Obama’s new Global Engagement Directorate

President Obama announced a raft of reforms to the National Security Council yesterday, summed up in this White House statement and this Washington Post article.

Both lead on the merger of the Homeland Security Staff and the National Security Council, which will bring the total NSC staff to around 240. But of particular interest are two new directorates within the NSC: one on resilience (“a national security directorate aimed at preparedness and response for a domestic WMD attack, pandemic or natural catastrophe, officials said”), and

a new Global Engagement Directorate to drive comprehensive engagement policies that leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance, and domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives, including those related to homeland security.

This has the potential to be an important step forward.  But for the new directorate to work, it will be essential to understand that engagement isn’t some sort of stand-alone area of endeavour, and nor is it just ‘the public relations bit of foreign policy’.  Instead, it’s a different kind of approach to foreign policy itself.  As David and I wrote last year in a paper commissioned by the Foreign Office,

What we are reaching for is a theory of influence for contemporary international relations, with the new public diplomacy at its heart. The new public diplomat should therefore not be seen as a particular kind of diplomat, but rather, simply, as tomorrow’s diplomat. He or she understands that other governments are one of many target audiences (albeit an especially important one), is at ease with the chaotic, fluid nature of today’s global issues, and tends naturally towards a search for the strategic synthesis. This diplomat is constantly looking both inwards, at our policy stance – is it coherent and compelling? – and outwards, at whether people are joining forces with us, or with other tribes.

The new public diplomat brings to the task a willingness to pull together all the tools of international relations and mix them together to create a coherent whole. The aim is to blend analysis, policy-making and communications; the focus is more on what the country does than on what it says. And with the job comes a new investment mindset. Instead of behaving like a bank manager – with a large portfolio, low risk appetite and a desire for incremental returns – the new public diplomat acts like a venture capitalist, focusing on a smaller portfolio, tolerating risk and aspiring to achieve transformational change.

The stakes, after all, are high. Globalization has brought with it a series of ever more complex challenges. Above all, therefore, the new public diplomat must be genuinely at ease with discussion of values (rather than mere interests), understanding that without clearly stated principles – and consistent adherence to them – it will be impossible to animate coalitions of state and non-state actors, and even harder for members of that coalition to work together to deliver a common goal.