Update: America.gov restored my comment.
TedLipien.com, Truckee, California, December 27, 2010 — On the day the U.S. Senate voted to approve the new arms reduction treaty with Russia, I found an article on the State Depatment’s website, America.gov, which gave a long list of the START treaty’s benefits lauded by the Obama administration but failed to note any of the objections from some key Republican lawmakers and other critics. I posted a short comment that a website devoted to public diplomacy, with a name that implies that it represents the views of the entire American government and the American public, should try to present a more balanced perspective and mention some of the difficulties in getting the U.S.-Russian agreement approved by the Senate.
Within only a few minutes my comment was removed. After successfully challenging censorship for more than 30 years by bringing balanced news to communist-ruled Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and other countries, I was finally successfully censored by my former employer, the United States government.
While I was in charge of the Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Jaruzelski regime crackdown on Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement, I managed to ignore a few minor attempts by State Department officials to censor VOA news content. Of course, the same government is now censoring members of the U.S. Congress, so the removal of my comment seems hardly significant but is typical for this administration. After leaving my last government position of acting associate director of the Voice of America, I founded and began working for Free Media Online, an NGO promoting independent journalism worldwide, which explains my continuing interest in government censorship, propaganda and public diplomacy.
The current problem with having effective U.S. public diplomacy is largely due to the recent breakdown of domestic consensus on important values and foreign policy issues that existed during the Cold War, but bureaucratic inertia and incompetence also play a very large role. As a journalist, former government employee, manager, and executive, I had a direct knowledge of the inner-workings of the Voice of America, the now defunct United States Information Agency, the State Department, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. I have never seen U.S. public diplomacy in such a crisis as it is now, not even during the George W. Bush administration.
One could ask how the United States government can engage in shaping public opinion abroad if the President publicly accused Republican senators of playing politics with the START treaty? Even if it were partly true for some lawmakers, such a public accusation reported to the entire world is unprecedented, especially since Senator McCain and other prominent Republicans raised some serious questions about START and President Obama’s overall approach to dealing with the authoritarian rulers in the Kremlin. This kind of public rebuke of U.S. lawmakers is almost equivalent to members of Congress criticizing the administration while on their trips abroad. It’s simply not done and it is terrible public diplomacy.
But regardless of how bitter or divided are the current foreign policy debates in the United States, there can be no effective public diplomacy if the administration is afraid to or does not want to tell foreign audiences what Americans really think and say about foreign and domestic issues. Censoring members of Congress by State Department officials is particularly outrageous, but in some cases even professional journalists employed by the U.S. government practice self-censorship or promote the administration’s policies, because they agree with them, without regard for full accuracy and balance.
I have checked the Voice of America’s recent coverage of the START treaty debate and found that the VOA English Service devoted about 90 percent of its online START news content to views in support of the treaty. While a VOA spokesperson described my claim as incorrect, a text analysis of all recent online VOA English Service stories on this subject can be easily done by anyone using an word count application. By law, the Voice of America, which is funded by American taxpayers to communicate with audiences abroad, is required to offer balanced news coverage.
I’m not arguing that public diplomacy cannot be effective when there is no strong domestic consensus on foreign policy. But to be effective, especially if there is no broad consensus, it must be conducted professionally by individuals and organizations devoted above all to promoting long-term U.S. national interests. Public diplomacy is sometimes described as strategic communications, which implies pursuing U.S. strategic interests, which may not be the same as short-term foreign policy goals of a particular administration. They may later turn out to be misguided. This should be a primary lesson for all current and future State Department officials engaged in public diplomacy.
It is unlikely however, that an effective organizational setup can be established within the U.S. government for formulating implementing long-term public diplomacy goals or that the current structures can be reformed without strong pressure from the U.S. Congress and the American public.
Public diplomacy and international broadcasting have not been a high priority issue in the United States after the end of the Cold War. There is a small chance, however, that this may change as a result of old and new foreign policy blunders, revelations by Wiki Leaks, but especially due to new activism on behalf of individuals and organizations using new media, if such citizen initiatives achieve a certain momentum and attract the attention of sympathetic members of Congress.
