Saturday, August 5, 2017

State Department, USIA -- A Note on Public Diplomacy

image from

As I follow -- while compiling, for my sins, which are many, the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review -- the current, evidently chaotic state of the Tillerson State Department as covered by the media (mainstream and social; no links needed for those who read tabloids), I am puzzled (if not slightly amused) by the negative comments on The Secretary's critical, granted naive, Exxon-style "private-sector" observations/insinuations on the State Department's dysfunctional personnel structure. 

These negative comments re Tillerson -- from persons critical of the Trump administration -- regarding Trump/Tillerson State Department personnel "plans" have been expressed, both privately and publicly, by some former diplomats. 

To specify my point of view: I was a USIA -- not a State officer, again for my sins, for much of my Foreign Service career, serving our country overseas through outside-the-embassy diplomacy (so I would describe, as best I can, "public diplomacy," not a a 9-to-5 "check-in" gig, but to have the privilege, thanks to [let foreign-service-bureaucrats not forget] the taxpayer, to not-clock-timed efforts by a U.S. diplomat [the check-in clock be damned] to share thoughts/impressions with others [no, here draw the line; I won't say "significant others"] in foreign lands, through personal contacts/discussions [not just press releases/tweets] about America -- again, as best I could, and whenever/wherever/at any time possible).

When USIA was "consolidated" into the State Department in 1999 (much of the reasoning, arguably, among the imperial capital's then powers-that-be was, "we won the Cold War, why the hell do we need a propaganda agency? History's over"), there were many objections from (soon to-be-former) dedicated USIA staff to this "forced" merger (the word "rape" was not mentioned, so far as I know).

Here are some of these "USIA" anti-State reactions -- doubtless simplistic and unfair to hard-working State employees, both overseas and in the homeland -- in summary form:

--The State Department is top-heavy, seventh-floor-centered, overly personnel/budget large (ok, not as large as the Pentagon), inefficient, bureaucratic, uncommunicative ...

--State Washington operations are not a "field"- centered activity, except for a few former USIA programs it will/now [reluctantly?] handle -- e.g., actually talking/meeting/exchanging ideas with influential persons from foreign lands outside sequestered embassy walls, in "real life." 

--State's focus is basically issuing visas or writing cables by "political officers" buried in Embassy offices overseas whose missives no one in the capital's homeland reads except their authors out there somewhere in the "furren" sticks.

--As for State officers in the "economic" cone, only God (Marx, the KGB?) knows what they are actually up to, except getting a salary from the USG.

--Embassies, with State Department approval, have become fortresses, questioning, rather than welcoming, non-American persons who seek, with the best (true: certainly not always) of intentions to enter their walls.

--Substantive negotiations with foreign governments are made by political appointees, not State career employees. So how do State employees, aside from refusing visas and drafting cables nobody reads (except when they appear on Wikileaks) spend their day sitting in an Embassy cubicle in front of their computer?

But it seems that now some former USIA employees (I've not taken a survey of how many; this entry is just a random thought, not "definitive" research), are condemning Secretary of State Tillerson for his efforts (arguably) to restructure the Department to be leaner and clearer (well, of course,"friendlier" would be too strong [wrong?] a word).

Just wonderin'.

BTW, the best presidentially-appointed ambassadors (not necessarily State "promoted") I had the privilege to serve with (the kind of distinguished persons who would never say "you work for me") overseas as a USIA officer recognized the importance of USIA's mission -- at its best, to share ideas and perspectives with key foreign audiences (by that I mean a dialogue with free-thinking persons -- and not so free-thinking officials/dissidents -- overseas, as opposed to a bureaucratic so-called "no-nonsense" briefing.)

From my experience "in the field," far, far, from Foggy Bottom, such a "communications-efficient" exchange took place not on the "tell-me-what-you-want" internet/tweets -- but (more often than not) at a modestly-priced local restaurant over a glass of wine, where one actually saw her/his interlocutor, like her/him or not, in "real" life, not facebook-to-facebook, but face-to-face. 

Yes, in all honesty, the USG reimbursed me for the modest bill for breaking bread/sharing ideas with persons who made a difference in their society, considered part of USA's public diplomacy "representation" tax-payer-funded "expenses."

A personal/personnel note:

When I returned to Washington from a Moscow posting ending in 2001, as a former USIA officer (by then USIA had been "consolidated" into the State Department), I had the obligatory interview (I hope my failing memory is trusting me; but I think the gist of our conversation is correct) with a humorless State "Human Resources" officer:
She: [imperially sitting behind a desk] So ... You've been abroad for many years.
Me: Yes, Madam.
She: You have a pretty clean report [takes out dossier from a drawer in her desk].
Me: Yes, thank you, Madam.
She: You've spent most of your time overseas.  
Me: Yes, Madam, but why is my report "pretty" clean?
She: [with an inquisitorial eye]: But you are USIA, are you not?
P.S. In the previous century, some "serious" State employees (granted, reflecting the intolerant views of some USIA officers towards them) would refer to the United States Information Service (USIS) -- as USIA was then designated overseas -- as "Useless."


Addendum (8/8/2017); from the New York Times Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:
Re “Details Are Bedeviling Tillerson in Overhaul, Diplomats Assert” (front page, Aug. 7):
For decades the State Department has been described as bloated, overly bureaucratic and dysfunctional. 
So perhaps Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deserves credit instead of blame for slowing down the routines of the department. ...
The department really needs an overhaul. Let’s hope this secretary can make a dent in the 70,000-member bureaucracy.

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