June 30 marked the last day in office for Tara Sonenshine, the now-former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Although Sonenshine tendered her resignation back in April, the Obama administration has yet to nominate her replacement. For months now, the public diplomacy community has dreaded the leadership crisis that this high-level vacancy will create for U.S. soft power efforts abroad.
Past experience certainly justifies these concerns. Recent administrations have carelessly allowed a persistent – and bipartisan – lack of U.S. public diplomacy leadership. In the process, they have neutered their ability to interface with, and influence, foreign publics.
For better or worse, the post of undersecretary represents the White House's pointperson in the "war of ideas." Its inhabitant directs America's public diplomacy engagement abroad, coordinates tactics to spread U.S. messaging and participates in developing foreign policy regarding perceptions of America among foreign publics.
Yet, in the last decade, the position has turned over rapidly, with each short term in office followed by vacancies that dragged out for 271, 127, 172 and 393-day intervals, respectively. This haphazard pattern has prevented the crafting of a coherent soft power strategy on the part of the U.S. government, much to America's detriment.
The furor over NSA leaker Edward Snowden provides a case in point. Snowden's disclosures about extensive electronic surveillance carried out by U.S. intelligence agencies against American citizens and foreign countries have, among other things, created a significant image crisis for the United States abroad – one which America's adversaries have used to great effect. Shortly after the leak, for example, Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin warned the Russian public about America's proclivity toward the "manipulation of public opinion" through social media in order to deliberately undermine the structure and values of their state.
Ecuador, too, has gotten in on the game, coyly considering Snowden's request for asylum while making the U.S. a straight-faced offer of $23 million in economic aid to educate Americans about human rights. Such ploys tarnish America's image, damaging its credibility and integrity when engaging with skeptical foreign audiences.
American allies in Europe, meanwhile, are aghast over what is perceived – rightly or wrongly – as a breach of diplomatic trust. The irate remarks of European MPs, journalists and bloggers reflect the growing anger of their publics, who believe that their relationship with the U.S. government has been betrayed. In the face of these accusations, the silence from America's instruments of public messaging has been damning.
The Snowden affair provides a teachable moment for a great many things, not least of them the need for robust U.S. public diplomacy. Today more than ever, global public opinion matters. The U.S. cannot conduct itself with disregard for how its actions will be perceived by the rest of the world; even public diplomacy at its best cannot fix bad policy. But modern public diplomacy is not at its best. Its funding is inadequate, its coordination of roles and responsibilities needs work and it still struggles to find effective measures to evaluate whether its tactics have been successful.
These obstacles, among others, impair America's ability to garner global support for its policies. During her tenure, Sonenshine worked to address these problems, but there is still much more to be done. America needs a new undersecretary for public diplomacy, and soon, not only to push for the resolution of structural problems, but to ensure a coherent strategy and message for all public diplomacy efforts, both in good times and in bad.
Regarding the relationship between the government and public diplomacy, former U.S. Information Agency director Edward Murrow once famously remarked, "if they want me in on the crash landings, I'd damn well better be in on the take-offs." But until a new undersecretary is nominated and confirmed, no one is even flying the plane.
Margot van Loon is a research associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
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