Judith McHale – New Undersecretary for PD?

Little has been made of the potential naming of Judith McHale to the role of Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy at the State Department in the last week. Perhaps it’s because only Al Kamen has heard inklings of it, and no nominee has been sent to the Senate. Whatever it is, media coverage has been scant in the wake of issues with Tom Daschle, Timothy Geitner, and other things that have dominated the media’s attention.

Matt Armstrong, a noted public diplomacy analyst and writer of the Mountain Runner blog, has written an impressive job description of what it means to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs:

The Under Secretary, the equivalent to a four-star general, must be the leader of the Government’s “influence enterprise” and must work closely with the Secretary of State to restructure and refocus the State Department to educate, empower, equip, and encourage the abilities of what amounts to a “Department of Non-State” within the Department of State. Organized and focused on bilateral relationships between countries, the State Department’s operational paradigm is out of step with today’s global requirements. We can neither afford the time to recreate a separate agency nor should we try. The State Department must adapt to the modern era and be capable of interfacing with everyone from heads of state to stateless persons lest the State Department become completely irrelevant.

It’s difficult to align Armstrong’s job description with McHale’s past efforts. Her ability to market the Discovery Channel is unquestioned, and her work with an African non-profit organization is respectable, but the nature of her employment history concerns me a great deal about what we’re to expect from Ms. McHale. That’s not to say that she’s done anything wrong, but it is to say that the position of Undersecretary for PD needs to be of a certain high quality and pedigree.

The work of past Undersecretaries and chairs of the BBG have been underwhelming. While I respect the work of Karen Hughes to make the role of Undersecretary for PD relevant (by nature of her relationship with the President instead of her PD prowess), and the work of Jim Glassman is probably impossible to audit given his limited time in the position, the overall public diplomacy strategy of the United States since 9/11 has lacked the focus, commitment, and approach needed to develop a world environment that promotes both communication and understanding.

Why resent McHale when I know relatively little about her? Marc Lynch of George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs and of Foreign Policy magazine offers an excellent starting point for why Secretary Clinton would do well to find someone else:

I don’t know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which “involves selling a message” has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on “branding” America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure.

Lynch is probably a little too strong in his rhetoric concerning McHale. Calling her a “terrible, terrible” selection does not give her enough credit for her work with GEF/Africa and the respect she has been given for promoting democracy, but I completely agree iwth the gist of the argument.

Al Kamen’s reference to McHale as “mega-donor” is cause for hesitation enough. It’s unrealistic to ask for nepotism to be removed from politics, and it’s also hard to prioritize what political appointments should be reserved for donors and political friends (see: FEMA), but the stakes in public diplomacy are simply too high.

According to Kamen, “Her résumé doesn’t reflect an excess of diplomatic experience, but we’re reminded that this is a job that involves selling a message.” One of the keys to public diplomacy is understanding that this is not all a sales game, and we as Americans would do well to stop the reliance on audience ratings as a measure of success in International Broadcasting, and to stop using marketing strategies to make foreign audiences buy into the intellectual commodity of United States values, culture, and behavior.

We’re not selling soap here, tweaking our message to people just waiting to be convinced that we can make them the cleanest and sweetest-smelling. We’re supposed to be sharing the soaps, synthesizing them, and trying to show that while our soap might not be for your regular bath, it’s a good kind, and worth using from time to time.

A strategy of collaboration and exchange will not give the short-term results that we crave. This is a long term effort, and our Undersecretary for PD needs to display both the patience and conviction to serve as the face and inter-agency advocate for this crucial effort. Judith McHale will have a hard time convincing me that she can do a better job than any foreign service officer, PD scholar, or individual whose career success was not dictated by ratings shares and revenues, but by learning and compromise.

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One Response to Judith McHale – New Undersecretary for PD?

  1. […] Judith McHale – New Undersecretary for PD? « Softer Power […]

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