U.S. public diplomacy's chief departs at key moment

Sunday, July 30th 2017

Bruce Wharton, the first Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy from the ranks of the career Foreign Service, has retired.  Wharton has provided stellar leadership and set a fine example for public diplomacy employees since his appointment last December.  No successor has been announced.

Nothing indicates that Ambassador Wharton's departure is anything other than a well-deserved retirement. However, it comes at a time when major change looms for the whole State Department.

  • Deliberations have begun for a "redesign" of the entire State Department, one of Secretary Rex Tillerson’s major priorities.
  • The budgets for educational and cultural exchanges, international broadcasting and global public diplomacy operations are under debate in Congress, after the White House’s “skinny budget,” endorsed by Tillerson, called for a drastic reduction in exchanges’ funding.
  • At the same time, State and USAID planners are revising the agencies' strategic goals to reflect President Trump's "America First" policy.  These will set the policy focus for the PD bureaus and the posts around the world.

Ambassador Wharton is the highest-ranking PD official to depart. Other retirements have left the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, which manages those exchanges programs, depleted at the top.  The Global Engagement Center, in charge of counter-terrorism messaging, is also without a permanent director since the departure of Michael Lumpkin.

This problem is not particular to public diplomacy, of course.  Natural attrition and retirements have taken their toll throughout the Department – the mission-critical Diplomatic Security Bureau lost its assistant secretary last week.

The past few weeks have seen an uptick in nominations.  Nevertheless, critical decisions are about to be considered without many of the most experienced leaders of diplomacy.

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy.

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Author: Joe Johnson

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