• Shilling for a Living: Public Diplomacy in Russia

    September 6, 2013 // 5 Comments »

    Wow, Russia.

    ‘Lot going on there, Obama attending the G-20, what with Russia taking in NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Russian support for the other side in Syria, the famous Obama-Putin sourpuss photos, why, golly, you’d figure America’s public diplomacy warriors at Embassy Moscow would be busy, busy, busy seeking out Russian hearts and minds to influence.

    Instead, those diplomatic warriors are seeking Russian stomachs to fulfill with America’s last domestically-made product, junk food. Shilling for a living, one of our best, Joseph Kruzich, is pictured to the left. He posted on his Facebook page:

    Krispy Kreme doughnuts have arrived in Moscow. We had some at the American Embassy in Moscow yesterday. Delicious!

    And oh yes, he did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich, who as a slim man makes a poor advocate for the goodness of America’s toxic junk food to the stout Russians, also apparently like potato chips. Here’s another terse Facebook post. He posted in Russian but here’s the Google version:

    Today is the birthday of potato chips! Credited with creating the popular snack is American chef George Crumb, who invented the chip this day 160 years ago. The finely chopped crisp was for a disgruntled restaurant customer at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, who said the french fries were cut too thick.

    Nobody commented on the fact that the inventor of the potato chip was surnamed “Crumb,” so I will. Also, it is not at all certain that Crumb was even the inventor. Facts, meh, it’s social media!

    And oh yes, I did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich also seems to have a habit of reposting a lot of his boss’ stuff, but that is really just part of the overall job of a foreign service officer, so no points off for that. And to be fair, shilling for promoting American products abroad is indeed one of those things America’s diplomats are told to do, whether it is Boeing 747s or the ever-popular F-16s we sell to various thugs and dictators, for freedom.

    …or is it?

    Perhaps Kruzich is… more clever, shall we say, more cunning, than we give him credit for? While Putin plays checkers, sticking his thumb in Obama’s eye and then moving on, perhaps Kruzich is playing chess (also a Russian fave) The long game here may be to slowly choke the Russian people to death on American-infiltrated cholesterol, until, gasping with strokes and heart attacks, they realize that you just. don’t. mess. with the U.S.

    Well played young diplomat, well played.




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    Report from Baghdad: Still Liked on Facebook

    June 5, 2013 // 8 Comments »




    Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:

    I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.

    Here’s something you’d appreciate:

    A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night; 520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.

    As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?

    So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!



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    State Department Propaganda Piece or WaPo “Journalism” Can You Tell?

    October 15, 2012 // 6 Comments »

    The State Department has always had a cozy relationship with its home town newspaper, the Washington Post. When times are tough, State can always count on WaPo for a puff piece, a planted Op-Ed or a killed story to make the day brighter. We talked about one, on Haiti Reconstruction, here and some here.

    But enough partisanship. Instead, today, we will have a blind taste test. Two articles, one from the Post and one from State’s own propaganda team. Both pieces are on “culinary diplomacy.” I’ll put up quotes, and you see if you can tell the State-written propaganda from the Washington Post written “journalism.” Blindfolds on?



    Souffle (A)

    Isabella is one of the first chefs to be tapped by the State Department to serve as a culinary ambassador abroad, part of an ambitious new undertaking to use food as a diplomatic tool. Initiated by the U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall and blessed by her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership aims to “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts,” according to a mission statement.

    The wide-ranging effort creates an American Chef Corps, a network of culinary leaders who could be deployed to promote U.S. cooking and agricultural products abroad. “They might meet with an embassy, cook a lunch, post blogs or [write] articles, speak at events,” says Marshall, listing the many ways participants might engage.




    Souffle (B)

    This month, the State Department welcomed 25 chefs and foodies from all over the world to Washington, D.C., as part of an exciting new International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). From Brazil to Vietnam, every country in the world has a unique food culture, and the United States is no exception. Throughout this IVLP, participants are meeting with high profile chefs to discuss the influences of food and culture on American communities.

    The international chefs and foodies met with many in the American Chef Corps throughout their U.S. visit, as they discussed using the shared experience of food to engage foreign audiences and to bring people of varied backgrounds and cultural identities together. The group also saw their work play a larger community role after volunteering at the DC Central Kitchen. Everyone enjoyed preparing food for those in need; as one participant said: “When people are full, they are happy. Then they are better to each other.”


    Results

    Voila! Can you tell which is real journalism from a Pulitzer-awarded newspaper and which was written by a hack whose nose was implanted in some Under Secretary of Nothing’s oven? Hah hah, neither can we! Kudos to the Washington Post for journalism and a better informed American public!



    Souffle A was made exclusively with WaPo quotes; Souffle B came from State Department propaganda. A request for comment to the Washington Post Ombudsman remains unanswered.



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    Social Media Uber Alles: Embassy Baghdad Gets Its Head Around Twitter

    September 28, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    Taxpayers, a robust group huzzah please! The US Embassy in Baghdad has taken a bold, innovative step towards resolving all problems in Iraq, large and small: The Embassy is now paying someone with your tax dollars to Tweet!

