February 9, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 360

The American Public Diplomacy Vacuum

February 9, 2022 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 360

Over a year into the Biden Administration, one expects that at some point in 2022, the Democrats will announce a nominee for the position of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. There are six "under-secretaries" at State, very senior positions, and all but one are currently staffed by officials nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. Incredibly, the senior Public Diplomacy (known as "R" in State Department jargon) position has been vacant for almost four years. The last Senate-confirmed incumbent, liberal Republican Steve Goldstein, was fired by President Trump in March 2018, along with his boss, Rex Tillerson. Since then, various senior career officers or political appointees from other offices have kept the seat warm.

Public Diplomacy (PD) is a term of art for government efforts to inform and influence foreign audiences, less charitably described by some as propaganda, political warfare, or information and influence operations. It can be as profound and simple as field officers forging trusted relationships and building bridges of mutual understanding with foreign audiences or it can be an integral part of high policy and centrally directed campaigns reminiscent of the Cold War and the Global War Against Terrorism. Unlike the work done in this field by other agencies (the intelligence community or the Department of Defense), PD work at State is mostly overt, out in the open. And, of course, it is only focused on foreign publics not (by statute) on domestic audiences.

According to the Department of State's website, Senior Foreign Service Officer Jennifer Hall Godfrey is currently the "senior official" in charge (note: Hall Godfrey worked for me more than 20 years ago in Amman) in the absence of an actual Under Secretary.[1] Astoundingly, since the position was created in 1999 with the merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department, it has been vacant more than 40 percent of the time.[2] When it has been filled, it has often been by non-entities from the world of advertising or media who had no idea how to maneuver effectively within the sprawling government bureaucracy.

Having spent exactly half of my diplomatic career in USIA and half as a Public Diplomacy (PD) officer in the State Department, this is hardly academic to me and I hope that the Biden Administration finds a serious person with leadership skills soon for this position. Hardworking career PD officers bereft of a voice in the senior bureaucracy deserve that at least.

But the PD vacuum is much broader and deeper than the seemingly insurmountable bipartisan challenge of keeping one senior position filled, let alone filled by a competent person. There are three massive challenges in the PD field that go far beyond the person who would ostensibly be its leader. The first is technical or bureaucratic. The type of work done by government agencies in this field has grown across the board, beyond what State does. Massive funds were spent to influence audiences in the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles with, to put it diplomatically, "mixed" results. State should truly lead such efforts, hopefully with better results, but does not always.

Within State itself, R's portfolio seems shrunken, with ostensibly still subordinate bureaus like Global Public Affairs (GPA) and Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) asserting their autonomy (easier to do when the supposed boss's chair is vacant). One newish and agile part of the remaining portfolio, the Global Engagement Center (GEC), does seem well suited to the changing complexities of our times.[3] But more and more, this Under Secretary position resembles that of a general without any soldiers.

The second challenge is that the brand that American Public Diplomacy "sells" has been deeply tarnished. During the Cold War and even in the early stages of the War on Terror, there was a narrative that could be plausibly told (I am referring to perceptions) about America being about Freedom, full stop. "They hate us for our freedom," as George W. Bush notoriously said after 9/11. Doubters will point to a long litany of America's supposed crimes from its founding to this day, but the fact remains that the idea of America as this free place where, warts and all, you could say and do what you want had real attraction among foreign audiences. I personally saw that power on an individual level multiple times in an Arab world known for its deep antipathy towards U.S. foreign policy. Iraq and Afghanistan dented that appeal but, in my view, what really hurt it was a series of events and trends over the past few years giving an impression of disarray, incompetence, division, and confusion among Americans themselves, of America at odds with itself.

In the Middle East many interlocutors used to contrast American Middle East policy – which they did not like – with America inside America – which they did (Sayyid Qutb was an exception, he hated it all).[4] Of course, tens of millions of foreigners would love to be in a United States that is still rich if increasingly dysfunctional. That is not the point. But echoes of domestic political and cultural wars – polarized politics, a perceived botched pandemic response, BLM riots, obsession, especially by oligarchic elites, with gender and racial crusades that are being exported – have taken their toll internationally.

Meanwhile economic inequality and despair zoomed to new heights. As the incisive Chris Arnade observed recently, the American political Right pushed treating "workers like costs to be minimized, making it close to impossible to build a stable community" while the Left mocked "faith, family, and flag, taking away people's non-economic meaning."[5] Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has noted that America is becoming increasingly authoritarian (without even knowing it) while undergoing its own Cultural Revolution.[6] Overall not a very attractive narrative to push inside America or out. America seems to many today to be neither strong nor good.[7]

The third major Public Diplomacy challenge is the changing nature of communications itself. When I worked on anti-ISIS counter-messaging years ago we used to joke that we were "too slow for the jihadosphere and too fast for Foggy Bottom." That reality has only accelerated over time. Most Americans get their news from social media on their phones, 90% of Saudis do the same. There are still parts of the world where this differs (radio is still important in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, television in other places is key) but the larger trend is one of a relentless permanent news cycle, across multiple platforms, pushed by multiple, often surprising influencers in aggressive ways. One of the impulses for the recent ire directed against freethinking American podcaster Joe Rogan was that he has a larger audience than some legacy media outlets favored by the elite.[8] Distrust in government and in media (let alone government media) is a global phenomenon.[9]

In this Brave New World of the seamless and subtle blending of news, opinion, sentiment, propaganda and disinformation, U.S. Government efforts (especially from Washington) often resemble nothing more than the elephantine efforts of legacy mainstream media itself. Given confusion with the narrative and our own worrying authoritarian temptations, perhaps that is not a bad thing right now.[10] Former McClatchy Co. CEO Craig Forman recently described the decline in the news industry as in part due to "a failure of imagination, a failure of innovation, even a failure of nerves," an epitaph that these days could apply broadly beyond both the media and public diplomacy.[11]

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], accessed February 9, 2022.

[2], December 3, 2020.

[3], accessed February 9, 2022.

[4], accessed February 9, 2022.

[5], accessed February 8, 2022.

[6], accessed February 8, 2022.

[7], March 10, 2021.

[8], accessed February 8, 2022.

[9], January 18, 2022.

[10], September 20, 2021.

[11], November 16, 2021.

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