George Kennan knew a thing or two about how nations treat one another.
In 1946, while serving as deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow, he penned “the long telegram.” That assessment of what motivated the Soviet Union shaped U.S. policy toward Moscow for decades.
Later, at the new National War College, Kennan explained how “grand strategy” works. When nations compete, he told his students, they employ “varieties of skullduggery.” These included “persuasion, intimidation, deceit, corruption, penetration, subversion, horsetrading, bluffing, psychological pressure, economic pressure, seduction, blackmail, theft, rape, battle, murder, and sudden death.
“Don’t mistake that for a complete list,” he added.
The U.S. needs to maintain effective countermeasures for all such skullduggery, especially when it comes to dealing with anti-American, totalitarian states.
One important tool for pushing back against propaganda, disinformation, and dirty tricks is public diplomacy — a government’s program for communicating directly with foreign publics. During Kennan’s time, public diplomacy was a major American initiative, spreading the gospel of freedom to people in trapped behind the Iron Curtain. But U.S. public diplomacy has been on the decline since the end of the Cold War. And it has continued to decline even as countries like Russia and China have ramped up their global outreach.
Much of the blame for America’s crumbling ability to tell its story may be laid at the doorstep of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which overseas almost all of our public diplomacy broadcast assets. By many accounts, it’s just plain dysfunctional.
Congress created the BBG as an independent body to keep politics out of public diplomacy. But the BBG has failed to tamp down partisanship even as it has made a hash of America’s ability to get its message out.
Membership on the board is by appointment. Four seats are reserved by Republican nominees, and four for Democratic nominees. (The Secretary of State reserves the authority to appoint a ninth member.) This arrangement was intended to promote non-partisanship. Instead, the board has split into partisan camps. The political infighting has, in turn, empowered permanent staff to play an increasingly powerful role in decision-making. This, in turn, has made the process by which the board reaches decisions increasingly opaque.
The board picks winners and losers in terms of which services and languages to offer, and the lack of transparency is troublesome. Increasingly, the BBG prefers the Internet and broadcast television over radio and shortwave. Yet the latter media are more accessible to many audiences in much of the world. The board has also been cutting off Balkan languages and other “niche” programming of strategic importance. Those decisions often leave the BBG scrambling when an unexpected crisis explodes somewhere in the world, like in Ukraine.
The board’s difficulty in managing effectively is predictable. After all, the “managers” often meet less than once a month to oversee an annual budget of more than $700 million. Yet the BBG firmly resists oversight from Congress, under the pretense that they are an “independent” body.
It’s time for Congress to hit the “reset” button on public diplomacy. One reform idea that’s gathering steam: abolish the BBG. The Voice of America would then be stood up as an independent organization, operating under a clear, concise charter and the direction of a long-serving nonpartisan CEO. Radio Free Europe and other BBG-managed services that operate mostly as independent contractors could be placed under the direction of the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED could then keep them focused on promoting democracy and freedom of expression.
Along with better oversight, our public diplomacy needs better investment strategies. Washington needs to stop cutting language services, radio and shortwave broadcasting and start acting like a serious superpower.