Find the Right Balance Between Civilian and Military: Don't Just Strip the DoD of Capabilities to Inform, Influence, and Persuade


Oct 31, 2010

This commentary originally appeared on MountainRunner Institute on October 31, 2010.

As Matt has repeatedly noted in this space and elsewhere, "American public diplomacy wears combat boots."1 That is, the Department of Defense (DoD) employs the majority of the resources (funding, manpower, tools, and programs) used for U.S. government efforts to inform, influence, and persuade foreign audiences and publics. Most of us agree that this is not the ideal state of affairs. The Department of State (DOS) or other civilian agency should have the preponderance of the United States' capabilities in this area. Both the White House and DoD concur.2

Congress would also like to see DOS doing more in this area—and DoD doing less. To date, most of the congressional attention has focused on DoD. Section 1055 of the 2009 Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act called for reports to Congress from both the White House and DoD on "strategic communication and public diplomacy activities of the Federal Government." DoD information operations (IO) were attacked by the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which slashed the proposed FY 2010 appropriation for IO by $500 million. (See the mountainrunner discussion "Preparing to Lose the Information War?")

Congressional pressure on "military public diplomacy" and IO raises two important questions that should be addressed before DoD is divested of these capabilities or they are transferred to DOS. First, what is the optimal balance of inform, influence, and persuade capabilities in a shared arrangement, and how should responsibilities be allocated between DoD and DoS? Second, how best to get from here to there?

What should the balance be?

Almost everyone would agree that, ideally, DOS should have the lead and the core of steady-state capabilities in this area. This would, of course, require substantial changes at DOS, in terms of orientation, priorities, and in the level of funding and capabilities available for public diplomacy.

Imagine that, in some foreseeable future, DOS's conduct of public diplomacy becomes sufficiently robust to meet baseline steady-state needs on a global level. DoD will still need to retain significant capability in this area. Why? There are at least two big reasons.

First, actions communicate, and DoD will continue to act. It will need capabilities to support planning and coordinating the communication content of those actions, and it will also need (at a minimum) the communication capabilities to explain those actions and encourage the favorable perception of those actions. Second, DoD's responsibilities for responding to contingencies necessitate that it retain its inform, influence, and persuade capabilities.

Even the most robust State Department that anyone imagines will still lack the kind of surge capacity and expeditionary capability needed to adequately respond to the crises and contingencies that our military is asked to prepare for. When the U.S. military presence in a foreign country goes from negligible to massive, who will be alongside the operating forces, explaining (and seeking to make palatable) their presence? Military communicators. If all the military communicators went away, who would conduct critical inform, influence, and persuade missions at the dawn of an emergent crisis? No one. And that is why the appropriate balance of such capabilities between DoD and DOS is not "zero" on the DoD side.

How do we get from here to there?

Right now, DOS isn't capable of meeting global steady-state public diplomacy needs for the United States (see Matt's "Hitting Bottom in Foggy Bottom"). How might State's capacity be increased and resources transferred from Defense without creating gaps in service that would come at the expense of the national interest or military lives?

If Congress is overzealous in stripping capabilities from DoD before DOS is ready to receive or recreate them, there is a very real possibility that the operation will be a success, but the patient might die anyway.

The right answer is to slowly and thoughtfully migrate some of DoD's public diplomacy capabilities over to DOS. This, by the way, is exactly what the White House has proposed. As noted in the National Framework for Strategic Communication, "We recognize the need to ensure an appropriate balance between civilian and military efforts. As a result, a process has been initiated to review existing programs and resources to identify current military programs that might be better executed by other Departments and Agencies."3

DOS should have the preponderance of inform, influence, and persuade capabilities and resources in the U.S. government. This should happen without an overall diminution of the capabilities available. Before DoD capabilities are reduced, DOS will require increased resources and improved organization. While DOS is improving its ability to meet the country's international inform, influence, and persuade needs, further growth can come from the direct transfer of selected DoD programs to DOS. Such transfers can increase in size and scope as DOS gains experience, and as its ability to manage and plan for these programs and capabilities improves. Finally, when it becomes clear exactly which capabilities DOS will and will not be able to develop or take over, it will be time to take a hard look at remaining DoD capabilities to determine which have been made redundant by DOS and which simply cannot be replaced by a civilian agency.

At the end of this process, all parties would like to see greater U.S. capability to inform, influence, and persuade abroad, with the Department of State as the robust leader of American public diplomacy and the Department of Defense as a valued and supporting partner. Get the balance right, and get there the right way.

1 Matthew Armstrong, "Operationalizing Public Diplomacy," in Nancy Snow and Philip M. Taylor, eds., Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 63.

2 See White House, National Framework for Strategic Communication, Washington, D.C., March 2010, and Patricia H. Kushlis and Patricia Lee Sharpe, "Public Diplomacy Matters More than Ever," Foreign Service Journal, Vol. 83, No. 10, October 2006, p. 32.

3 White House, National Framework for Strategic Communication, Washington, D.C., March 2010.

Dr. Christopher Paul, author of Whither Strategic Communication? and co-author of Enlisting Madison Avenue, is a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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