Marc Lynch

What’s up with that “Global Engagement Directive”?

 The White House announced the other day that there would be a new desk at the National Security Council called the "Global Engagement Directive" which would take the lead in public diplomacy, international communications, foreign aid and other areas of engagement.    This is a good move, which could potentially overcome a number of persistent problems ...

 The White House announced the other day that there would be a new desk at the National Security Council called the "Global Engagement Directive" which would take the lead in public diplomacy, international communications, foreign aid and other areas of engagement.    This is a good move, which could potentially overcome a number of persistent problems in American public diplomacy and strategic communications. 

The announcement doesn’t surprise me — I’ve been saying for months that the NSC would, and should, have the lead in the inter-agency process on public diplomacy — but some of the details and the scope of the new portfolio are intriguing.  The shift overall tracks very closely with recommendations I’ve made over the last year, most recently in an essay entitled "The Conversation",  which called for shifting the focus from strategic communications and public diplomacy towards "engagement", housing it within the NSC, and giving it a prominent seat at the policy-making table. 

The move signals several important points. 

First, it signals that President Obama and his core team take global engagement, public diplomacy and strategic communications very seriously.  That shouldn’t be a shock, given how much emphasis they have placed on outreach to the world (including the upcoming Cairo speech).  But this move suggests that they understand that it is more than just Presidential speeches.  They want this global engagement to be an integral part of the policy process,  and not just a sales job to be assigned after policy has been formed.  Housing it in the NSC (and entrusting it initially to one of Obama’s must trusted and savviest foriegn policy advisers) ensures that such strategic communications will have a prominent place at the policy table.  That’s essential as the outreach to the Muslim world, Palestinian issue, Iran, and so many other issues (not even all in the Middle East!) ramp up.  

 Second, it responds to the core imbalance in resources between the State Department and Defense Department which has troubled strategic communications and public diplomacy over the last few years. The problem, which I’ve written about often and which Bob Gates has frequently mentioned, is that the Pentagon controls so many more resources than does State that its efforts inevitably overwhelm those on the civilian side — even if that isn’t rational or was never intended. Just putting the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in charge of the inter-agency process (as with Jim Glassman) doesn’t solve the problem since the vast majority of the resources remain at DOD.  Only the NSC is in a position to balance this out.

 Third, I particularly like the choice of "global engagement" as the blanket term, thus avoiding the logjam between advocates of "public diplomacy" and of "strategic communications."  It shows an appropriate sense of the scope and magnitude of America’s engagement with the world, well beyond either traditional methods of outreach common to traditional "public diplomacy". And it marks a welcome shift away from the military-friendly "strategic communications" concept which dominated the previous administration.

The most likely problems which might emerge?

  •  Sustainability — the current arrangement is likely to work well in part because of the personalities involved, including Obama himself and Denis McDonough.  Will this institutional structure work as well with other people in those positions? 
  • Overload — It’s  a phenomenal amount of weight to place on a small number of people. Hopefully, they will draw effectively on the resources of the relevant bureaucracies at State, Defense, Intelligence and elsewhere. From what I’ve heard from inside those agencies, there’s a great deal of healthy listening, discussion and cooperation going on from the top.
  • Politicization — Finally, some have voiced the fear that with the White House in the lead, domestic political considerations could intrude on international communications and engagement. But that horse has long since left the barn — "good news from Iraq", anyone?

All important to think about. If this means downgrading the role of the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy… so be it.  And if Kim Elliott is right that they are thinking about eliminating the Broadcasting Board of Governors (and I have no idea if that’s right), which has brought us the stunning success of al-Hurra TV and currently has more vacancies than members…. oh well.   But overall, this is an outstanding move which could be very helpful to the integration of global engagement into high policy.

 (note: I revised this post after seeing how many typos I made in my caffeine-deprived state this morning.  Sorry.)

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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