Interview: Ambassador Laurence Pope on the State Department, the Foreign Service, and Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century

Wednesday, March 5th 2014

The Demilitarization of American Diplomacy: Two Cheers for Striped Pants by Ambassador Laurence Pope has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.  He was Ambassador to Chad from 1993 to 1996 and Charge dAffaires to Libya in the aftermath of Benghazi.  At other times during his career, he was Director for Northern Gulf Affairs, Associate Director for Counter-Terrorism, and Political Advisor to General Zinni at Central Command.  He now lives in Maine.  The book is fresh, direct and uncommonly blunt.  I posed some questions.


Q:  Before turning to Public Diplomacy, let me ask you about the extended discussion of the state of U.S. diplomacy and the Foreign Service in your book.  You speak of the “diplomacy deficit”and the “military-intelligence state.”  What’s your take on the standing of the State Department in the making of foreign policy?

POPE:  We need a functioning foreign ministry.  Everything can’t be run by an off-the-books government agency at the White House which is back to calling itself the NSC staff again, often dropping the staff.  There is nothing worse than formers who deplore the tempora and mores of an age of brassMy little book is an attempt to look ahead into the murk of the 21st century.  It argues that it will still be a world of sovereign states, not flat at all but something else entirely, as the forces of globalization transform the landscape in unpredictable ways; that our security will require fast footwork and agility as we try to lead even as our relative power declines; and that our diplomatic institutions, the Foreign Service and the State Department, are instruments ill-adapted to this purpose.


Q:  The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy.  What contribution can it make?

POPE:  There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition.  This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that.  I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands.  When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion.

Broadly, the State Department’s fascination with social media reflects a view that its job is to speak over the heads of governments, or under their heads, or something.   That is a dangerous illusion.  With Ambassador McFaul tweeting away in Russia as we were trying to reset the relationship, we saw some of the problems with digital diplomacy.  The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.  


Q:  Addressing global issues –- the environment, women’s rights, entrepreneurship, and food security are just a few –- now has a larger place in foreign policy and public diplomacy.  The President and the Secretary have given more visibility to key issues by appointing a number of coordinators, special envoys, and representatives.  How can Public Diplomacy best support their efforts?

POPE:  There are two questions here, one about so-called global issues, and the other about public diplomacy.

The number of offices at the State Department with global in their title has approached the dimensions of self-parody, though Ronan Farrow has now moved on from global youth affairs to hosting a talk show.  Much of this is globaloney.  Everything happens in a particular place, not in some global ether.  Offices whose principal business is the organization of annual meetings at which the Secretary or somebody makes a cameo appearance and engages in high-minded rhetoric with little or no follow-up, have proliferated wildly, and most of them are staffed with pols, not professionals.  More broadly, our globalizing fantasies are one face of an extraterritorial coin, the other side being is drones and special forces and cyber war — the tribute vice pays to virtue, Oscar Wilde might have said.  (The QDDR is the locus classicus of this nonsense.)

I used to do counter-terrorism, and there is a place for functional bureaus, but let’s stop calling them global.  International will do fine.  I would say this to my friend Sarah Sewell, the very able person who has just been sworn in as Under Secretary of State for you know what.

Public diplomacy is an ancient art.  I wrote a biography of a man named François de Callières.  He worked for Louis XIV, and he is known today for a big book on what we later came to call diplomacy.  A close friend of his ran the Gazette, a sophisticated weekly expression of French views, and Callières wrote articles himself defending French policies.  Public opinion was important then and now.  When I was consulting at the Defense Department they loved to talk about strategic information, a term which has infiltrated the civilian world along with much else, and I used to remind them that information is the air we breathe, not a weapons system.  In the age of Louis XIV, a carefully placed article could have an impact, given the limited number of European decision-makers.  Even then it was hard to explain away the bombing of Genoa by a French fleet to outraged Italians.  Today’s information technology makes that even harder, and official statements can easily be drowned out by the din of the news cycle.  What matters in the end is what we do, not what we say, as Charlotte Beers and her successors discovered.


Q:  From my conversations with Foreign Service colleagues, I sense a widespread aching for reform, but it is seldom voiced within the building or at embassies except in private conversations.  Cross the river to the Pentagon, and changes (whether they are urged from the inside or the outside) are discussed constantly.  During your career, you’ve spent some quality time with the armed forces.  Why the difference?

POPE:  At the State Department history is just one damn thing after another.  Its culture is profoundly hostile to ideas and theory, remarkable for such a smart group of people.  (That is why nobody has read the QDDR —my book takes it apart so you won’t have to.)  Early in my career as senior mentor at DOD —there are no junior mentors —I learned a lesson about this.  It was before 9/11 and the Iraq war, and a massive war game called Millennium Challenge was organized to test various warfighting concepts broadly known as the Revolution in Military Affairs.  The premise of the RMA was that we had computers and the bad guys didn’t, so we could fight a Major Combat Operation with one hand and an insurgency with the other and do it every six months, the time it would take us to regroup, because the enemy would be hopelessly befuddled by our technological mastery and pretty much give up.  We saw what became of that hubris in Iraq and Afghanistan, but unlike the State Department the military is a learning institution that cares about ideas.  In the crucible of those wars, it relearned the ancient truth that war is not engineering but a branch of politics —hence counter-insurgency doctrine and all that.  (This has led it to encroach on areas which ought to be civilian spheres, exploiting the State Department’s weakness, but that is another story.)

The point is that ideas matter.  As our very smart President told the National Defense University last year, unless we change our thinking we may get into more wars we don’t need to fight.  If we are serious about reform, the first question to ask is what kind of world is it?  If we really think that in the 21st century the nation-state is going to be irrelevant as we merge into a global soup —all nation-states apart from us, that is —we don’t need a tough and smart diplomatic service operating out of a functioning foreign ministry.  The reform of our diplomatic institutions needs to be approached at that conceptual level, not at the level of ten point plans.

With regard to the Foreign Service, a retired friend of mine has just emailed to say that he has been approached about running a very major embassy, yet again.  What would we say if over and over the Navy couldn’t find an admiral on active duty to run a carrier battle group?  


Q:  You wrote, “The landscape of the 21st century is coming into clearer focus after two failed wars.  The information age and cyberspace are now realities, but fundamentally it remains a world of states, not networks. *** As we continue to wrestle with our role in the world, something like a strategy will emerge –- not from what we say, but from what we do.”  Here’s the question:  What should Public Diplomacy be doing?

POPE:  I would turn the question around since I don’t have much experience in this area, and ask the pros some questions.  Are there new ways to measure foreign opinion?  What metrics can be extracted from Big Data?  What are people in the Crimea thinking this morning, on the eve of a possible confrontation with Russian forces?  Twitter is a new tool, obviously, I follow the feeds of a number of folks at #Libya, but we need to be careful about drawing conclusions from small samples.  Techniques for measuring foreign opinion aside, for public diplomacy as for diplomacy tout court, the place to start is not the world we would like to live in, but the world as it is.  We Americans are much given to utopian fantasies, and that is not a harmless occupation.  Reality has a way of taking revenge.


Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors. authors name for more info

Author: Donald M. Bishop

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