Professional Study in a Public Diplomacy Career

Friday, August 11th 2017

Professional Study in a Public Diplomacy Career

 

Donald M. Bishop

 

After their initial “entry level” assignments, most Foreign Service Officers in the Public Diplomacy cone begin their careers with one or more overseas tours as an IO, AIO, CAO, ACAO, APAO, or Consulate PAO.  These are the assignments that in time lead to becoming an embassy’s Public Affairs Officer, a member of the Country Team, and the Ambassador’s principal advisor on communication and Public Diplomacy.

 

It’s a hectic time for Public Diplomacy, and officers in these gateway jobs are so busy that the daily path of least resistance may be to “go with the flow” -- to take on one task at a time, to let the usual run of PAS and Embassy staff meetings fill up the weeks, and let Washington’s deadlines order the work. 

 

The down side of this approach is that it’s passive.  It forfeits the initiative that wins recognition and advancement.  The promotion panels smile on those officers who make their own breaks with a record of active achievement of U.S. goals.    

 

There’s another, intangible factor that comes to bear on standing and promotion -- extensive professional reading and writing.  They demonstrate growing professional knowledge and maturity, give evidence of dedication to the calling (not the job) of Public Diplomacy, and they are noticed by superiors.  Professional knowledge shows itself in more effective meetings, better conferencing, and more cogent inputs to the mission’s Integrated Country Strategy. 

 

Our counterparts in the armed forces understand this.  One, Lucas A. Balke, a Marine Corps officer writing in the Marine Corps Gazette, offered an interesting insight on professional development in his article, “Before You Assume Command.”  (Alas, the article is behind a paywall.) 

 

He discussed “ten things I wish I had been told as a lieutenant.”  Here are a few that also provide good advice for rising FSO’s:

 

·        “Junior leaders are often preoccupied with their daily tasks and fail to think long term.”

 

·        “As a lieutenant, you should start making a mental list of things you would do if you were made the company commander today.” 

 

·        Save the “the handouts from professional military education (PME) sessions that you find interesting or thought provoking.”

 

·        “Read 10 pages a day,” and when you read, “take the time to make notes, highlight, and write book reports.” 

 

·        Here’s one more piece of advice that may be harder to swallow:  “Be prepared to fight tomorrow’s insurgency.” 

 

Captain Balke had a specific suggestion.  He urged young officers to “Become an expert regarding one battle.”  Select a battle, research available sources, read the seminal work, take notes and collect maps, he wrote.  As a career unfolds, “continue to update your battle study” by reading additional books and key leader interviews and watching videos.  Focus on a leader’s decisionmaking.  “As you read, you should be preparing yourself to explain the battle,” he wrote.  By “explaining,” he meant presentations to commanders, staffs, and Marines.

 

If we take Captain Balke’s admonitions to heart, what were Public Diplomacy’s “battles”? 

 

The wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan all offer a dozen topics to study – embassy press relations, U.S. broadcasting, appeals, interpreting and translating, and reintegration of fighters and POWs among them. 

 

Whether the U.S. was highly involved, tangentially involved, or just an observer, there are lessons to learn from Public Diplomacy and strategic communication during the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, Northern Ireland, the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, and the civil wars in Malaya, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka.  And there are past USIA and State experiences like the response to the 1983 shootdown of KAL flight 007, Public Diplomacy at the Interests Section in Havana, “America Illustrated” magazine, the surge to support the deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, and so on. 

 

Most Public Diplomacy officers may be uncomfortable with Lieutenant Balke’s “preparation for battle.”  I say, get over it. 

 

For the next two decades, many FSOs will serve in conflict areas.  Others will be part of efforts to confront insurgencies.  They will be part of whole-of-government efforts in communication, development, countering extremism, and the buildup of free media.  If they are not “in the fight,” they will be “part of the fight,” or in any case “at the edge of the fight.” 

 

It seems likely, moreover, that the next few decades will be marked by increasing competition, contest, and conflict between nations.  The Foreign Service will consistently work to tamp down conflicts so they not become kinetic wars, for sure.  But in a future of “trade wars” or “wars of ideas” or “hybrid wars” or “gray zone” conflicts, an officer can’t go astray by wringing out lessons from past Public Diplomacy “battles.”

 

The days when an officer could shape a career to quietly edit press translations, arrange background interviews, organize talks at Information Resources Centers, accompany visiting American performers or artists, or tend Fulbright or Visitor programs will shrink.  For an uncertain future, master the profession of Public Diplomacy.  Read.  Write.  Present.  And think about studying “one battle” to start. 

 

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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.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

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