The State Department, Not the Pentagon, Should Lead America’s Public Diplomacy Efforts

Kristin M. Lord
Kristin Lord
Kristin M. Lord President and CEO - IREX, Former Brookings Expert

October 29, 2008

Today’s public diplomats wear boots, not wingtips. Increasingly, the Defense Department is at the forefront of US efforts to engage public opinion overseas. While the State Department formally leads the effort, the Pentagon has more money and personnel to carry out the public diplomacy mission.

This trend is risky. The message foreign publics receive – not the message the US sends – changes when the Pentagon is the messenger. Putting our military, not civilians, at the forefront of US global communications undercuts the likelihood of success, distorts priorities, and undermines the effectiveness of US civilian agencies.

According to a Washington Post report, the Department of Defense will pay private contractors $300 million over three years to produce news and entertainment programs for the Iraqi public. These well-intentioned efforts aim to “engage and inspire” Iraqis to support the objectives of both the US and Iraqi governments.

Such outreach campaigns can be powerful if done well and as part of a broader strategy of engagement, political reconciliation, and economic development. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has argued eloquently that the United States must call increasingly upon “soft power” to advance national interests. Soft power can take many forms, but it is primarily the use of culture, values, and ideas to attract, instead of military or economic threats to coerce.

After the cold war, the US gutted its soft power arsenal and has yet to rebuild it fully. The Department of Defense stepped into this vacuum, and in many cases has done the job well. However, the Defense Department is not the right agency for this job.

In most circumstances, the Department of Defense (DoD) should not serve as the most visible face of the United States overseas. This is particularly true in areas where the public feels threatened by American power.

The Middle East is one area where polls show distrust of American motives and concern that America seeks to dominate the region militarily. Indeed, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey taken last year, 64 percent of Turks – citizens of a NATO ally – see the United States as the greatest threat to their country in the future. Civilians, including those who do not work for government agencies, are the best conduits for building trust with wary publics.

Civilians should not just be the public face of communications. They should also set strategy and tactics that advance American foreign policy interests, in close cooperation with defense officials and military commanders. This is officially the role of the State Department, our nation’s lead agency in making and implementing foreign policy. Yet, informally, resources drive outcomes, and the Pentagon has most of the money.

Consider this: The $100 million annual price tag of the initiative described above is just one element of the Pentagon’s communication efforts in one country. Yet, it is equivalent to roughly one-eighth of the State Department’s entire public diplomacy budget for the entire world.

Perhaps the DoD’s new Iraq activities deserve this level of prominence – but it is unlikely that a government-wide discussion of priorities ever took place. Whereas $100 million per year is big money for public diplomats, it is small change for the military, which spends $434 million per day in Iraq.

The State Department, meanwhile, must meet a host of pressing concerns ranging from short-term communication needs to long-term educational exchanges with about $800 million per year.

Personally, I hope US public diplomats are now planning a major communications effort to rebuild global confidence in our financial system – a task with long-term implications for America’s economic health and our country’s ability to advocate effectively for deregulation and free markets in the future. Yet I doubt they will have anything approaching $100 million to devote to this purpose.

Some argue that the Pentagon has taken a leading role in public diplomacy because the State Department has not been effective. But it’s hard to be effective when your hands are tied by limited resources. Other problems remain, but a realistic budget matched to the mission is an important starting point.

The next president faces a daunting global to-do list. Whether the US seeks to diminish support for terrorists, urge allies to contribute more troops to Afghanistan, or address global climate change, the cooperation of foreign publics will be paramount.

Doing public diplomacy well means putting civilians at the forefront and giving them sufficient resources.

The Pentagon should play an important role in public diplomacy, but as a partner – not the principal. For its part, the Congress should give public diplomats the tools they need to do their jobs, and then hold them accountable.