Less than a month after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, but before his inauguration, I was one of those who thought that when he sat behind the Resolute desk, he would understand the need to set aside his “candidate” personality in the face of “presidential” responsibilities.
I was bold enough to write out the needs of America’s Public Diplomacy, focusing not on any new themes or initiatives in foreign policy but on change inside the State Department. I hoped my essay could help the president’s transition team and new appointees more quickly define an agenda. “For America’s Public Diplomacy, no time to waste” was the piece’s title, but when it was published in TheHill on November 22, 2016, it appeared as “Trump’s State Department needs to be let off the leash — today.” That headline rewrites don’t always match the writer’s intent is an old story.
Looking at my op-ed just four years later, as President-elect Biden begins transition planning, it seems as fresh as ever. The needs of 2016 are the needs of 2020. It’s not the time, however, to dwell on the Trump administration’s missed opportunities. Rather, the task is to look ahead. Here’s my 2016 article, word for word, except that I have replaced “Trump” with “Biden.” The original paragraph mentioning the losing candidate has been slightly changed, and my 2016 mention of “ISIS” has been generalized as “Islamism.” I put each of the changes in brackets.
“As all wait for President-elect [Biden’s] cabinet nominations, it’s not too soon to begin thinking about the grave challenges America faces in public diplomacy. There’s no time to waste.
“Had [Donald Trump] been [re-]elected, his administration would simply have launched an updated version of his [‘America First’] philosophy. He would have named another media executive as the next under secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. New acolytes from the campaign and [Fox News] would have parachuted into State to think the big ideas — and expect the Foreign Service to do all the hard work.
“Gaining international support for the new administration’s initiatives will surely require deft thinking and the right words by the president’s team — and by ambassadors and Foreign Service Officers at American embassies. A new menu item at the State Department cafeteria shouldn’t wait for the inauguration: triple espressos.
“[Joe Biden] has provided many cues to his new policy directions, but not so many details. They need elaboration, and how to present them to governments and publics overseas in the coming weeks and months needs careful planning.
“The public diplomacy officers of the Foreign Service know how, they just need the nod to get started.
“The ideological challenges of Russia, China, and [Islamism] still loom large. Garnering the most attention have been email hacking, the ‘firehose of falsehoods’ on social media, and related cyber threats. National security specialists are fleshing out how these malign operations link with ‘hybrid warfare’ and ‘gray zone’ conflicts.
“More important than the media and social media, however, are the ideas they communicate. If America — and the West more largely — are engaged in a ‘war of ideas,’ what are the ideas we advocate?
The election has shown that many of the old narratives — whether conservative or liberal — are stale. The administration needs our Foreign Service Officers at the table when they discuss the renewing of American ideals.
“To explain and advocate American policies and values overseas, the new under secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs will have the lead. Alas, selection, vetting, clearance, and confirmation may run many months past the inauguration. And it will take many more months for the new appointee to learn what public diplomacy can and can’t do. But time is not our friend.
“Without an under secretary, public diplomacy will not be aboard during the early months of change. It will miss the time when Congress will be most receptive to new initiatives.
“First, the president, the new secretary of State, and the transition team should agree to empower the career officer who will be acting under secretary to launch internal reforms on the administration’s Day One.
“To relearn how to counter propaganda and disinformation.
“To lengthen and strengthen Public Diplomacy training.
“To emphasize ‘education’ as much as ‘training’ at the Foreign Service Institute.
“To send more public diplomacy people to key military commands.
“To learn more about public affairs, crisis management, survey research, and related fields from American corporations.
“To plan for ‘more’ here and ‘less’ there.
“With his feel for organizations, President-elect [Biden] can put an eagle eye on the stovepipes that divide and enfeeble America’s informational power.
“It’s not just that public affairs, public diplomacy, the U.S. government’s overseas broadcasting networks, and the armed forces’ information operations don’t work together; it’s not just that there are outdated obstacles to their cooperation; it’s that each barely understands what the others do.
“This means that overseas the need is to strengthen the role of the embassy public affairs officer to assure that all U.S. agencies pull together.
“The president-elect knows that organizational change works best when it is ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down.’ In the public diplomacy context, this means giving its dedicated Foreign Service Officers some rein. This means not waiting for a new under secretary to launch and approve every initiative that is needed now, not later.
“The public diplomacy officers of the Foreign Service are patriotic, non-partisan, knowledgeable, multilingual, and talented. They know best how to advocate for the new president’s policies in different nations and cultures — and how to heal and strengthen American public diplomacy.
“Mr. [Biden], give the nod. Let them begin now.”
Yes, during the past four years there has been some progress on each of the needs I highlighted – by the Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources (R/PPR), the Global Engagement Center, and the Foreign Service Institute. The same challenges remain, however, and they have become more urgent. There’s no time to waste.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity 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.