DIME, not DiME: Time to Align the Instruments of U.S. Informational Power

The officers I teach at Marine Corps University have long absorbed that American power has at least four elements—diplomatic, informational, military and economic. They use the shorthand DIME.[1] When they think of the instruments of informational power, however, what they call to mind is military information operations.

Their response tells a much larger story. First, U.S. informational power is much larger than military information operations alone. Their thinking also signals that the several instruments of U.S. informational power are hardly acquainted.

The challenges to American leadership and the international order—whether from nations like North Korea, China, Iran, and Russia, or from Islamism, runaway nationalism, terrorism, and disinformation—all have military, political, and economic dimensions, yes. All these adversaries, however, propagate ideas that challenge the norms that undergird peace, stability, order, democracy, and prosperity.[2] Ideas must engage ideas, so it’s time for the parts of the U.S. government that deploy informational power to work together.[3] Unifying them is a bridge too far. Something more simple—aligning—would be a good start.

U.S. Informational Power

The informational power of the United States mostly derives from higher education, the media, entertainment and film, advertising, U.S. content on the world wide web, libraries, museums, non-governmental organizations, endowments and foundations, and the growing status of American English as a world language. Unlike American military and diplomatic power, however, this informational power is not controlled, directed, or guided by presidential administrations, national security agencies, or military commands.

Four instruments of informational power are available to the U.S. government: public affairs by the White House and executive departments; the State Department’s overseas public diplomacy; information operations conducted by armed forces commands; and the five international broadcasting networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and Television Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.[4]

There are several reasons why military students fail to consider the larger sum of informational power. On one hand, informational power and its elements have not been properly introduced in officer accessions programs and professional military education. The larger reason, however, is the four instruments are not unified, synchronized, or even coordinated. (That is, there’s no one button to push.) They have different authorities, appropriations streams, boundaries, lanes, rules, and doctrines. None have been funded to play in the big leagues. Sometimes they argue.[5] Even more telling, practitioners in one field are rarely aware of what the others do in theirs.

Initiatives, plans, and operations that integrate all the instruments of informational power can be more effective than those that rely on military information operations only, so these divisions enervate U.S. informational power. They narrow responses to foreign policy and national security challenges.

Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy in the State Department includes media relations, web presence, education and exchanges, conferencing, publications, cultural diplomacy, promoting study in the U.S., and English language programs.[6] Supplementing these traditional programs is a new unit, the Global Engagement Center, charged to lead “the U.S. government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries.”[7] Although one public diplomacy expert recently judged that the Center “has never achieved the takeoff stage,”[8] new funding provided by the National Defense Appropriation Act should energize it.[9]

If this seems a sprawling array of programs, all are directed toward U.S. goals through the State Department’s Integrated Country Strategy process.[10] All public diplomacy activities—informing, advocating, and persuading—aim to advance U.S. national interests and policies. Different programs have varied short-, mid-, and long-term effects that parallel the military concept of shaping.

While State’s public diplomacy officers know U.S. military commands practice something called information operations, they have characteristically leaned toward distrust of the concept. Foreign Service officers have gained first-hand knowledge of the armed forces during their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Special Operations Command deploys Military Information Support Teams to a few dozen U.S. embassies, but co-location has not fostered a sense of collaboration nor overcome public diplomacy’s unease with information operations.

The disquiet partly parallels the concerns of public affairs officers over deception and psychological operations among the functions of information operations. Resort to either would damage credibility. Compared to deployed military teams, the work of public diplomacy sections is usually unclassified, and it is fully attributed. Some Foreign Service people apprehend that information operations teams’ knowledge of a foreign nation’s politics, society, culture, and sensitivities are shallow. The cursory treatment of information operations in public diplomacy training is also a contributing factor.

Broadcasting Board of Governors

Broadcasting Board of Governors Logo (Wikimedia)

The five networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors broadcast in 61 languages—from Chinese, Russian, and Korean, to 16 African languages.[11] Shortwave, though still useful to reach a diminishing number of audiences, is a smaller portion of the technical mix, which now includes AM, FM, television, online channels, and multimedia social networks. Access through the internet and applications is on the rise.[12] Many users around the world tune in to the U.S. broadcasts via more than three thousand affiliated stations. Local broadcasters around the world highly value the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s training programs for their journalists.[13]

The language services know local societies, government media controls, and flows of information between home and diaspora communities. They apply the professional standards of journalism to their reports, features, and talk shows. They are not America’s version of Russia’s RT and Sputnik, or of the China Global Television Network.[14]

