Testimony as Nominee for Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
May 13, 2009

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It is an honor and a privilege to appear before this Committee as President Obama's nominee for Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

I want to thank the President and Secretary Clinton for the trust they have placed in me with this nomination. And I want to thank Representative Van Hollen for that generous introduction. I have been proud to call him my Congressman and my friend for many years, and I am so deeply honored to have him by my side today. And I’m very pleased to be joined by my friend PJ Crowley, a dedicated public servant and one of this country’s finest communicators.

As the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, I was taught that there is no higher calling than public service. When my father was stationed in apartheid-era South Africa, our home was under police surveillance, friends were detained and mistreated, and I saw what it means to live in a society that is not free. That experience instilled in me the importance of fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens, of public service, and of standing up for what we know is right.

Throughout my life I have tried to live those values. At Discovery Communications, which I helped lead for two decades, we prided ourselves on building bridges of knowledge and information that connected people all over the world and united them around common interests and concerns. And we created the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership to supply free educational video programming to more than half a million students across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. In my work with organizations such as the Africa Society, the National Democratic Institute, and Vital Voices, we helped individuals around the world strengthen their capacity to improve conditions in all sectors of their societies. And in recent years, I have worked to launch an investment fund to support the growth of small businesses and expand economic opportunity throughout Africa.


So it is an honor to be asked by President Obama and Secretary Clinton to join them in spearheading our nation’s renewed engagement with the people of the world.


I believe passionately that public diplomacy is both integral to our foreign policy and essential for our national security. The communications and information revolution of recent years has changed the attitudes, behaviors and aspirations of people everywhere – and those changes are shaping world affairs to an unprecedented degree.


I saw this transformation as I helped guide the expansion of Discovery Communication’s portfolio of networks, starting with the Discovery Channel and growing to dozens of channels and other media outlets in 170 countries and 35 languages. We believed in engaging people internationally on their own terms, respecting their languages, customs, and interests. And it worked – as a business, but, more importantly, as a way to reach people by evoking the universality of human experience and providing them with information they valued.


So I believe that to secure our national strategic interests in today’s world, the United States must continue to move beyond traditional government-to-government diplomacy and seek innovative ways to communicate and engage directly with foreign publics.


The challenges we face today require a complex, multi-dimensional approach to public diplomacy. We have to listen more and lecture less. And we have to learn how people in other countries and cultures listen to us. We need to understand their interests and aspirations, and use our leadership to provide them with information and services they value. If we do this right, we can forge relationships that become part of their daily lives. They must see their relationship with us, the United States of America, our government, and our greatest asset of all – the American people – as essential to their ability to achieve progress and prosperity, and fulfill their dreams of a brighter future.


As the lead agency for public diplomacy, the task for the State Department will be to catalyze the connections that will foster these relationships. And we must remember that we are not the only ones who see the potential of increased engagement. China, Iran and others are moving quickly. The Iranian public diplomacy network in the Middle East and beyond includes satellite television and radio networks in several languages, more than 100 newspapers and magazines, and thousands of web sites and blogs.


It is clear we must act boldly and decisively to develop a clear, consistent and comprehensive approach to public diplomacy – and we must do it now. If confirmed, I will take on this challenge guided by the following core principles:


First, public diplomacy is an essential component of our foreign policy and must be integrated into the policy process at every level, from formulation through implementation. As Edward R. Murrow famously said, public diplomacy needs to be there at the takeoffs, not just brought in to clean up the crash landings. Our decisions must be informed upfront by sound research, and we must endeavor to provide the context to those decisions as they are rolled out rather than after the fact.


Second, our public diplomacy must be run strategically – not just in unconnected, unintegrated programs. An important lesson of recent years is that we must do a better job of thinking and planning strategically, with a clear mission and a steady eye on long-term global goals, accompanied by careful assessment of programs, personnel and expenditures. This will allow us to craft proactive, purposeful and integrated programs that further U.S. policy interests and resonate with foreign publics.


Third, results require resources. If confirmed, I look forward to working with you to ensure that public diplomacy receives the resources and support it needs, and that those resources are used efficiently and effectively.


Fourth, rewards require risk. If we are going to develop new strategies, we must challenge the status quo, and create a culture that nurtures innovation and tolerates risk.