We can be fairly sure that the public diplomacy and international broadcasting bureaucracy is not going to reform itself from within without constant public and Congressional scrutiny, which fortunately is increasing due to the power of social media. In addition to the lack of domestic political consensus on foreign policy, one of the other key obstacles to overcome is the incompetence of government bureaucrats. It has now reached new levels even at the State Department and the White House.
Another major difficulty to overcome by the same bureaucrats who are part of the problem is the revolution in quick dissemination of news, including the leaking of secret government communications by Wiki Leaks and others. Very few U.S. government officials in charge of public diplomacy have the necessary training and experience in journalism and new media. Again, without public criticism and pressure, they are not likely to change their way of conducting public diplomacy.
Why are U.S. government officials unable to stop embarrassing foreign policy and public diplomacy blunders? We no longer have at the highest levels independently-minded Foreign Service officers like Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane who resigned to register his protest against the sellout of Poland to Stalin by President Roosevelt and the lack of proper response to the fraudulent post-war Polish elections by the Truman administration.
In fact, not a single highly-paid U.S. diplomat or White House official managed to prevent President Obama from insulting our Polish allies when he made his announcement of the cancellation of the Bush missile defense plan in Central Europe on the anniversary of the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union. No advisor was also able to convince President Obama that his refusal to meet Dalai Lama at the White House, in an apparent effort to please the communist leaders in China, would send a powerfully negative signal to human rights and democracy activists around the world and to America’s democratic allies. And when the Voice of America fails to deliver news to Belarus during the recent crisis, the bureaucrats who terminated VOA Russian radio broadcasts issue a self-congratulatory press release.
Numerous public diplomacy blunders of this kind raise questions about the ability of U.S. government officials to advise presidents and to manage strategic communications with the outside world. While the current president and his administration seem particularly incompetent, the George W. Bush administration did not fare much better in public diplomacy abroad, although it managed to develop a successful pro-Iraq war propaganda at home — propaganda that was not effectively challenged by the American media. There is a solution, however, to this problem. It involves a much greater reliance on independent analysis, courage to challenge political appointees, applying journalistic standards of fairness and balance, and a greater appreciation of the sophistication of foreign audiences.
The START treaty debate is a good example of how public diplomacy should have worked but did not. Telling the Russian public and the Kremlin through VOA and America.gov that the START treaty enjoyed widespread support and its approval by the Senate was a piece of cake was not only factually wrong. It was also bad public diplomacy and bad for long-term U.S. interests. It mislead foreign audiences and it may make the Russian leaders even more inclined to make further demands on the Obama administration for additional concessions. It assumed that foreigners who are consumers of U.S. government-generated news and information are morons with no access to alternative sources of information.
I’m not saying that the Obama administration could not have still bragged about being able to get the Senate’s approval for the treaty, but a balanced message would have been far more credible and, for some East and Central Europeans, somewhat more reassuring. It would have been educational for the majority of the Russian public which supports Prime Minister Putin’s KGB-like tactics in dealing with the opposition, independent journalists, and leaders like President Obama. The impression left by the State Department’s America.gov website and the Voice of America is that nothing much matters to the Obama White House than making deals with the Kremlin, not even the discovery of sleeper Russian agents in the U.S., their hero welcome in Russia by Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, and a statement by a Kremlin insider that assassins are being sent to America to track down and kill a former Russian spy who betrayed them.
Telling the whole truth and even stressing the objections to the treaty would have been a good lesson in American domestic politics for the Russians and their leaders. It could have sent also a signal to worried U.S. allies in East-Central Europe that the American people and their representatives in Congress are beginning to pay a close attention to President Obama’s foreign policy and that his political future is now in doubt after the 2010 congressional elections.
The public diplomacy message, as it was delivered by the State Department and independently through the Voice of America news, could only be described as boring and naive journalism, almost an insult to the intelligence of foreign audiences. It was not much different from Kremlin-style propaganda. Considering that foreign media are apparently one of the target audiences for the America.gov website, it’s highly doubtful that any foreign journalist would use such one-sided material. It also made a mockery of the State Department’s promotion of objective journalism and media freedom abroad. The Voice of America did not do not much better in that respect.