    Sorry neigh sayers, it is true. We all know that social media is the key to public diplomacy at the State Department and now the machine is alive in Iraq.

    Because of the obvious crazy high start up costs and the complexity of using Twitter, the one mission that just couldn’t seem to get Tweeting was the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet until just August 27. They have been prioritized for a robust MySpace and used up all the electrons in Iraq there, though Baghdad does have a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel. This blog even did its patriotic duty by suggesting some Tweets for the diplowarriors to begin with, but never mind, here is the real thing:



    Of the 3,000 some employees the State Department has in Iraq, one (maybe more; no one at State can write anything without two other people to supervise and clear it) is now staffing the Tweets. And look at the things you’ll see there:

    First Tweet (8/27): Generic repeat of State worldwide Tweet on absentee voting

    8/29 Generic repeats of State worldwide Tweets on para-Olympics (NOTE: Relevant, given how many people lost limbs in the US invasion! FTW)

    9/5 (Took a few days off) First Tweet in Arabic, which many speak in Iraq, and it is… it is… a link to a CNN article about Facebook.


    And so on. See for yourself.

    May Allah please help these people. They are pathetic. No doubt some State Department person will be promoted for resuscitating the Twitter account, written up as “Robustly enhancing the social media outreach of Embassy Baghdad, dramatically increasing interactive outflow metrics with the Iraqi people. And world peace.”

    But really, this is just sad. With State Department Director of PT Barnum Affairs Alec Ross popping up worldwide to announce how innovative the State Department is, you’d think the world’s largest embassy staff could come up with something, anything better than generic propaganda Tweets and links to CNN articles. Maybe something unique to Iraq? Of interest to Iraqis?

    Your tax dollars at work Americans!



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    The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog

    July 7, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    This blog just loves Ryan Crocker, America’s ambassador to everything. The Crock is always firing off wacky statements from wherever he is ambassadoring from, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. It is what he does.

    The other thing Crock likes to do is have things named after him, like droppings at each post he leads. The State Department even offers an in-house award called the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy.

    Crock’s latest North Korean-like leadership example is what appears to be a makeshift hut in Kabul that is now known as the The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio, for making the teevee things that will win our war. Both Diplopundit and El Snarkistani have much more to say about all this.

    For me, however, this time I want to be on the team. Thus, I am officially renaming this blog “The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog.”

    Actually, nothing will change. This is partially because changing the graphics for this blog is a hassle, and partially because in a few weeks no one will care what was named after Crocker as it was just some short-term suck up move on the part of his staff anyway.



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    Weird Moments in Public Diplomacy, No. 54

    July 2, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    Are the public diplomacists at the State Department getting cranky? This blog has raised questions in the past about gauging the impact of State’s Public Diplomacy and social media efforts.

    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    The good news is that apparently State is now ready to answer these questions, by the Twitter. Here goes:




    Um, OK. Any links to go with those? Proof? Statistics? Anything? Bueller? Need some help understanding the difference between an “assertion” and creating an “argument”?

    Credibility means more than just saying something in a loud voice over and over. God help us all, these are the same people we pay money to to carry America’s message abroad.



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    Great Moments in Public Diplomacy, Episode 174: Gagging in Sweden

    June 4, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    Sweden is now a year+ into trying to extradite Wikileaks guy Julian Assange from the UK. Sweden claims that the lengthy, complex and very expensive international legal process is necessary so it can question Assange (no charges have been filed) regarding what constitutes rape in Sweden, consensual sex without a condom.

    Of course no one who doesn’t sleep in a cardboard box under an overpass believes that is what Sweden really wants with Assange. Most sentient beings are certain that Sweden seeks Assange for “questioning” only as a pretext to turning him over to US authorities. The UK, where Assange has been under house arrest for over a year, won’t flip him to the US. Sweden will.

    So, in an effort to promote general worldwide hilarity, here’s a Tweet today from the US Embassy in Sweden, celebrating the coincidental first SecState visit to that nation in 36 years:



    Hillary-ious!

    Seriously, where do they find such public diplomacists, men and women totally lacking lacking in either a) intellect, b) morals or c) all of the above, who are so committed to sucking up that they can publicaly churn out crap like that Tweet? Really, you kiss your mother with that mouth? Talk about needing a condom for protection from something gross. Eeeeew.



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    American Public Diplomacy

    May 2, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    (This interview with John Brown originally appeared on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)

    What is Pubic Diplomacy?

    Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it’s just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State’s definition is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” For some traditionally minded diplomats and commentators, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public). How would you define PD?

    Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality — actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here’s a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point.

    Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.

    The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance — to Iraqis — was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.

    So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.

    Pigs with Lipstick

    Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?

    See above. Pigs look ugly with lipstick.

    Is Pubic Diplomacy “Useless”?

    As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its “propaganda” (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of “their” independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, “we got away with murder”). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as “Useless,” a play of words on USIA’s overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What’s your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?

    You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.

