Four Americans have now held the title of “Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs” — three of them under the current administration. President Bush has one last chance and one more year to get it right. I’ll tell you how — but first, let’s take a moment to review the modern history of public diplomacy.
During the Cold War, it was understood that battles of ideas had to be fought — and that they could not be won simply by having diplomats talk to other diplomats at embassy receptions. We also needed to communicate with ordinary people. To that end, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was created. Its work product was not spectacular — it was a government bureaucracy, after all — but it got some things right. In the early 1960s, its director was Edward R. Murrow. Perhaps the greatest broadcast journalist of his generation, he had no problem defending the United States and the White House. (Imagine that!)
Then, in the 1990s — despite a series of bloody attacks by Militant Islamist terrorists — Americans persuaded themselves that all the serious wars had been fought and that it was time to spend the “peace dividend.” That meant shrinking the military, cutting the intelligence budget and, in 1998, shutting down USIA.
A year later, the office of the Under Secretary for Public Affairs was created. President Clinton gave the job to Evelyn S. Lieberman, the White House staffer whose claim to fame was that she had transferred Monica Lewinsky to the Pentagon because the intern was “spending too much time around the West Wing.” Under Lieberman’s tenure, no great advances in public diplomacy took place.
Less than a month after 9/11/01, President Bush gave the post to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Ave. advertising executive who had successfully marketed such products as Uncle Ben’s rice. That there are significant differences between selling products and championing ideas soon became apparent. Beers’ departure from Washington two years later was unlamented.