The Pentagon as Pitchman: Perceptions and Reality of Public Diplomacy
January 04, 2013
Opinions on US public diplomacy and the Defense Department’s relationship to it are fairly polarized. Some fear that the Department of Defense drastically expanded efforts to influence global public opinion in the course of the war on terror, and that it now overshadows civilian public diplomacy efforts. Others argue the Department of Defense can only address threats like terrorism by getting better at influencing public opinion. But both perspectives lack an empirical understanding of the Defense Department’s public diplomacy-like activities. Instead, the debate is bogged down in the semantics of defining terms, arguments about the proper roles of the State Department and Defense Departments, and questions about how best to influence foreign audiences. These debates rest on suppositions that the Defense Department is doing more than we know, and on allusions to many defense missions and military entities that may or may not be conducting public diplomacy-like activities.
All of these debates would be better informed with a more exact articulation of what the Department of Defense does in the field of public diplomacy. This report is the result of a concerted study to identify and cost Department of Defense public diplomacy-like activities. The reality check it provides should advance each of these debates.
There has been no widespread institutionalization of public diplomacy-like activities throughout the Defense Department despite a great deal of rhetoric and effort. However, this lack of diffuse institutionalization emphasizes one Defense Department program that is nearly identical to civilian public diplomacy activities. The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the geographic combatant commands (COCOMs) run media websites aimed at regional audiences and deploy small teams to embassies worldwide to influence public opinion. Though not on the scale of the State Department’s public diplomacy activities, let alone US international broadcasting, this single program does make the Defense Department a significant player in US public diplomacy efforts.
This program developed the way it did because the Defense Department is comprised of distinct organizations that respond to different incentives. The military services are the bulk of the Defense Department, and they are loath to cloud their well-defined missions with a vague task like public diplomacy. But the combatant commands already have a nebulous mission and found it worthwhile to embrace this task. Meanwhile, SOCOM focused on solidifying its relatively new, official role as “global synchronizer”
by centralizing these efforts under a program it runs. Each of these perspectives and decisions hinge on changes to organizational incentives within the Defense Department in the last 30 years.
This report provides a narrative for how these outcomes occurred. It begins in Part I by examining the context surrounding concerns about the militarization of public diplomacy. It then catalogs and costs Defense Department public diplomacy-like activities. Armed with these findings, it moves into Part II and traces how efforts to institutionalize public diplomacy-like activities failed in the military services even as how SOCOM and the combatant commanders consolidated their program. Finally, it provides an explanation for these seemingly contradictory outcomes. Maintaining this focus meant setting aside many important issues bearing on how the United States conducts public diplomacy, but these conclusions add valuable and otherwise-missing insights into how our foreign policy is executed.
Most intriguingly, public diplomacy provides a case study on the changing roles of national security institutions in US foreign policy making.