Getting to know the US policy on Strategic Communication

United States Strategic Communication

“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”

–        President George Washington, Farwell Address,1796

image taken from somewhere i forgot… obviously it came from dod


         Strategic communication is a tricky policy subject to nail down. The subject matter lacks the sensationalism that most networks require of policy issue coverage so that a common sense understanding could be more widely established. This makes it particullary hard to establish a direction, despite the fact; the mainstream media is one of the primary vehicles of strategic communication. To better understand US policy in regards to strategic communication, this paper will work to inform readers about its history and definitions, policies of empowerment, operational aspects, tools, and actors.

US Strategic Communication: History and Definitions

The United States would not exist without our founders engaging in the many dimensions of strategic communication. J Michael Waller described these aspects as, “public diplomacy, propaganda, counterpropaganda, and political warfare” in the book, Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda, and Political Warfare. However, the phrase “strategic communication” in terms of US policy did not exist until it surfaced in the 2001 Report of the Defense Science Board Taskforce on Managed Information Dissemination as noted by RAND researcher, Dr. Christopher Paul in his book, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates. Dr. Paul went on to mention that the United States has used these policy tools before, but “only in times of dire need.” He went on to list the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and both World Wars as examples. The US also used these practices in the latter half of the Cold War to lead the fall of the Soviet Union.

Throughout the recent history of strategic communication, there has been much debate about the definition of strategic communication. The DoD dictionary defines strategic communication as,

“Focused United States Government efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of United States Government interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power”.”

To best conceptualize the carrying out of strategic communication we follow the lead of  J Michael Waller’s book and turn to the final report issued by the an independent advisory commission of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication in 2004 that made the recommendations that stated,

“Strategic communication requires a sophisticated method that maps perceptions and influence networks, identifies policy priorities, formulates objectives, focuses on “doable tasks,” develops themes and messages, employs relevant channels, leverages new strategic and tactical dynamics, and monitors success. This approach will build on indepth knowledge of other cultures and factors that motivate human behavior.”

The DoD dictionary defines public diplomacy as,

“1. Those overt international public information activities of the

United States Government designed to promote United States foreign policy objectives by seeking to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences and opinion makers, and by broadening the dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad. 2. In peace building, civilian agency efforts to promote an understanding of the reconstruction efforts, rule of law, and civic responsibility through

public affairs and international public diplomacy operations. Its objective is to promote and sustain consent for peace building both within the host nation and externally in the region and in the larger international community.”



Smith Mundt

The Smith-Mundt Act is the most significant piece of legislation concerning public diplomacy. This piece of legislation was passed in 1948 under the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act. According to Smith-Mundt policy expert, Matt Armstrong the act was passed to serve as a mechanism to counter “false propaganda and misinformation” and to build US capacity to handle these problems. Since then, Smith-Mundt has undergone three and a half amendments. The first amendment came in 1972 when Senator William Fullbright (D-AR) pushed to prohibit the dissemination of information to the public within US borders. In 1985, Senator Edward Zorinsky (D-NE) focused the previous amendment to focus and apply those conditions to the United States Information Agency. During 1990, the act amended a clause that would allow for the dissemination of the USIA 12 years after “initial dissemination.” In 1999, USIA was closed their doors and their responsibilities were split between the new Broadcasting Board of Governors and the State Department.

13 January 2009, Matt Armstrong held the Symposium on the Smith-Mundt of 1948 in Washington D.C. The objective of the symposium was to gather strategic communications scholars, professionals, and stakeholders for “A Discourse to Shape America’s Discourse”, that being the subtitle of the event. About 200 people came to the one day event to discuss the status of the Smith-Mundt Act seeing as the global environment has been shaped by technology and issues, since its last adaptations. Armstrong has also taken on the initiative to increase public oversight over US engagement with global audiences.

In 2010, a bipartisan push was made in the House of Representatives by Representatives Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) introducing H.R.5729 also referred to as the Smith-Mundt Modernization act. The bill had a total of 7 co-sponsors (4 Democrats & 3 Republican members.) Although this bill received help from both sides of the isle and from the folks at the Heritage Foundation, the attempt failed.

Section 1055

Section 1055 of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for 2009 requires the President of the US and the Department of Defense to submit to a report detailing the interagency “strategy for public diplomacy and strategic communication” to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

The report submitted by the White House covers topics ranging from concepts and definitions, strategy, roles and responsibilities of executive agencies regarding strategic communication.  The strategy for the most part keeps in line with the definition; however, the White House report does mention problems across strategic communication over this term.

