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State Department Considering Public Diplomacy Overhaul

The revamp comes as officials debate how to counter Russian and Chinese influence campaigns.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert speaks to press at the State Department on May 29. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert speaks to press at the State Department on May 29. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is weighing measures to overhaul the U.S. State Department’s public diplomacy arm amid a wider debate in Washington on how to respond to Russian and Chinese social media and disinformation campaigns.

This summer, Pompeo directed the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Bureau of International Information Programs to explore a possible merger, a State Department spokesman confirmed to Foreign Policy.

The plan drawn up entails merging the two bureaus under the new name Bureau of Outreach. Some of the international information programs bureau’s responsibilities would also shift to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The new bureau would likely be headed by Michelle Giuda, the current assistant secretary of state for public affairs, officials said, though the State Department spokesman did not confirm this.

According to three officials familiar with internal deliberations, the final decision on enacting the plan now rests with Pompeo.

The spokesman emphasized the plan was not finalized and there would be no reduction in staffing if the merger went forward. He said the decision is unrelated to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to “redesign” the department last year—an unpopular effort that dissolved after President Donald Trump fired him in March.

“It would certainly not be a dismantling of anything. To the contrary, it would be a strengthening,” the spokesman said.

The potential move is welcomed by some officials and experts, who complain the current structure is outdated and sorely in need of reform. It coincides with a broader debate underway in Washington over how to effectively wield public diplomacy as a national security tool.

The debate was fueled by Russia’s role in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential elections through targeted leaks and disinformation campaigns designed to boost support for Trump. But it takes in other issues as well, including how the government regulates and utilizes social media giants.

“Government bureaucracy is not on the front lines of adaptation to new technology,” said Sarah Heck, a former director for global engagement in the National Security Council. “In terms of foreign governments and actors who engage in disinformation, they’re not constrained by these sorts of legal rules and bureaucracy,” she said.

Heck cited as an example the Islamic State, which weaponized social media to gain prominence, power, and new recruits in 2014 and 2015. “ISIS didn’t have to clear something through a secretary’s office in order to tweet it,” she said.

Both the public affairs bureau and international information programs bureau are charged with public communications, but the latter focuses exclusively on foreign audiences, while the former manages domestic audiences as well as press and the secretary’s communication. In practice, it leaves the two bureaus doing many of the same jobs. This often results in overlapping or diverging public diplomacy efforts, said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat and White House director of global engagement under President Barack Obama.

“The distinction doesn’t really make sense in a world where there’s no digital borders,” said Shawn Powers, a former head of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. “It’s really hard to synchronize global communications efforts if you have an artificial distinction between public affairs and the international information program.”

The division in part dates back to a 1948 law, the Smith-Mundt Act, which prevented the State Department and other federal agencies from directing government programming at domestic audiences, construed as a way to block government propaganda from reaching voters. The law was last reformed in 2013.

In past decades, the role of public diplomacy was much more clear-cut, both conceptually and within government structures. In 1953, as the Cold War gained steam, President Dwight Eisenhower created the U.S. Information Agency, a separate federal entity aimed at promoting American interests and policies abroad in the escalating propaganda battle with the Soviet Union. The agency was dismantled in 1999, and its vestiges were folded into the State Department as the Bureau of International Information Programs.

Bruen, the former diplomat, welcomed the move but said the U.S. government still had a long way to go to counter threats from foreign propaganda. “We aren’t seeing much in the way of any strategy, or any staff focus on the problem not just of Russian disinformation but also Chinese disinformation,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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