Saturday, August 4, 2018

Why Is America Failing at Information Warfare?

Steven Metz,, Aug. 3, 2018; see also (1)

Image from article, with caption:U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 14, 2018 

As the United States became a superpower in the 20th century, its grand strategy relied on qualitative military strength, economic power and, in the information realm, an appealing narrative about American national interests and foreign policy. This combination—what security experts call the “elements of national power”—was immensely successful, underpinning American hegemony and projecting U.S. influence around the world.

But today, America’s preponderance seems in decline. In the military and economic realms, this is relative, largely the result of what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest.” America’s diminishing ability to wage information warfare is harder to explain. Leaders in Washington once understood how integral information warfare was to national security. With the rise of better-informed publics whose support mattered, they knew they had to sell their own people and their allies on their policies to be successful, just as information could be used offensively to undercut support for adversaries.

Why, then, isn’t the U.S. better at information warfare today, given the inherent appeal of free market economics, respect for human rights, rule by law and responsive governance? Why is it being outmatched by the likes of Russia and China?

Security experts often gravitate to an easy answer to this question, blaming it on the way the U.S. is now organized politically. They contend that the U.S. once had an effective information warfare apparatus to counter the Soviet Union, but let it fall apart after the end of the Cold War. Take, for instance, a recent essay by Luke Karl, Joseph Lane and David Sanchez, three U.S. military officers. They attribute America’s success at information warfare during the Cold War to coordinated efforts led by the United States Information Agency, which was focused on public diplomacy. [JB emphasis] When the agency was downsized and folded into the State Department in 1999, the ability to craft a “concerted, interagency approach to strategic information operations” declined. Their solution is to create a new organization, which they call the Office of Strategic Narratives, to coordinate and direct messaging across the government.

Karl, Lane and Sanchez are not alone in attributing the decline of America’s prowess in information warfare to flawed organization and inadequate resources. Others have made the same argument. But it is wrong. America’s ability to wage information warfare is not deteriorating because of the way the government generates and uses strategic information, but because of deeper factors in America’s collective psyche.

The Platonic ideal in Western culture is based on the belief that there is a “ground truth” independent of human perception. When people are unable to independently assess the evidence for and logic of information, they assign credibility based on the authoritativeness of the source. This has shaped the way Western countries, especially the U.S., wage information warfare. The crux was a belief that if the truth is communicated consistently by authoritative figures, it will always win out.

In delivering information today, salesmanship matters more than authority.
But in reality, people often assess the credibility of information less by its observable evidence or logical consistency than by their affinity with the person or organization communicating the information. They believe things that fit their pre-existing beliefs and come from people or organizations they feel a bond with. Truth, for most people, does not exist separately from human perceptions, inclinations, preferences and prejudices.

Even domestically, the notion of an authoritatively defined ground truth is collapsing as the U.S. seems to have entered a “post-truth” or “post-fact” era, with political leaders, most of all President Donald Trump, telling the public not to believe what they see and hear. Demonstrably false claims and unsubstantiated explanations are taken as credible or legitimate by much of the public because they reflect existing biases and grievances, whether concocted or real, and are transmitted by new and skillful communicators as traditional authority mechanisms fade into obsolescence. In the broadest sense, salesmanship today matters more than authority.

These same broad trends undercut America’s public diplomacy [JB emphasis] and strategic messaging abroad, weakening its capabilities in information warfare. The problem is not a failure to speak with a single voice or to stay on script. Instead, it is that external audiences, like many Americans, have access to a wealth of information too and can assign credibility not based on evidence, logic or the authoritativeness of the sources, but on their own various biases—and on their affinity with the person or source transmitting that information. Less constrained adversaries understand this dark competition, which makes them more effective at information warfare than the U.S. government.

What, then, does this mean for information warfare as an element of America’s national power? First, strategists and political leaders must recognize what U.S. Air Force officer Jon Herrmann has called the “unprecedented power of weaponized narrative,” and how closely it aligns with the way that many people receive and judge information today. Simply relying on someone in a business suit or military uniform standing in front of a camera and broadcasting a narrative coordinated and approved by some government agency is not enough. The charisma of the person delivering the information and their affinity with the audience matters as much as the content of the information. It’s not just what is said, but who says it and how they say it.

Until the U.S. abandons its old-fashioned notions of credibility and rethinks how it uses public diplomacy and strategic information in a dynamic world where the “ground truth” has shifted, it will be frustrated and perhaps even fail at weaponizing narratives. In information warfare, America is being outmaneuvered.

Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

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