GAO Report Urges Obama, Congress to Prioritize Public Diplomacy

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By Walter Pincus
Monday, January 12, 2009

Improving the United States' image abroad is No. 5 on the Government Accountability Office's list of 13 urgent issues requiring the attention of Barack Obama and the 111th Congress during the first year of the new administration.

"In today's highly volatile global environment, it is more critical than ever that the United States effectively coordinate, manage, and implement its public diplomacy and strategic communications activities to affect foreign public opinion," the GAO said.

Public diplomacy has for decades been a State Department preserve, although its standing and funding have withered since 1999, when the U.S. Information Agency was merged into the department. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department was a bit player in this arena. In recent years, however, the department has expanded its programs under the label of "strategic communications." The Pentagon's money and manpower have put its strategic communications activities in a position where in many key countries they have equaled or exceeded the efforts of State's Foreign Service officers.

There is a difference in approach. Public diplomacy aims to foster understanding of the United States and its policies through traditional ways such as exchanges, cultural programs, publications, interviews and speeches. More recently, it has involved Internet activities, with State employees getting into foreign chat rooms to answer questions about the United States.

An October study titled "Fixing the Crisis in Diplomatic Readiness," published by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the American Academy of Diplomacy, described public diplomacy this way: "To understand, inform, engage and influence global audiences, reaching beyond foreign governments to promote greater appreciation and understanding of U.S. society, culture, institutions, values and policies."

Strategic communications, as described in a Defense Department document in August, involves "integrating actions, words, and images." Associated with combat, it should "ideally operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries," the document states. In Iraq, that means putting up posters, distributing leaflets, and creating radio and television spots that support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In North Africa, it means the Africa Command-sponsored Web site, which is accessible in Arabic, French and English.

Michael Doran, deputy assistant secretary of defense for support to public diplomacy, said last January in an interview with Government Executive magazine: "It's our view that excessive focus on us [the United States] is counterproductive. . . . In the current information environment a lot of strategic communication is talking to foreign audiences about themselves -- giving foreign audiences information about themselves. That's different than sending a U.S. government message."

Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit group that includes former State and USIA officials, published two studies designed to get the incoming administration to take notice. Retired ambassador William A. Rugh said the State-USIA merger "undermined the effectiveness of the American public diplomacy effort" by reducing the number of Foreign Service officers specializing in that career area. He also said that inexperienced officers were being rotated in these positions.

"Public Diplomacy professionals -- unlike traditional diplomats -- are also programmers, who facilitate meetings and dialogues between Americans and foreigners by organizing a whole range of activities -- lectures, seminars, exchange programs, press events, website content, etc.," Rugh wrote.

The other study, written by Michael J. Canning, who was with the USIA for 28 years in eight overseas posts, wrote that since the 1999 merger, public diplomacy officers have been used more in public relations efforts for the embassies than in working with local groups.

The budget for public diplomacy efforts was $358 million in fiscal 2008, the Stimson study said. State's public diplomacy programming "has suffered in recent years from staff shortages and inadequate funding," the study said. The Pentagon, meanwhile, signed contracts for strategic communications services in Iraq next year that totaled $100 million.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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