    State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the “safest” things to say (we urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of “male pale and Yale,” usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.

    For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are tweeting “Happy Earth Day” in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world’s predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day tweets out in English to whomever?

    Alec Ross, State’s alleged social media king, tweets today, “97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000,” with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec tweets out these odd “fun facts” regularly, to what point I do not know.

    The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn’t been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.

    The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?

    My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD’s conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn’t a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was “Bringing Water to Mesopotamia.” Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn’t even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.

    The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword “public diplomacy 2.0,” coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway. Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that “I don’t think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think … public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda.” In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) “key international audiences”?

    To begin, you must have a goal — sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department’s oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at wemeantwell.com, what I see are desperate people trying to get a Visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are “clearable” only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.

    So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You’d think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way — it is all about the “doing” and not about the “getting done.” Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn’t we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?

    Credibility

    The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors, which (according to its homepage) became “the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999” (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG -supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, “Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors”).

    Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign “public affairs,” you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News, RT.com, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America’s mainstream media, often pointing out the “other side” to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.

    People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda — America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says “Here’s Obama’s Speech” in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.

    If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our “public diplomacy” programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.

    Try it now — go here and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.

    Propagandizing Amerika

    The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from “propagandizing” the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?

    I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?

    Not Measuring = Not Knowing

    In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially “an act of faith” that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?

    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say “Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren’s answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?”

    Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain’t that way cowboys. Don’t dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.

    As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.



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    Quality of Discourse

    April 29, 2012 // 4 Comments »




    My recent discussion with John Brown about Pubic Diplomacy at the Department of State on HuffPo is, I hope, interesting reading. Like any such discussion, the point is to raise issues, take positions, generate thought on the readers’ part, that sort of thinking stuff. John Brown is one of three courageous Foreign Service Officers who resigned rather than support the Iraq War. He has over 20 years in the Foreign Service. I am whatever it is I am now, but also have over 20 years experience. Both of us are in a position to have opinions about public diplomacy. All of this should be sort of obvious, and it was to most readers.

    But not to a State Department Foreign Service Officer who’ll we’ll call “Dan” (which is his name), who wrote to John Brown:

    I’m personally saddened and disappointed by this. Van Buren can say what he wants, but what makes him qualified for a single-source extensive presentation on public diplomacy? I know you are an expert historian, and would have expected better from you. Speak only as a private individual, but thought you would want honesty. Sincerely, Dan

    Ah, yes, the old attack ad hominen, one the limpest forms of argument: attack the person and ignore the things the person said. I wrote back to “Dan” telling him this, and offering him space on this blog for a factual rebuttal. Dan said:

    If John Brown or anyone else wishes to interview you and put out that interview, that is up to you, him, and whoever else you might wish/need to deal with. If John wanted to present an interview with you as a discussion of diplomacy, or diplomacy’s use of social media, then fine. But for him to prominently present this interview in a way that suggests it is a description of American Public Diplomacy — as practiced in the past or as it is being practiced today — is, in my mind, a disservice to former and current Public Diplomacy officers. John has both the extensive knowledge and connections to ask the same questions of a variety of individuals with experience at different periods and in different parts of the world, which could have resulted in a very interesting discussion of those topics — he chose a very different, and less fruitful, approach by simply publishing the interview with you. I regret this decision, and the opportunity that was lost by it. Sincerely, Dan

    Now we are into primo State Department Public Diplomacy strategy: waive the flag. Still without saying a word about my arguments and points, Dan has now declared that the whole thing is a disservice to the thousands of Pubic Diplomacists beavering away in obscurity at State. If you think you’ve seen this kind of thing before, you have. It’s called the Otter Defense:



    So I tried again, writing to Dan:

    Still haven’t heard a word about what I said. This has been my unfortunate experience with State in recent months, all attacks ad hominen and not a peep about what I have to say. It is a cheap way to argue, and all too typical of State’s failing to connect with the world. Such inward viral reactions are what my interview focused on, so thanks for helping demonstrate my point. State’s social media thrives in a controlled environment; I bite back.

    If you can construct an argument, I’d be happy to put it on my blog as well. Unlike State, I thrive on the give and take and do not fear others’ well-argued ideas. John has the courage to present varied points of view, and the interview clearly was labeled as mine. If you prove me wrong, I learn something. Put up or shut up. If you can get something cleared, of course.


    And finally, because I got bored, I let Dan wrap up the intellectual discourse he started on behalf of his colleagues in Public Diplomacy:

    I can only be bemused (and amused) by your histrionics. Your individual opinions concerning the Department of State, foreign policy, or social media are of little interest to me. But social media do not equal public diplomacy, and John’s decision to present his interview with you as a serious discussion of public diplomacy results in a distortion of what American public diplomacy really is, and thus is a slap in the face to past and present practitioners of public diplomacy.


    So, for those wondering why the US is losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan to a bunch of hillbillies in turbans, or why Congress wants to cut the State Department budget by $5 billion, well, it’s all about the quality of the people, no doubt, in Secretary Clinton’s own words, “our greatest asset.”



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