What could make U.S. public diplomacy abroad more effective? We could start by offering better education in diplomatic history in American high schools and colleges. Perhaps then we could elect presidents who would have some knowledge of history and were able to gain some meaningful foreign policy experience. The same goes for selecting the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of Defense. One could very well ask where were Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates when President Obama was getting ready to make his missile defense announcement? Did none of them study European history? If they were too busy to advise President Obama on the timing of one of the most significant foreign policy announcements of his presidency, where was the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith A. McHale?
The next step is the selection of future U.S. diplomats. The testing standards should be set much higher and candidates should be checked for their willingness to raise effective objections to bad and naive decisions of their superiors, even at the cost of their careers.
Making public diplomacy independent of the State Department, as it was more of less during the Cold War when the United States Information Agency (USIA) was charged with managing direct communications with foreign audiences, would help, assuming it was led by a high-profile, independent and experienced professional with direct access to the President and the Secretary of State.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which has mismanaged the Voice of America for years, should be abolished and journalistic independence and standards at VOA and other government-funded U.S. international broadcasters significantly strengthened under some type of public monitoring and oversight.
The Congress should above all insist that the U.S. foreign policy establishment accept the fact that when there is no clear domestic consensus on foreign policy and other issues, U.S. officials in charge of communicating directly with audiences abroad be required to present a balanced message. A balanced message and telling the whole truth is in the long run more credible and better for promoting American interests abroad than one-sided government propaganda.
I have seen tremendous bitterness of Polish media, politicians, and average citizens as a result of President Obama’s policies toward East-Central Europe and Russia. While some blamed specifically President Obama, most of it has been directed against “the Americans” and “the United States.” Very few Poles tried to distinguish between President Obama’s particular assumptions about the Russian leaders and America’s long term support for democratic values and nations like Poland which are victims of bullying by authoritarian regimes of their much bigger neighbors.
Part of the new public diplomacy message could be that U.S. foreign policy mistakes, such as the sellout of Eastern Europe to Stalin at Yalta, are eventually discovered and reversed because the American people are not going to stand for policies that go against basic American values, once they know the full facts. History teaches that they won’t. But my friends in Central and Western Europe tell me that it may take new U.S. administrations decades to reverse the damage done to relations with America’s European allies by President Obama’s so far futile attempts to curry favors with the Kremlin at the expense of solid American friends in the region.
I don’t really expect the State Department to come up with a sophisticated message that promotes President Obama’s goals while explaining historical and strategic objections to his policies. America.gov could, however, try to pay slightly more attention to the critics of the Obama administration. The Voice of America could, with even fewer problems, offer in-depth, objective and balanced reporting because its journalistic independence is guaranteed by the Congress. Unfortunately, the BBG terminated all VOA broadcasts and online reporting to Central Europe long time ago. It also ended VOA Russian radio programs in 2008, just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia.
This brings me to my final point on additional and alternative ways of conducting U.S. public diplomacy abroad. I don’t expect much action from the Obama administration, and even under the best circumstances, the U.S. government bureaucracy is not likely to be able to overcome its internal barriers to promoting effectively and without political bias long term, strategic U.S. interests.
While it was difficult for citizen public diplomacy to be effective during the Cold War due to the high costs of communicating and overcoming communist censorship, the Internet makes it possible now to achieve some form of limited direct communication with the public in most foreign countries. Individuals and organizations in the United States can help to expose foreign policy and public diplomacy mistakes, demand action, and in some cases communicate directly with audiences abroad.
Unfortunately, however, citizen diplomacy is not the complete solution to the current problem. Statements and actions by NGOs do not have, again in most cases, the same impact as communications on behalf the of the U.S. government, and NGOs simply lack the resources available to federal agencies. So whether we like it or not, NGOs cannot completely replace the U.S. government in this area of foreign policy. Greater scrutiny and reform of the U.S. public diplomacy establishment must therefore become a goal of all individuals and organizations concerned with the state of America’s relations with her allies and the rest of the world.