The agencies tapped for the processing and/ or production of strategic as laid out in the President’s report is delegated to the National Security Staff, Department of State, Department of Defense, Broadcasting Board of Governors, the United States Agency for International Development, the Intelligence Community, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other Departments and Agencies.

President Obama also noted the need for measures of performance and effectiveness to help with these actions, as well as the problems with measurements in strategic communication.

The President’s report further noted that there was,

“no need to establish a new, independent, not-for-profit organization responsible for providing independent assessment and strategic guidance on strategic communication and public diplomacy, as recommended by the Task Force on Strategic Communication of the Defense Science Board.”

The reason given was that existing enterprise was capable of taking on these tasks. However this does not mean NGO’s do not play a role in strategic communication, as many serve to secure our national objectives. Section C under the Joint Operations Planning Manual, states that, “NGOs can assist in accomplishing military missions and the broader national strategic objective.” “Operations may be executed by nonmilitary organizations or perhaps NGOs with military in support.” The manual says that NGO coordination should be ran through USAID senior development adviser assigned to each combatant commander. Chapter one section five of Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations states, that “Combatant commander should ensure planning for IO (information operations), PA(public affairs), and DSPD (Department of State Public Diplomacy) are consistent with overall USG strategic communication objectives and are approved by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.” Section 1055 also made provisions for the Strategic Communication Management Board to serve as an advisory board to the Secretary of Defense.

Actors and Aspects

Strategic communication is a multifaceted concept. The multiple degrees of its practice are wide ranging and require a broad range of actors taking on particular roles of approach. The White House primarily grants power, provides direction, and gives speeches. These actions are coordinated with the, Department of State, Department of Defense, Broadcasting Board of Governors, US Agency for International Development, Intelligence Community (will not be covered in this paper), National Counterterrorism Center (will not be covered in this paper), and other groups (NGOs, universities, and think tanks).

White House

The President is the most filmed man on the face of this planet. His words ripple across the world like waves from a rock that was thrown into pond. Therefore, it is imperative the President’s speeches strategically shape his messages. To help him with that, the President tasked the staff of Under Secretary‘s Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to makes “plans for discrete events such as Presidential speeches and initiatives and long term engagement on such areas as climate change, non-proliferation, and global health issues”, as indicated by the President’s Section 1055 report.  Look no further than the President’s evolution of the messages directed towards Iranian audience, or his speeches to Arab publics during the Arab Spring for examples.


The Congress

          The US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was a 64 year old congressional advisory committee that was most recently headed up by Matt Armstrong. In an interview with Government Executive, Armstrong described the commission as, “the only organization authorized by Congress with presidential appointments confirmed by the Senate to oversee and appraise US government activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence publics.” The board consisted of seven members and had a yearly budget of $135,000. On 16 December 2011, the commission was not authorized to continue its duties as it was never funded or approved. Support to reauthorize the commission was led by Republican Senator, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Democrat Senator, Barbra Boxer. Although, support to reauthorize the commission was bi-partisan, it was Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma who led the opposition against the reauthorization of the commission.

As of right now, neither party takes this issue up on their platforms. The policy of strategic national security importances tends to be pushed by bureaucrats and institutions and stalled by domestic political in-fighting.

Department of Defense

“American Public diplomacy wears combat boots…”  –Matt Armstrong

This is a reference to the imbalance of resources and personnel to provide strategic communication services through other outlets within the government. As mentioned above, this is because politicians can’t get their acts together (pun and intended.) Because of this, DoD has stepped up to provide the service because victory and peace can’t wait. In the book, Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War, author Michael Waller states in his conclusion that it is necessary for the DoD to take on these responsibilities for two main reasons. First, DoD is the primary force combating the United States’ adversaries in the war of ideas. Secondly, the message makers at State are not warriors, and lack the mindset and creativity in the areas where strategic communication is more badly needed and integrated with military information operations. That is not to say the role of other organizations and bureaucracies were not useful and very much needed, it is just saying why DoD has taken the lead in this charge.

Strategic communication within the Department of Defense takes place under the doctrine of Information Operations . Information operations is defined by the DoD as, “The integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”

Information operations consist of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, operations security, and supporting and relating capabilities. (See Chart)

The DoD has worked hard to improve the coordination of their actions and messages to our national objectives. For instance, the DoD has taken to social networking to raise awareness of humanitarian action taken by our military branches and service members. An example of this would be, the US Pacific Command covering humanitarian events in the Philippines on Facebook as the DoD begins focusing efforts on South East Asia. (See Screen Capture from Facebook below)

In cases of ongoing conflict, NATO ISAF forces have been engaged in propaganda wars on Twitter with the Taliban in an effort to control the information space.

