I try to affect a mild analytic tone in my writing here (which probably doesn’t get me many readers.) But today I can’t, I am really mad. On Christmas, The Washington Post ran this story on how the U.S. bureaucracy could not pull together an effective response to Russian information operations.
Here is are two critical clips, but by all means, read the entire article.
Above, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy had a creative idea for leveraging the fantastic content generated by the American entertainment industry as a public diplomacy tool to counter the Kremlin. But, the material is already under contract and it just couldn’t happen.
Here again, a clever official at State has a plan to use cutting edge social media analytics to build networks to counter Kremlin propaganda networks. Great, but State cannot carry out public diplomacy on the American people, so it couldn’t happen.
What made me so angry?
Am I mad at the State Department lawyers who wouldn’t permit the project to go ahead? No, they are there for a reason. Our bureaucracies operate under constraints that reflect our values and priorities.
Let me step back.
Since 9/11 I have gone to hundreds of think tank events, public forums, and other events where the great and good explain the world. I’ve even spoken at a few of them. All of them talked about the need to fight “The War or Ideas” or “Counter the Narrative.”
At one, discussing ISIS, about two years ago I said: “I’ve gone to so many of these events over the past fifteen years ago and everyone says we need to win the war of ideas. But we still haven’t really committed to doing anything about it.”
The speaker observed that ISIS propaganda works differently from al-Qaeda propaganda, so past efforts aren’t effective.
My rejoinder was, “Fair enough, but that’s like talking about needing snow tires when we still haven’t bought a car!”
The speaker acknowledged my point. It isn’t that State was blindsided by Russian propaganda. They were, but that is going to happen. It isn’t that we probably shouldn’t have dismantled our public diplomacy infrastructure after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, we shouldn’t have, but we were feeling good about ourselves.
It is that – and I’ve written about this before
– despite talking about it, we still have not established the bureaucratic infrastructure for effective public diplomacy. Given time, work arounds can be developed to bureaucratic constraints. If the U.S. government had really been working these issues (not the individuals – who are trying – but the institutions) then there would have been a range of ideas and capabilities available. They might need to be repurposed from countering radical Islam to countering the Kremlin, but at least there would have been frameworks already established.
Failure of Leadership
Ultimately, to get results investments need to be made. It is that simple. Yes there is political turnover, but plenty of agencies have sufficient resources to build and maintain capabilities regardless of political leadership. DOD maintains a vast range of capabilities regardless of who is in power. If we want effective public diplomacy we need the personnel and the funding to create ongoing, continuing capabilities – sort of like the infrastructure we have for financial sanctions.
We often hear that U.S. public diplomacy has difficulty adapting to new media. Fair enough, but if the resources are there, then they can have people looking over the horizon at what is coming next. If they are completely overwhelmed by their inboxes there is no time. Further, with resources they can break the bureaucratic log-jams. Doing this requires people, to do research, attend meetings, and brainstorm work-arounds.
A corollary to this is that public diplomacy is a strategic afterthought, off in a corner. That reduces synergies. If public diplomacy is understood as a central, critical element (DIMEC? the C is for communications) other components of the U.S. government can contribute.
I am still pissed that almost a decade ago we deported the brother of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafez Saeed
. The brother, a Muslim cleric in Sharon, Massachusetts, desperately wanted to stay in the U.S. and was much loved in his town (the rabbis went to bat for him.) Talk about a potential public diplomacy asset!!! But instead we deported him and he signed on with his brother.
But unless there is real bureaucratic heft behind public diplomacy, other agency prerogatives – such as Justice’s desire to convict people – will prevail.
None of this stuff is easy. There are a lot of other priorities. But really, we’ve had a decade of complaining about this issue and no action.
I’ll write about this later, but State has its own basket of fundamental structural problems.
Still, I’m mad about this ongoing failure.