Revolving Door at State Department’s Public Diplomacy Post

Helle Dale /

Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale recently announced that she is moving on, leaving the job after just two years in office. Of her Bush Administration predecessors—Karen Hughes, Patricia Harrison, and James Glassman—only Hughes lasted as long.

The United States has faced great global challenges in the aftermath of 9/11 in the fight for “hearts and minds” among Muslim populations. When looking at the attitudes towards the United States in the Middle East, it is clear that we have not made a dent. Regrettably, the turnover at the U.S. State Department in public diplomacy has produced sporadic performance and a see-saw of differing priorities.

While Glassman focused like a laser beam on fighting radicalization among Muslim youth, McHale worked to complete the process of integrating the United States Information Agency into the State Department bureaucracy, which began in 1999. It is no coincidence, therefore, that when McHale spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations on June 21, the only tangible accomplishment she mentioned in her “Review of U.S. Public Diplomacy” was working “aggressively to reform the structures and processes of the State Department to enable better outcomes.”

Specifically, this has meant the creation six new deputy assistant secretaries for public diplomacy in the State Department geographic bureaus, as well as a new deputy assistant secretary in public affairs who is responsible for dealing with the foreign media. There is no doubt that public diplomacy needs to be in at the “take-off” of State Department policy, as well as the “crash-landings,” as Edward R. Morrow aptly put it. That said, public diplomacy easily gets lost in the plethora of concerns of the State Department, and it remains a very small part of what State does. It is an uneasy fit and has remained so for over a decade.

The remainder of McHale’s speech was devoted to comments on empowerment of global populations, the Arab Spring, and participating in global conversations—mainly through the Internet, which has been a major focus of the State Department’s public diplomacy work under McHale and Clinton.

On June 29, for instance, the State Department held its first global “Twitter Q & A” with McHale, asking global audiences to submit questions and comments about U.S. policy. Web sites, video contests, blogs, tweets—all of these have a place in today’s modern communications landscape, particularly as aimed at younger, urban audiences.

Yet the counterpart—a State Department pushing support of global Internet freedom—has been slow in materializing despite appropriated funding. Furthermore, the Internet cannot substitute for the traditional elements of public diplomacy, which create deeper knowledge and more lasting connections with the United States.

As the search goes on for McHale’s successor, elevating the “battle for hearts and minds,” a critical element in the long war against terrorism, cannot be underestimated. Coordination with other government agencies like USAID and the Department of Defense is also indispensable. With intense and growing competition not just from countries like Russia and China but also from radical non-state actors like al-Qaeda and its affiliates, American values, ideas, and culture need strong advocacy on the global stage.