Can America Change Hearts and Minds?

The Obama administration has finally selected an under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs: Judith McHale, a media and communications executive.
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Few US government activities have been more maligned in recent years than public diplomacy, defined by the US state department as "engaging, informing and influencing key international audiences". Dozens of reports, from all sides of the political fence, have argued that the US had failed to make its case overseas.

Months after the president's inauguration, the Obama administration has finally selected an under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs: Judith McHale, a media and communications executive - close to the Clintons for years - who is little known to the general public. In the 2008 campaign cycle, the Washington Post reported, she contributed $109,600 to Democratic politicians and campaign committees.

McHale, the daughter of a US foreign service officer and raised in England and South Africa, faces many challenges in her new job (if she is approved by Congress). First among these is the negative effect of the "Hughes legacy". Karen Hughes, a media-savvy George Bush confidante who ran the state department's public diplomacy from 2005 until her resignation in late 2007, was criticised from all sides of the political spectrum for her ignorance of foreign affairs and maladroitness in dealing with the Muslim world.

Despite her "new initiatives", Hughes came to epitomise the previous administration's failure to improve America's overseas image. With a background not dissimilar to Hughes's - including having political connections rather than diplomatic expertise - McHale will have to convince sceptics the world over that she is not a Democratic clone of Hurricane Karen.

Second, McHale - again, like Hughes before her selection - has no previous experience working within the state department bureaucracy. And yet she'll be dealing with an organization, by some considered dysfunctional, that has its own, often arcane, way of doing things.

With the consolidation of the agency that handled public diplomacy during the cold war - the United States Information Agency - into the state department in 1999, the role of public diplomacy practitioners at Foggy Bottom has been problematic. It's no secret that PD officers are often considered by their co-workers in other career paths to be second-class citizens who don't really count.

McHale will have to demonstrate to her state department colleagues - and to the White House as well - that public diplomacy is an integral part of the foreign policy process and smart power, not just PR or using internet social networks ("public diplomacy 2.0").

McHale's third challenge will be the defense department, which during the Bush administration supported some widely criticized "public diplomacy" initiatives, including having one of its contractors, the Lincoln Group, covertly pay off Iraqi newspapers to print articles composed by the US military but published as straight news items.

To be sure, Pentagon officials recently announced that the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for support to public diplomacy had been eliminated, in an effort, according to the New York Times, "by the Obama administration to distance itself from past practices that some military officers called propaganda".

But McHale may face an uphill battle in making it crystal clear that she - and not the "strategic communications" and psyops chiefs at DoD - is the public diplomacy boss. Many military officers, following the lead of secretary of defense Robert Gates, do welcome more aggressive civilian "soft-power" programs, at least in theory. McHale, however, should be ready for bureaucratic turf wars with those in uniform who feel they, and not somebody at state, should be in charge of the battle for hearts and minds.

McHale faces a final challenge: making the state department work harmoniously and productively with the growing number non-governmental organizations involved in public diplomacy.

This expanding engagement of the private sector in PD resulted, in part, from the frustration of citizens concerned with foreign affairs with how the Bush administration was handling its relations with the outside world. In truly American style, US NGOs decided to take matters into their own hands. This certainly was the case of the prominent organisation Business for Diplomatic Action, which concluded that the US government's message was no longer credible overseas. Competition between the government and private sector is, of course, not necessarily antagonistic, but it needs much care and attention.

As she prepares for her new job, McHale can take some comfort in the current popularity of Obama overseas. But honeymoons don't last forever, and anti-Americanism will not disappear overnight (if ever). So, if she is in fact confirmed, which appears likely, the new under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs may eventually regret having left Discovery Communications - unless she can pull off some minor miracles.

Article originally posted at, Wednesday 22 April 2009 16.00 BST

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