Martha Bayles and Jeffrey Gedmin, politico.com
Commercial outlets can't replace government-supported media.
If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on, it’s that America is getting beaten in the 21st-century war of ideas. Our adversaries today are not united in a single worldview. But they do share a common hostility toward liberal democracy. And Russia, China and ISIL are all skilled at expressing this hostility through state-of-the-art propaganda.
And while last week’s terror attacks in Paris remind us there's no substitute for actionable intelligence, robust law enforcement and hard power, these alone will not be enough to drain the swamps where nihilism, malign nationalism and fanaticism breed. Also needed is the patient and indispensable work of public diplomacy.
Western governments have not yet found an effective way to push back. After the U.S. Information Agency was eliminated in 1999, the State Department centralized control over America’s public diplomacy efforts. But to be effective, those efforts require significant independence from the plodding bureaucracy in Foggy Bottom. In its heyday, USIA had its own budget and decision-making authority.
There is a strong connection between this kind of structure and the amount of agility, initiative and creativity displayed by public diplomacy officers in the field.
And the same is true of the journalists, most of them foreign nationals, working for U.S. government-supported media organizations such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
Despite the Cold War resonance of some of their names, these government-supported media organizations continue to provide accurate, reliable, credible news to audiences in countries where news and information are censored or otherwise compromised. And they do so through every possible platform: not just radio, but also television and the Internet (including social media). But like public diplomacy writ large, these media efforts are in drastic need of an overhaul.
Staying with media for a moment: There’s a popular belief that U.S. government-sponsored media are obsolete because U.S. commercial news and entertainment penetrate every major market in the world. This belief is unfounded for a couple of reasons. First, U.S. commercial news does not reach many strategic populations, and neither does it offer what is most missing in authoritarian and conflict-ridden environments—responsible journalism, including investigative reporting, about local topics and in local languages.
As for U.S. entertainment, it penetrates much more, through channels both legal and illegal. Most Americans see that as a good thing, because we remember how for tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union and communist Europe, classic Hollywood movies, jazz and eventually rock music aligned with popular aspirations for individual freedom and prosperity.
Today, though, America’s greatest public diplomacy challenges are found in tradition-bound, non-Western societies, where the products of our entertainment industry are regarded with suspicion. In its ongoing survey of world attitudes, Pew finds mostly favorable views of American popular culture—except in Russia and most Muslim-majority countries. But Pew also finds a large majority in many countries agreeing “it’s bad that American ideas and customs are spreading here.” Since very few people in the world have direct contact with America, it seems likely that these negative responses are based on our ubiquitous popular culture.
U.S. government-supported media organizations reach a vastly smaller audience than commercial media, and for some critics, that is sufficient reason to shut them down. Audience size matters, but often the purpose of U.S. government-supported media is to reach particular groups, such as ethnic minorities or influential elites. And success in doing that cannot be measured by clicks and ratings.
The same is true for public diplomacy more broadly. It can be useful to quantify short-term gains in public attitudes overseas. But the most important outcomes of public diplomacy are evaluated only over the long term, using both quantitative and qualitative measures. The compulsion to ”move the needle” of foreign opinion and get instant return on investment may suit today’s business zeitgeist, but it’s not the way to advance America’s interests.
In the past 15 years, eight individuals have served as under secretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs—a rate of turnover best explained by the fact that the office has no significant operating budget or program authority. (At best, it is a bully pulpit.) And efforts to reform public diplomacy in general, U.S. government-sponsored media in particular, have consisted mainly of bitter turf battles and naive hopes that the Internet, better marketing and now social media will prove a shortcut to success.
To borrow the language of the private sector: the outcomes in U.S. public diplomacy in recent years have been suboptimal. There are still quite a few smart, savvy people out there promoting liberal-democratic principles and pushing back against the well-oiled propaganda machines of Russia, China, and ISIL. But their morale is low because they lack political support, resources, and—most of all—leadership.
A strong step in the right direction would be for the next president to establish a new U.S. Agency for Public Diplomacy, with a director appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and given its own budget and decision-making power.
This is not an argument to fish the old USIA out of the dustbin. Rather, it is a reminder that between 1953 and 1999 (the life span of USIA), U.S. public diplomacy was conducted by a well-funded, nimble, semi-independent agency that, along with making some mistakes, did many extraordinary things. The world is a very different place now—we get that. But we also know that, on this vexed topic, the past has a few lessons to teach us.
So here are things that a new U.S. Agency for Public Diplomacy would have to do:
* Clarify the purpose and focus of U.S. public diplomacy, then develop a vision and strategy aligned with the nation’s broad and long-term foreign policy goals.
Martha Bayles is the author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy and America’s Image Abroad (Yale 2014). A regular contributor to the Boston Globe, American Interest and Claremont Review of Books, she teaches humanities at Boston College.
Jeffrey Gedmin, senior fellow at Georgetown University and senior adviser at Blue Star Strategies, is a former President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.