At the end of the Cold War, an important strategic asset, the United States international media presence run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had its budget cut by more than forty percent.
For fiscal year 2015, the BBG is requesting $721,000,000. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent government agency given the mission by Congress to, “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” The BBG networks include Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL) among others. Many believe that the need for this type of media has dwindled, that it is ineffective, and is a waste of taxpayer resources.
The recent events in the Ukraine and the increasingly aggressive posture of China throughout Africa and Latin America turn this argument on its head. In fact, services like VOA and RFERL are more important than ever. These networks provide news and information to hundreds of millions of people across the world in more than sixty languages who might otherwise not have access to free forms of expression and media.
As we defund our strategic telecommunications services, Russia and China are literally socking it to us and shaping the world narrative negatively against the United States. The Russian news service RT is dominating the narrative across Eastern Europe about the events leading to the annexation of the Ukraine. Their news coverage is far from,” fair and balanced,” as Fox News professes to be. Its tone is revanchist, glorifying Russia, and is reminiscent of the most effective propaganda of Soviet times. Russia has also taken steps to block access to outside news sources reporting on the ground about what is really happening in the Crimea. It’s almost like being in another dimension of space. RT has even opened a news center in Washington, DC, whose reporting is as slick as CNN.
China is also investing large sums of money to create CNNesque news channels they are broadcasting all over the world. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) opened a Washington Bureau in 2012. According to Phillip Cunningham from Cornell University, “It sounds like the news. You have the format. You have the chit-chat…it looks just like a Western news product. But the agenda, the hidden agenda, the political commissars who examine and help control and shape the daily news and what the topics will be are not working for the sake of letting chips fall where they may. They’re working for the greater reputation of China.” Why is this happening? After the end of the Cold War, the United States quickly forgot how to use strategic communication and other tools of soft power because we lacked any real enemy to use them against. At the height of the Cold War, Voice of America and RLFRE reached millions of people across Europe giving them hope and a realistic view of the world that did not exist in the fantasy world of the Soviet Union. As our old adversaries have come back strong, the United States has been caught flat footed and unable to strategically shape the narrative the world is hearing because we have spent so little to counter the increasingly sophisticated narratives of the Russians and Chinese. The US also blew a major opportunity in the Middle East and North Africa as the Arab Spring spread to shape a more positive view of America because we do not have an effective strategic communications plan.
How should the United States respond to the increasingly bellicose narratives and actions by The Russian Federation and China? To start, we can rebuild and reinvest in our strategic communication capabilities. Every day we are losing the hearts and minds of thousands of people across the world. We need to counter negative narratives and remind people what is positive about America; our ingenuity, diversity, opportunity, and most importantly liberty. Without an effective strategic communications capability, our adversaries will continue to change the narrative to fit their view. This will result in increasing anti-Americanism and sowing doubt among our allies of our willingness to stand by our principles as a beacon against tyranny.
Michael D. Webber has a Master of Arts in Statecraft and National Security from the Institute of World Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]