Congress and every administration since 1942 have committed the U.S. networks to truthful and accurate journalism, and statutory and policy firewalls guard their independence.[15] Even so, they are an important instrument of national power.[16] Leaders of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, assuming additional resources, have set a goal of 500 million users weekly, up from the 278 million today.[17]

Department of Defense

As the U.S. faces new challenges and threats, national security and foreign policy thinkers join the media and public in sensing that information—disinformation, weaponization of information, propaganda, hybrid warfare, and cyber threats—is moving to the center of conflict. This has prompted fomented debate within the Department of Defense.[18]

Information operations include electronic warfare, computer network operations, operations security, military deception, and psychological operations. (The last two make many public diplomacy and public affairs practitioners blanch, but they need to join rather than turn away from the debate.) Scholars and practitioners much discuss terminology, with different specialists and different commands preferring influence or strategic communications. The Marine Corps now uses “operations in the information environment.”[19]

The public affairs and information operations specialists in the Department of Defense are well trained at their schoolhouses, but in my experience they exemplify a culture that incentivizes going it alone. Unaware of parallel work by others, they miss opportunities for cooperation.[20] Few armed forces practitioners, for instance, understand how to make working with an embassy a route to success. 

Public diplomacy at an embassy, in its Public Affairs Section, already has contacts in the media and society, knowledge of local patterns of communication, employees who understand different social and political groups, and bilingual staff. The embassy can flag local sensitivities and brief commanders who meet the press. The public affairs outcome for a visit or deployment will always be better if it is worked together with the public diplomacy people at an embassy. What’s true for public affairs applies to information operations as well.

An Alignment Agenda

U.S. Information Agency Logo (Wikimedia)

Understanding the need to integrate informational power into grand strategy, many advocate re-forming the U.S. Information Agency. During the Cold War, U.S. Information Agency was the government’s leading instrument of informational power.[21] After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, its budget and programs were rapidly curtailed as part of the peace dividend, and in 1999 a shrunken U.S. Information Agency was folded into the State Department. Their Voice of America and the other U.S. international broadcasting networks were placed under a new Broadcasting Board of Governors, further dispersing America’s informational power. The new organizational arrangements have engendered their own vested interests and turf protection which now slim prospects for necessary Congressional action. These political realities mean that unifying the four instruments may be a bridge too far, but better alignment is possible. The first steps in an alignment agenda are easy ones.

The National Security Advisor or the Secretary of State must take the first step, convening those who lead the instruments of informational power—the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command among them. Once alignment begins, ideas should move from the bottom up, but the process can only be launched from the top down. As Plutarch said, “nothing makes the horse so fat as the king’s eye.”[22]

At initial, highest-level meetings, each organization can discuss how it addresses a threat or an issue, preparing the ground for working groups, consultation, and planning. The low-hanging fruit can be addressed first. Public affairs, public diplomacy, broadcasting, and information operations must educate one another in their professional schools. Exercises and simulations need role players from all four informational communities. Personnel experts can arrange exchange tours to strengthen unified action in the future. At embassies, alignment means ensuring cooperation among all the embassy sections with information, awareness, education, and exchange programs.

Readying for the Future Information Environment

9/11 revealed the challenges facing public diplomacy. Its ideological skills were rusty. It had not previously engaged publics animated by religion. Its information technology platforms were outdated. Older leaders did not foresee how transformative the social media would be. It was unprepared to address online radicalization, younger audiences, Russian disinformation, propaganda, and the kind of cyber-accelerated information warfare seen in Crimea, Ukraine, and the eastern borders of NATO. Meeting the needs of public diplomacy in Iraq and Afghanistan crowded out forward thinking. New funds sources were scarce.

Because public diplomacy is now housed in the State Department, moreover, it has been pigeonholed as the publicity arm of Foggy Bottom’s diplomacy (the "D" in DIME), diminishing its importance as an informational instrument. Its traditional formulas—“telling America’s story to the world,” “mutual understanding,” and “foundation of trust”—capture only some of what public diplomacy is about. Considering it as part of America’s soft power, robust integration into national security planning, and embracing the DIME concept of America’s national power can all upgrade public diplomacy’s self-concept.[23]

All the instruments of U.S. informational power must become stronger because of the surge of non-state actors in international affairs, the need to integrate advocacy and influence with more coercive tools of statecraft, and the urgency of again considering the war of ideas. [24] The information environment of the 21st century will feature contested narratives, information blocking, Islamist social media, Russia’s hybrid warfare, and China’s three warfares.[25] Public affairs, public diplomacy, the U.S. government’s international broadcasting networks, and information operations must face these together. Unaligned, U.S. informational power will be defeated in detail, pushed back by aggressive information adversaries.