All of the military branches are appearing to rebrand themselves, as noted by USC Public Diplomacy Professor Barry Sanders while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, through slogans and ads that are reflected in their recruiting material. The US Navy turned themselves into “A Global Force for Good”  which has worked out well in some regards to the rescuing of Iranian Fishermen by the USN. The United States Marine Corps’ new ad, Towards the Sounds of Chaos show Marines running towards a chaotic scene delivering aid, quite a different story. The Marine Corps has also worked to utilize Female Engagement Teams as a means of communicating to a section of the Afghan population that doesn’t get their voices heard much, women.

Department of State

         The Department of State plays a vital role in US policy on Strategic communication. As technology has progressed and international issues have transcended beyond government to government relations, the State Department has increasingly found the need to create dialogue with foreign audiences. To do this, the State Department has taken on the practice of public diplomacy to greater understand foreign audiences, and apply that knowledge in terms of public diplomacy. One of the methods State uses to engage those audiences is through cultural diplomacy. The purpose of cultural diplomacy according to the entry written by John Lenczowski (president of the Institute of World Politics) on cultural diplomacy in the book Strategic Influence , is about the promotion of mutual understanding through cultural exchanges. He goes on to list the tools of cultural diplomacy as, the arts, exhibitions, exchanges, educational programs, literature, language teaching, broadcasting, gifts, listening and according respect, promotion of ideas, promotion of social policy, history, and religious diplomacy.

To carry out these tasks the State Department holds a number of consular activities, conducts e-diplomacy, works with military combat commanders, and coordinates with NGOs.

After the Secretary of State, the next highest ranking public diplomacy officer is the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The holder of this seat is nominated by the President of the US, and confirmed by the Senate.

While President Obama has been in office, this seat has been filed by three different Under Secretaries. The first of these undersecretaries was Former Discovery Communications President and Former General Counsel for MTV, the Honorable Judith A. McHale who held the office of  Undersecretary from May 2009 – July 2011. The second undersecretary was serving in an acting position held by Bush aide and Ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens from February – April 2012. Most recently, Tara Sonenshine was confirmed by the Senate and took the position on 5 April 2012. (CLICK ON THE NAME FOR THE INTERACTIVE MAP)

Judith McHale

Kathleen Stephens

Tara Sonenshine

The State Department has also worked on the digital front as a means to engage in public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy. This practice is known as e-Diplomacy. During March 2012, Fergus Hanson   visiting fellow of the Brookings coming from the Australian outfit called the Lowy Institute for International Policy published a report that extensively covers the State Department’s uses and spread of ediplomacy. The report titled, Revolution @State: The Spread of Ediplomacy covers operational flow and coverage, tools, and initiatives. The tools used to conduct ediplomacy are: Corridor (an interagency Facebook-like platform), Diplopedia (an internal Wiki concerning diplomacy issues), Communities (an interface to bring professionals around causes, issues, and practices), and the Sounding Board (an intranet program interface that works to keep State’s employees informed at the click of a button.) Currently, State has hundreds if not thousands of social media accounts on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and a an assortment of blogs.   The following two charts were taken from his analysis to explain the operational process for ediplomacy as well as areas of coverage and how the tools mentioned above help the offices in these charts conduct ediplomacy.

United States Agency for International Development         

By directive of Section 1055, USAID is tasked to “inform recipients and partners of US humanitarian and development issues” by directly engaging “local stake holders as a part of development and foreign assistance activities” through the designing and implementation of  “communications capacity building programs including infrastructure development and media training.” The Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2007-2012 for the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development states, “America’s public diplomacy and strategic communication with foreign audiences are governed by three strategic priorities.” These priorities include: offering a positive vision, marginalizing extremists, and nurturing common interests and values. To offer a positive vision the strategic plan states that USAID and DoS will focus on religious leaders, young people, women and girls, teachers, and journalists as drivers of to build an indigenous capacity. USAID and Dos will use information dissemination programs and messages that “build on areas in which our expertise corresponds to the interests and needs of our partners and counterparts.” This will be done by nurturing common interest and values. “Government agencies and foundations, NGOs, and health care organizations” will be used to design and implement these programs. The strategy report feels that is the “key to long term progress, the stable development of civil society, and firm and friendly bilateral/multilateral relationships.”

Broadcasting Board of Governors

The Broadcasting Board of Governors origins began as a small group within the United States Information Agency during the 1990’s. By the end of the decade USIA was dissolved its functions were split between government bureaucracies. As a result, the BBG was established. President Obama’s Section 1055 report, states the BBG “is responsible for non-military, international broadcasting sponsored by the United States Government.” Initiatives taken on by the BBG include: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, Radio Sawa, and al-Hurra TV. The BBG is made up of up eight governors and a chairman. The Secretary of State serves as an ex officio member while the other eight are nominated by the President and approved by Congress. Below is a relationship map of the BBG:

Interest Groups, Institutions, Think Tanks, and Individuals

This section will contain information on interest groups, institutions, think tanks, and individuals working with US policy on strategic communication. The DoD Joint Planning Doctrine and the Strategic Plan for the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of State, both conclude on This list does not cover all of the actors, but it covers the most visible ones in cyberspace.


National Endowment for Democracy

The National Endowment for Democracy is a non-governmental umbrella organization with multiple institutions, initiatives, and programs below it. The organization is situated upon four other institutions (each supported by a particular set of interests, skills, and goals) that bring a strategic and holistic approach to the greater goal of statecraft and diplomacy to obtain our national objectives. The four structural institutions of the NED are the Center for International Private Enterprise (related to the US Chamber of Commerce), National Democratic Institute (related to the Democrat Party), the International Republican Institute (related to the Republican Party), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (related to the AFL-CIO.)

NED’s initiatives include the International Forum for Democratic Studies, World Movement for Democracy, Journal of Democracy, and the Center for International Media Assistance. Each of these initiatives is designed to further the spread of democratic governments across the world.

Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars

         The Woodrow Wilson Center published the SAGE (Strengthening America’s Global Engagement) Plan. The plan called for “Creating an Independent International Strategic Communication Organization for America.” This plan is calls for SAGE to establish a 501(c)(3). Their stated mission statement reads:

“Foster engagement between the U.S. society and the rest of the world with a view to promoting shared values and common interests, increasing mutual understanding and respect and enhancing America’s standing in the world.

Advance these objectives preponderantly through grant making, but also have organic capacity to itself stimulate peer to peer contacts and to build digital and in person communities of interest through its ability to convene, to network, and to synthesize the best research available on relevant issues.”

SAGE will be coordinating their task amongst the personal at the State Department. They will also seek out others to further their understanding through their grant program.

The Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation’s contributions to strategic communication have come in the form of video conferences that raise issue awareness, and coordination amongst professionals and scholars. Currently, Helle Dale is the Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy at Heritage.

USC Center on Public Diplomacy

         The University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy was established in 2003 as, “a partnership between the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of International Relations. Their stated mission is, “A research, analysis and professional training organization dedicated to furthering the study and practice of global public diplomacy.” The staff at the Center includes luminaries such as Barry Sanders and John Brown.


         The Institute of World Politics is a higher learning institution focused on the strategic angles of national security. All of the professors are practioners in their respected fields. Most courses (if not all) at the Institute deal with some form of strategy; many of them deal with communication aspects of strategy. Besides offering classes concerning strategic communication, IWP’s staff has been more than open about the promotion of strategic communication policy and public diplomacy. What sets IWP apart from other universities is that the manner in which they go about explaining operations, tactics, and tools is far more practical and empirically tried than the theoretical concepts thrown out by others.  IWP has also been kind enough to host many of the lectures held by guests of the Institute online to keep those interested informed about strategic communication practices.

Expert Advocates



Due to the wide range application (in practice and in theory) of US policy concerning strategic communication, this paper was not able to cover all the desired aspects of its nature. The knowledge in this paper will serve as a good foundational platform to build off of for future studies.  Issues that I ran into were that of manpower/ time, and locating pertinent, relevant, and up to date information that clearly illustrates that grand strategy.

At this point in time the status of strategic communication is nearing crisis due to an aggregating of events. The blocking of the reauthorization of the Advisory Commission of Public Diplomacy by Republican  Senators, despite the bipartisan support (in conjunction with the definition wars, and  unclear roles and responsibilities), the Iranian infiltration of Voice of America, and the strategic mismanagement of our own strategic communication programs in the face of our global competitors are just a few of the major problems concerning US strategic communication.




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