Marc Lynch

Mullen’s Strategic Communication

Mullen’s Strategic Communication

Admiral Michael Mullen’s "From the Chairman" essay in the new issue of Joint Force Quarterly has received some attention in public diplomacy and military ciricles. Mullen throws a bucket of ice water on the strategic communications "cottage industry", stating bluntly that "I don’t care for the term." There’s a lot to like in his essay, but also several blind spots which are worth thinking about a bit.  

Mullen’s essay received early attention for his clear statement that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate." Actions, not words, should be the primary concern he recognizes — with particular attention to gaps between what we say and what we do. While this is stated bluntly and refreshingly, it’s far from novel. Almost every report on public diplomacy over the last decade — and there have been dozens — have said the same thing. Deeds matter more than words, beware the "say-do" gap, credibility matters, it’s the policy stupid — these are cliches of the public diplomacy/strategic communications field, not new insights, no matter how many times they are forgotten to be repeated anew.

One of Mullen’s most important positive claims is his repudiation of a "strategic" (in the Habermasian sense) approach to communications, where messages are crafted to manipulate targets seen as objects rather than subjects:

"We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners… We can not capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them."

Again, the message here is crucial but the novelty is limited. Many essays and reports on public diplomacy over the last decade have made similar points about conceiving of strategic communications as a "conversation". His intervention only makes sense in the context of a bureaucratic military culture which has grown up around the strategic communications industry. And here, I see exactly where he’s coming from. I’ve seen enough of these power point presentations, flow charts, and jargon-ridden policy documents to last me several lifetimes. Its one of the reasons why so many people have worried about the – likely unintended – consequences of the vast imbalance of resources between the Pentagon and the State Department. (For a first response from that community, see this guest post over at Matt Armstrong’s place.)

But where I fear he may go wrong — or perhaps be misinterpreted — is in his assertion that the essence of good communication is "having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for ourselves." Because nothing speaks for itself — certainly not in the kinds of hotly contested political zones where the Pentagon should be involved. Everything is subject to spin, framing, and interpretation. Mullen is right to critique those who focus exclusively on the messaging and ignore the policy. But it doesn’t follow that just getting the policy right will succeed without an effective communications strategy. There is going to be an information war, a struggle over framing and interpretation, no matter what policy is pursued. This is why strategic communications can’t be ignored in the formation and execution of policy in today’s international system.

Policy and strategic communications need to be deeply integrated, with feedback mechanisms, anticipation of the likely response of both partners and adversaries, and deep understanding of the relevant others. Mullen, to his credit, recognizes that "we must know the context within which our actions will be received and understood" — which should point to more, rather than less, investment in cultural understanding, linguistic expertise, and deep engagement with other societies. I suspect that Mullen would agree, but his essay could be read by others to challenge the value of such investments.

Finally, even as Mullen attacks the "certain arrogance to our ‘strat comm’ efforts," he reproduces a typically American "certain arrogance" of assuming that American policy is in fact based on "the right intent." But "having the right intent up front" is a deeply political question, not simply a matter of being good, righteous people. Was the invasion of Iraq based on the "right intent up front"? That obviously can’t be answered from on high — it’s a political judgement. Is America’s role in Afghanistan now based on "the right intent up front"? Lots of Afghans and Pakistanis don’t seem to think so. Who is to judge when the intent is "right"? Us? Them? Not as easy as it sounds.

Kudos to Admiral Mullen to opening up this debate — people in the new administration have been thinking about all of these issues, and it will be very interesting to see what emerges.