The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views. For blogger guidelines, click here.

U.S. Public Diplomacy’s Flimsy New Framework

Mar 8, 2010


The long-awaited “roadmap” for U.S. public diplomacy has finally emerged from Undersecretary of State Judith McHale’s office, and it is a stunning disappointment.

It is so lacking in imagination, so narrow in its scope, and so insufficient in its appraisal of the tasks facing U.S. public diplomats that it is impossible to understand why its preparation took so many months.

U.S. public diplomacy has remained in the doldrums even with Barack Obama at the helm. That doesn’t appear to be changing. The “strategic imperatives” laid out in this plan are tired bromides: “shape the narrative; expand and strengthen people-to-people relationships; combat violent extremism; better inform policy-making; deploy resources in line with current priorities.” Wow.

These are all good things, but they hardly represent the “strategic approach for the 21st century” that this document claims to be. Only occasionally in the plan are there ideas that represent any change in direction from the meandering and archaic tactics that have hamstrung America’s recent relationship with much of the rest of the world. For instance, making “American Centers” accessible, rather than burying them within fortified embassies, makes good sense, but it provides a mere glimmer when U.S. public diplomacy needs a huge spotlight.

The document says this framework “is the first phase of a process for developing a detailed strategic plan for Public Diplomacy.” But if the detailed plan is to be based on this framework, why bother? For those of us who had hoped that the Obama administration would bring new vitality and decisiveness to public diplomacy, the approach taken by the State Department is terribly deflating.

In his speech in Cairo last June, President Obama showed that he appreciates the need for the United States to create new relationships with the rest of the world. The State Department should be translating the President’s vision into policy. Nothing in the new plan addresses the need for public diplomacy to worry less about branding and more about service; to step away from Cold War-style monologue and embrace a comprehensive plan for interactive communication; to shift from a Middle East-centric public diplomacy to a more balanced global outlook; to realistically employ public diplomacy as an antiterrorism tool; and to reach out to diasporic populations and virtual states.

In his Cairo speech, President Obama said: “It is easier to blame others than to look inward. It is easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.”

In those words is more common sense about public diplomacy than can be found in the entire “strategic framework” the State Department has produced. The Secretary of State should tell her department to start over and do better.



Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

One of the strategies that I

One of the strategies that I'd hoped the Obama administration would adopt was to tap into the private sector, academia, think tanks and brain trusts like your own in order to synthesize the smartest ideas into a visionary new policy. By its very nature, Public Diplomacy relies on individuals and teams outside of the Government to engage in dialogue and collaborate with counterparts around the world. Why then does policy such as this get made in the Ivory Tower of Main State?

If it wishes to be effective

If it wishes to be effective (not my desire for it) then Gringo propaganda needs to learn from both its own history and that of other imperialists. It might start by engaging properly with the literature on cultural policy. Otherwise, it will be doomed to the idiocies of "public diplomacy" discourse. It's funny to see these people discovering something that has been around for centuries, and forgetting--perhaps they never knew--how it's done. I enjoy the periodic attempts by coin-operated Yanqui think tanks and colleges to write about this--but let's not take them seriously other than as artefacts of imperial decline

As seen in the organizational

As seen in the organizational charts within the report, there is a highly-structured chain of command with a defined and specific mission that makes creativity difficult attain. How would it be if the State department trusted their employees enough to provide creative days (as many creative companies i.e.: Google are doing) for projects that don't usually get consideration. Or if America actually did look inward as Obama suggested and the state department facilitated US students learning at least as much about other countries as we expect others to know about us... (I know, this opens a whole can of worms from the state department perspective.) But it is exactly this structured, linear thinking that caps creativity. Thanks for the post, Phil.

There is a certain irony that

There is a certain irony that State created this report in secrecy within a very small circle. The Assistant Secretaries were only briefed in last month. This behavior is ironic: Defense, on the contrary, actively elicits input from subject matter experts from within and outside the enterprise (including State, but in my experience State rarely shows up for these type of meetings, not to mention often requires Defense to cover travel costs).

In short, I agree with Phil's first two sentences: it is a disappointment, made more so by the excessive delay in presenting it. When I met with McHale in November, this document was to come out by the of December. The extra delay makes me wonder what that product was like.

I have to modify my previous

I have to modify my previous comment. On deeper review (which I blogged on), the framework does include important changes to the State Department bureaucracy, appointing a "Deputy Assistant Secretary dedicated to Public Diplomacy in each regional bureau [to elevate] Public Diplomacy presence within regional bureaus". There is also a hint that PA will be more closely integrated with PD. These changes answer - for me at least - why the framework required the Secretary's buy-in and the sign-off by Assistant Secretaries, which I previously found odd.

So, while the framework lacks necessary meat in some area, overall the framework is promising. It is also important to bear in mind we're looking at essentially a PowerPoint of the framework. Regardless, points are still lost for taking so long to deliver this vision (even accounting for the postponement of the Senate because of Snowmegadon -- I long suspected she would release the framework at the hearing) AND for not introducing it with, well, a supporting information campaign (another irony). However, tomorrow, the day after the Senate hearing, McHale will have a small conference call with bloggers to discuss. This is a good step, even though indications are it was arranged at the last minute despite over half-a-year of suggestions.

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays >