State Department policy may be changing, but one commission moves steadily along with some pointed advice

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Secretary of State Tony Blinken is changing course in many ways from his predecessor, Mike Pompeo. One thing both men share is the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The commission’s charter just received renewal from State. With an update on the commission’s work, executive director Vivian Walker joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Walker, good to have you back.

Vivian Walker: Delighted to be back with you, Tom.

Tom Temin: Now, it’s fair to say that the charter did not expire at any time during the Trump administration. This is something they kept going, as Tony Blinken has kept going, correct?

Vivian Walker: Absolutely. The charter is up for renewal every two years, and it has been renewed consistently.

Tom Temin: And foreign news is really impinging on the United States now from every direction, literally, maybe not so much from Canada, but pretty much from the east, south and west. So again, renew for us our understanding of what the Commission does in the first place.

Vivian Walker: I’d be happy to. So the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is actually an independent Federal Advisory Commission, and these commission’s are created to provide insights into, explanations for, suggestions about issues of interest to the American public. Now, the ACPD is the longest running foreign policy Advisory Commission in US government. It’s been around since 1948. But advisor Commission’s are not limited to foreign policy, you can have an Advisory Commission on anything from fisheries to energy questions. But our mandate in particular is to look at how the US government, particularly the Department of State, and what is now the US Agency for global media carry out the public diplomacy practices. I mentioned that we’ve been around since 1948. And in fact, the commission was created at the same time that the State Department was granted in 1947. Under the Smith-Mundt Act, the authority to engage in public diplomacy programming, and the commission was created at the same time to keep an eye on those information outreach activities.

Tom Temin: And public diplomacy means what exactly?

Vivian Walker: Public diplomacy is, broadly speaking, a government’s attempt to inform and influence foreign audiences, to shape perceptions, and even ideally, behaviors in such a way that support national security and economic interests. basically making the case for a country’s policies, its actions, its behavior, its culture, its values to foreign audiences, so that they are ultimately, if not totally embracing US foreign policies, at least tolerate and understand them.

Tom Temin: Got it. And so what form does that work take? That is to say you advise the State Department on ways to do its diplomacy. And that takes many, many forms. So how does the commission come up with the ideas and how does it all work?

Vivian Walker: Well, first, I should point out that the recommendations that the Commission provides are not just directed at the Department of State, they go to the US Agency for Global Media, but also they go to the Congress and the White House. The Commission itself has three masters, if you will, the Department of State, the White House and Congress. And so we direct our recommendations to all three entities. Clearly, the recommendations that we direct to the department or state are much more practitioner focused and have very much to do with how public diplomacy is conceived, managed and funded within the department, or recommendations to Congress focus on broader issues such as funding overall for public diplomacy, but also recommendations with respect to oversight and management of public diplomacy programs. For example, we recommended that Congress carry out an overview of the programs run by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, to make sure that there was no duplication of effort that resources were being used effectively. So we use our recommendations to Congress to take bigger picture questions about finance and about strategic direction.

Tom Temin: Right now you’ve got four of eight members, if I’m correct.

Vivian Walker: We have seven commissioners. These are politically appointed commissioners, and one of the unique qualities of commission is that it is a wholly bipartisan commission. That’s probably one of the reasons that the Commission has endured as long as it has is because its ultimate goal is not tied to one particular party, but overall to the best that public diplomacy can do for the American people. We have, as I say, seven commission positions open three are filled. There are several folks out there who are actively working on their candidacies for the commission position. But it is a complicated process. It’s a presidentially nominated senate confirmed position. So that means that there are a fair number of procedures to go through in order to get to that point. Then the other very important aspect of the commission nomination proceeding. Is that if there is a Democratic candidate, for example, there also has to be a Republican candidate at the same time, they have to go forward in pairs. And that too, makes the nomination process fairly prolonged, but at the same time that it does impede the rapid nomination of commissioners, I do think that this bipartisan pairing is something that gives the commission its reputation of impartiality, objectivity, and overall sense of the political spectrum.

Tom Temin: Give us an example of the types of recommendations the commission might come up with.

Vivian Walker: Oh, go back to some of the highlights of this year’s recommendations that appear in our annual report our comprehensive report on public diplomacy and international broadcasting, which is available on our website. Yes, Advisory Commission. We focused on a number of issues I think of interest. First and foremost is the plea that the next undersecretary of State be if possible, career Foreign Service public diplomacy officer, a plea that the undersecretary position itself be filled quickly. In the last few years, as several people have pointed out, there have been more vacancies than occupancies and the position of the undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and Public Affairs. This is a challenge for the practice of public diplomacy within the Department of State because you do need an Undersecretary at the highest levels, to be able to make the case for what public diplomacy is doing, to make sure that public diplomacy is inserted into the policymaking process, that it be not an afterthought, but an integral part of planning and decision making from the beginning.

Tom Temin: Got it. And the commission members, this is not a full time gig for them, is it?

Vivian Walker: No it is not a full time gig, nor is it a paid position the commissioners served voluntarily, they are required to meet on a quarterly basis in a public meeting forum, in which we discuss issues related to public diplomacy. But we pitch it at the American public. Our goal is not necessarily to focus on within the Department of State, or within Congress or within the White House, but to broaden understanding for an appreciation of public diplomacy within the think tank community, the academic community, the broader practitioner community, and indeed the people of the United States. And from your function as executive director, do you have staff that can aid them in research and so on and make sure that their decisions are informed that they have the mechanism to be able to get them put together and promoted? Well, I have to tell you that we have a two person staff, and that includes me, and a senior advisor, a foreign service officer. And together, the two of us produce over 500 pages of reporting packed with data and research and information a year, we do as much as we can, given the resources we have, I believe we have probably the smallest operating budget of any particular office sitting within a Department of State, something on the order of $135,000 a year. And with $135,000 a year, we produce the annual report, which is the single best publicly available collection of data on the practice of public diplomacy available, certainly in the world, as well as a number of special reports that target issues such as countering state sponsored disinformation. And we have a report coming out soon, that will look at changes in the way we classify the work done in public diplomacy overseas.

Tom Temin: Well, $135,000, you could use that up at a FedEx copying center.

Vivian Walker: No kidding.

Tom Temin: And a final question in your view is watching commissioners come and go without naming names. What makes a good commissioner?

Vivian Walker: A good commissioner is someone who cares about public diplomacy understands that the toughest outreach in public diplomacy is very often within in some ways, it’s a lot easier to make the case for public diplomacy, with foreign audiences with external groups, because it’s very clear why it’s important. What the commissioners do, what we try to do as as as a team is to make sure that the practice of public diplomacy is understood and appreciated within the Department of State, within the US government, within the Congress and within the broader policy community. And if we can help people to understand that change comes through mutual understanding, through tolerance, through acceptance through information, then we are in a position to make a serious contribution to the success of US foreign policy objectives.

Tom Temin: And when President Biden appoints those three final members, you’re gonna whip them into shape then, huh?

Vivian Walker: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: Vivian Walker is the executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Thanks so much for joining me.

Vivian Walker: My pleasure.

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