Information at War: From China’s Three Warfares to NATO’s Narratives (Legatum Institute)

This is a tall order, and more funding is unlikely, but there’s plenty to do. First, Americans must think strategically about public affairs, public diplomacy, broadcasting, and information operations. DIME provides a framework. Alignment is the necessary first step.

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico. His 31-year career as a Public Diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service included details to the Pentagon as the Foreign Policy Advisor to two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the the Marine Corps University, the Department of the Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A pile of dimes (BGASC.com)


[1] The original DIME construct has been expanded to DIMEFIL (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement), MIDLIFE (a DIMEFIL anagram), or “another operational construct,” PMESII (political, military, economic, social, informational, infrastructure). I use DIME in this essay, but see Jack D. Kem, "Understanding the operational environment: the expansion of DIME," The Free Library, 2007, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School, at: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Understanding+the+operational+environment%3a+the+expansion+of+DIME.-a0213693824, accessed June 8, 2018.

[2] The frequent mention of “values” and “norms” in a recent RAND paper shows other ways to think about “ideas” and “information.” See Michael J. Mazarr and Ashley L. Rhoades, “Testing the Value of the Postwar International Order,” RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2018, at: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2200/RR2226/RAND_RR2226.pdf, accessed June 8, 2018.

[3] With different meanings of “information” now stretched to include both “knowledge” and “IT,” “information,” “informational,” and “information war” are now used by many to mean “cyber.” How “cyber” has penetrated, even overwhelmed, thinking about informational power is worth its own article, but in this essay I use the traditional meaning of “information” – embracing facts, knowledge, logic, argument, education, theory, beliefs, judgment, interpretation, opinion, thought, narrative, norms, values, ideas, Jefferson’s “facts submitted to a candid world,” and, yes, truth.  

[4] The Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs well expressed the need for public affairs for both domestic and international audiences. See Heather Nauert, “Remarks for Foreign Affairs Day,” Department of State, May 4, 2018, at: https://www.state.gov/r/remarks/2018/282039.htm, accessed June 8, 2018.

[5] For example, “some observers” and “concerns” are measured words for tensions and disputes in “Role of U.S. International Broadcasting in Advancing U.S. Foreign Policy Goals and Promoting Democracy,” in Matthew C. Weed, U.S. International Broadcasting: Background and Issues for Reform, Congressional Research Service, December 15, 2016, 16-17, at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43521.pdf, accessed April 19, 2018. As long ago as 2005, the debate over the roles of public affairs and information operations was reviewed by Air Force Major Tadd Sholtis, “Public Affairs and Information Operations: A Strategy for Success,” Air and Space Power Journal, Fall 2005, at https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=459048, accessed April 19, 2018. And it is instructive that a recent RAND report urged “Tear down or move the firewall between public affairs and other [information-related capabilities].” See Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Michael Schwille, Jakub P. Hlávka, Michael A. Brown, Steven S. Davenport, Isaac R. Porche III, and Joel Harding, Lessons from Others for Future U.S. Army Operations in and Through the Information Environment, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. iv, at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1925z1.html, accessed June 8, 2018.

[6] United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, 2017 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy & International Broadcasting, September 2017, at: https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2017/09/2017_Comprehensive_Annual_Report_on_Publ.pdf, accessed April 11, 2018. In a recent essay, a Brookings scholar argues that public diplomacy is one of just “four functions where [the State Department] has a competitive advantage.” See Thomas M. Hill, “Can Pompeo and Bolton Co-exist?” Brookings, June 7, 2018, at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2018/06/07/can-pompeo-and-bolton-coexist/, accessed June 9, 2018.

[7] “Global Engagement Center,” U.S. Department of State, n.d., at: https://www.state.gov/r/gec/, accessed June 8, 2018.

[8] Joe B. Johnson, “A New Challenge for Public Diplomacy,” Public Diplomacy Council Blog, December 26, 2017, at: http://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org/2017/12/26/new-challenge-public-diplomacy/, accessed April 11, 2108.

[9] “Murphy, Portman Welcome State-DOD Memorandum Operationalizing Global Engagement Center to Counter Foreign Propaganda,” Office of Senator Chris Murphy, press release, February 26, 2018, at: https://www.murphy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/murphy-portman-welcome-state-dod-memorandum-operationalizing-global-engagement-center-to-counter-foreign-propaganda, accessed June 9, 2018.