Fifth, new technology, used effectively and creatively, can be a game changer. Communications advances provide unprecedented opportunities to engage people directly, to connect them to one another, and to dramatically scale up many traditional public diplomacy efforts. They provide us the opportunity to move from an old paradigm in which our government speaks as one to many, to a new model of engaging interactively and collaboratively across lines that might otherwise divide us from people around the world. We must create an institutional framework that can take full advantage of new media, with an understanding that these tools must be carefully tailored to particular circumstances and always used in the service of a larger strategy.


Finally, public diplomacy is not something the government can or should do alone. We must tap into the spirit, optimism, and diversity of the American people, including our many Diaspora communities with their deep ties and networks spanning the globe. We face large challenges, and stretched resources. We must take full advantage of public-private partnerships, which can serve as significant force multipliers for our efforts.


I believe these principles can provide the foundation for a new framework for public diplomacy in the 21st Century. But let me be candid, the task will not be easy. Without an operative long term strategic vision or plan for public diplomacy, the effectiveness of our efforts will be, as we have seen before, significantly limited. And the current public diplomacy organizational structure, the legacy of the 1999 merger between the United States Information Agency and the State Department, is less than optimal. We must clarify roles and responsibilities and fully integrate public diplomacy into the State Department culture. In addition, public diplomacy will suffer without enough interagency coordination and with a resource imbalance across agencies. Secretaries Gates and Clinton have both spoken about the need to fix these circumstances.


Fortunately, the seeds of success are already in place. The State Department’s dedicated army of talented career professionals is an incredible asset. Despite concerns about taking risks, innovation is taking root at many of our embassies, where Foreign Service Officers do the important work of engagement every day.


I have been pleased to learn about a number of very promising programs and initiatives, including the Digital Outreach Team that is engaging and debating in Arabic, Persian and Urdu on message boards, blogs and websites in the Middle East and Central Asia, explaining U.S. policies and dispelling misinformation.


Early forays into social networking and new media show real potential. Working with a wide range of private and NGO partners, the State Department last year launched the Democracy Video Challenge, a global online contest that asked citizens to create and post on YouTube short videos expressing their perspectives on democracy. More than 900 people from 95 countries submitted videos, including more than 50 from Iran. Over 70 of our embassies joined the effort, hosting screenings and encouraging local participation. While the numbers remain modest, the early success of the Democracy Video Challenge suggests the power of new communications tools to connect people around the world and foster global dialogues that are truly interactive.


And in country after country, our Foreign Service Officers report real success, even in the most difficult of settings, using English language training as a means of engagement. At Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the most prominent institutions of Islamic higher learning and a place not always known for its openness to Americans or their ideas, Al-Azhar Islamic Studies faculty members, both male and female, attend American-taught English language programs in a flagship center jointly sponsored by Al-Azhar and the U.S. Embassy. And through the English Access Microscholarship Program, created in 2004, the State Department has provided key language skills to approximately 44,000 low-income high school students in more than 55 countries, including many in the Middle East. For these students, and countless more around the world, English skills are vital tools for achieving their aspirations for a better life. By providing these skills, and other information of value, we can help position the United States as a hands-on partner, forging bonds of common purpose to face shared challenges.


These programs, and many others, are full of promise, but we need to determine how best to scale them up and tie them to a larger strategic vision. If we marshal all the assets of the government and a full range of outside partners – including more from the American people – harness the potential of communications technologies, and capitalize on the leadership provided by the President and the Secretary, I believe we can significantly improve our public diplomacy.

Let me add that while members of this Committee do a great job including public diplomacy in their travels – giving interviews to foreign journalists, speaking directly to foreign audiences, and participating in programs organized by our embassies – we would welcome more participation across the government. If confirmed, I look forward to working with you to encourage every member of Congress and senior government official to view public diplomacy as a part of their job.
I will look to this Committee for advice and guidance every step of the way if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed. From rebuilding our network of American Centers and strengthening our cultural diplomacy, to ensuring a public diplomacy structure with clear lines of authority and accountability; from striking an appropriate balance between the Departments of Defense and State and maintaining a coherent interagency process, to ensuring that public diplomacy receives the resources and support it needs – your leadership will be absolutely essential.

I believe this is a moment of rare opportunity to renew our nation’s engagement with the people of the world, and restore our reputation as a global force for good.

I thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of this Committee, for your attention to this vital issue and for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. I am happy to answer your questions.