to continue its role as the leader in wartime strategic communication.”
Professor Waller points out in his article that the State Department has neither devised a real grand strategy, developed a strategic communications doctrine, nor configured itself to move very far beyond its slow and bureaucratic ways of doing things:
“And because it didn’t, others stepped in. Across the Potomac, civilian and uniformed personnel alike—with groundbreaking efforts by the bipartisan Defense Science Board under the leadership of William Schneider—worked out a new strategic communications vision and strategy.”
Public diplomacy, wrote Waller in 2009, like public affairs, international broadcasting and information operations, is a mere component of strategic communication—the systematic development and application of information and messages to global and selected audiences outside the United States. The purpose is to shape the opinions and attitudes of foreign publics and decision-makers, with the goal of influencing their policies and actions. The goal of strategic communication, in other words, is strategic influence.
In late October 2001, the Pentagon formed a group of military officers, civilian careerists and highly capable contractors as an Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). All of OSI’s initiatives received inter-agency approval, including from the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Where it got bogged down was within the Pentagon’s own public affairs office, where the new spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, expressed disapproval and would not sign off on key initiatives. The apparent reason was because OSI was treading on public affairs turf, and risked creating public relations problems.
“One key OSI initiative dealt with the 26,000 Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistan that were cranking out disaffected, heavily indoctrinated young men to become Islamist fanatics and terrorists. With the support of the Pakistani government, OSI worked out a plan to use the large budget and unrivaled logistical capabilities of the U.S. military to provide alternative textbooks, fund alternative teachers, and essentially build a network of schools to replace the thousands of madrassas that Pakistani authorities would take down. President Pervez Musharraf made a veiled reference to the plan in January 2002, when he referred to an impending “jihad” in education in Pakistan. However, the plan was never executed; Clarke and the public affairs people opposed it.”
“Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, public diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats.”, so Waller.
Waller is a proponent of political warfare and asks:
“When public relations statements and gentle, public diplomacy-style persuasion—the policies of attraction that constitute “soft power”—fail to win the needed sentiments and actions, what other tools does the United States have in its arsenal?”.
Why shouldn’t a secretary of state be a political warrior? In domestic politics, Americans of all stripes wage political warfare quite effectively—and ruthlessly. As Jonathan Pitney points out in his book The Art of Political Warfare, American domestic political discourse is laced with militaristic jargon. Even the word “campaign” comes from the military. Politicians wage psychological guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run attacks, character assassination, even “going nuclear” or using the “nuclear option” in order to defeat the other guys and keep themselves in office. They gather dirt on their political opponents and potential opponents…
“Yet, for some reason, our democracy-promotion efforts abroad must be squeaky clean…Our allies fall by the wayside without the needed support from Washington, as those who would do us ill grow in strength.
And what of combating the ideology of al-Qaeda, to say nothing of Saudi Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other forms of expansionist, imperialistic Islamist radicalism? The United States has tied itself in knots. Whether out of fear of offending the Saudis, weakness when charged with standing up for its principles, or simply cowed by phony “separation of mosque and state” arguments, American message-makers have failed to develop a coherent strategy to wage an ideological counterattack against political Islamism. They can’t seem to grasp that there is a significant difference between Islam the religion and the politicized, power-seeking ideologies of radical Islamism. Our national obsession with not wanting to offend has trumped our obligation to defend our national interests. And so our young soldiers continue to die.”
By running strategic communication and its elements—public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting, information operations, psychological operations and the like—in the same fashion as a perpetual global campaign on behalf of American strategic interests worldwide, the United States would be permanently conducting the “engagement” that so many advocate but so few actually practice.
How can we do this? With what structures? Obviously the State Department has failed the nation in recovering the public diplomacy capabilities it absorbed a decade ago.
Strategic communication must be strategic. It must be comprehensive. It must be integrated with all other instruments of statecraft, and long-term in nature.
It must be designed to achieve national objectives through means other than lethal combat, and to enhance the capabilities of the warfighters who must go into battle. Communication cannot be an end in itself, but a means of exerting American influence globally in support of its national interests. Strategic communication is strategic influence. We mustn’t be ashamed of the concept. It’s time to embrace it.
J. Michael Waller is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, DC. He is author of Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (IWP Press, 2007) and editor of The Public Diplomacy Reader (IWP Press, 2007) as well as Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda and Political Warfare (2010).