[10] Department of State, Bureau of the Comptroller and Global Financial Services, “Managing for Results: Planning, Budgeting, Managing, and Learning,” FY 2016 Department of State Agency Financial Report, November 15, 2016, at: https://www.state.gov/s/d/rm/rls/perfrpt/2016/html/265075.htm, accessed April 11, 2018.

[11] Broadcasting Board of Governors, FY18 Congressional Budget Justification, May, 2017, p. 4, at: https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2017/05/FY2018Budget_CBJ_05-23-17.pdf, accessed April 11, 2018. See also “BBG Language Services Ranked by FY 2018 Budgets,” United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, 2017 Comprehensive Annual Report on Public Diplomacy & International Broadcasting, September 2017, p. 28, at: https://www.bbg.gov/wp-content/media/2017/09/2017_Comprehensive_Annual_Report_on_Publ.pdf, accessed April 11, 2018.

[12] Broadcasting Board of Governors, “Overseas Operations,” at: https://www.bbg.gov/our-work/worldwide-operations/, accessed April 11, 2018.

[13] Alan Heil, “U.S. Broadcasters Train Journalists Worldwide,” Public Diplomacy Council Blog, January 19, 2018, at: http://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org/2018/01/19/u-s-broadcasters-train-journalists-worldwide/, accessed April 11, 2018. Heil co-authored Voice of America - A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[14] Jeff Shell, “Why the Broadcasting Board of Governors Is Nothing Like RT,” Time, July 25, 2014, at: http://time.com/3034708/rt-broadcasting-board-of-governors-reporting/, accessed April 11, 2018.

[15] “Rumors, Myths, and Untruths,” Broadcasting Board of Governors, n.d., at: https://www.bbg.gov/rumors-myths-untruths/, accessed April 19, 2018. See Section 303(a)(5), United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, P.L. 103-236, at: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/103/hr2333/text/enr, accessed April 19, 2018

[16] Alan Heil, “Straight Facts – Impact in a World of Many Voices,” Public Diplomacy Council Blog, December 30, 2017, http://www.publicdiplomacycouncil.org/2017/12/30/straight-facts-impact-world-many-voices/, accessed April 11, 2018.

[17] “Board affirms 2018 Action Plan for U.S. international media,” Broadcasting Board of Governors press release, April 10, 2018, at: https://www.bbg.gov/2018/04/10/board-affirms-2018-action-plan-for-u-s-international-media/, accessed April 19, 2018.

[18] See, for instance, “An Extended Discussion on an Important Question: What is Information Operations?”, The Strategy Bridge, May 8, 2017, at: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/5/8/an-extended-discussion-on-an-important-question-what-is-information-operations, accessed April 11, 2018.

[19] See United States Marine Corps, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, “Marine Air Ground Task Force Information Environment Operations Concept of Employment,” July 6, 2017, at: https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/sites/default/files/concepts/pdf-uploads/FINAL%20MAGTF%20IE%20OPS%20CoE%20%286%20JUL%202017%29.pdf. accessed June 8, 2018.

[20] For instance, there’s no mention of the State Department or public diplomacy, and only a single reference to U.S. government international broadcasting (“. . . government broadcasting, a capability not traditionally considered part of the U.S. defense portfolio”) in the otherwise superb RAND report by Christopher Paul et. al, Lessons from Others for Future U.S. Army Operations in and Through the Information Environment, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 21, at https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1925z1.html, accessed June 8, 2018.

[21] The magisterial work is by Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[22] Plutarch, “The Education of Children,” in Moralia: Volume 1, translation by Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Classical Library, 1927, 45, at: https://www.loebclassics.com/view/plutarch-moralia_education_children/1927/pb_LCL197.45.xml, accessed April 19, 2018.

[23] For a more extensive discussion, see Donald M. Bishop, “Public Diplomacy: Tie to Debate Change, Continuity, and Doctrine,” American Diplomacy, Febrary 2015, at: http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2015/0106/ca/bishop_pd.html, accessed June 8, 2018.

[24] Highly suggestive is the report by Thomas G. Mahnken, Ross Babbage. amd Toshi Yoshihara, Countering Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies against Authoritarian Political Warfare, Center fror Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2018, at: https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/countering-comprehensive-coercion-competitive-strategies-against-authoritar/publication, accessed June 8, 2018.

[25] See Laura Jackson, “Revisions of Reality: The Three Warfares—China’s New Way of War,” in Information at War: From China’s Three Warfares to NATO’s Narratives, London: Legatum Institute, September 2015, pp. 5-15, at: https://www.li.com/activities/publications/information-at-war-from-china-s-three-warfares-to-nato-s-narratives, accessed June 4, 2018.