The U.S. government’s strategic communications and public diplomacy are currently fragmented across 14 agencies and 48 commissions. This might not bother you, but it certainly is bothering former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
According to Gates in a recent Washington Post article titled “The U.S. Needs to Relearn How to Tell Its Story to the World,” strategic communications and engagement with foreign publics and leaders are essential to shaping the global political environment and advancing American national interests. Yet, we’ve fallen behind. Following the Cold War, we dismantled the U.S. Information Agency and parceled out our communications capabilities. Now we’re paying the price as China and Russia run rings around us with their robust global propaganda infrastructure.
So, what’s our government to do?
Gates’s proposed “starter set” of recommendations includes a plan of action to synchronize current disparate efforts across agencies, spearheaded by the White House and State Department. He also discusses aggressive efforts to breach the digital communications firewalls that allow our adversaries to propagate false narratives and a “significant expansion” of people-to-people exchange programs that send American cultural figures abroad to amplify our own stories—all for the sake of gaining a competitive advantage in the global influence battle.
To support this ambitious objective, there’s one thing Gates doesn’t mention: a strategic plan to develop the next generation of talent that can support this national security mission.
Simply put, we need an infusion of highly skilled communications strategists and storytelling experts into the national security sphere. The reality is that there are very few creatives that wind up in the security ecosystem. With this in mind, we need a plan to cultivate and harness the human capital necessary to support our national security initiatives, starting with the following three recommendations:
To meet the growing demand for communications/storytelling professionals in the national security space, the government should allocate resources to support hybrid degree programs in the universities that integrate marketing/communications, creative writing, and international relations. The defense industry already recognizes the importance of promoting STEM programs (with an emphasis more recently on cybersecurity education) to generate a workforce capable of advancing the frontiers of technology and countering emerging threats. In a similar vein, we should actively engage students, educators, and institutions who can provide the future communications leaders committed to addressing the nation’s challenges.
The government must create incentives to attract and maintain this talent pipeline. A similar model that includes scholarships and direct recruitment programs on campuses into the defense industry should be applied to the talent pool of communications strategists and storytellers. An effective example to learn from is Lockheed Martin, one of the largest defense contractors in the U.S.: the company has partnered over the years with a network of more than 100 universities to advance hypersonics technology in response to expressed priorities by the Department of Defense (DoD).
The DoD should consider investing in existing educational tracks in the military. Overseas deployment naturally equips soldiers with a deep understanding of global affairs, diplomacy, and cultural nuances. As a result, these soldiers possess the skills to navigate complex international environments and bridge cultural divides. By incorporating creative marketing and storytelling components into existing international relations curricula, the military can produce graduates who are not only well-versed in geopolitics but also possess the necessary communications skills to effectively represent and protect American interests.
To meet the challenge articulated by Gates, the U.S. must adapt and invest in a multidisciplinary approach to communications and storytelling that includes planting the seeds of talent to harvest in the service of our national security. The power of these creative professions can’t be underestimated, as they have the potential to shape perceptions, counter disinformation, build trust, and strengthen our critical interests in an interconnected world. We just need the right people to pull it off.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.
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