February 15, 2006

February 15, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Spreading the word

It is no secret that America's international-broadcasting institutions have been sadly lacking in strategic vision for years. In fact, such institutions are among Washington's most dysfunctional. Efforts to make them more efficient in the "war for hearts and minds" inevitably get stymied by political infighting, tight budgets and internecine warfare among the organizations. News last week suggests that the U.S. government is again about to shoot itself in the foot in this vital front of the public diplomacy in war against terrorism by eliminating Voice of America's English-language service.

Not all the news is bad, though. The good news is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has started thinking strategically about its resources, deciding to increase the focus on the Middle East broadcasting services. This is a rational choice, since anti-Americanism has given rise to the only real, physical threat to the United States in decades, as we saw on September 11, 2001. The 13 percent increase in funding for broadcasting to the Middle East proposed by the board makes sense, particularly if accompanied by a thorough review of broadcasting to the Arab world, which frankly needs some strategic thinking of it own.

The really bad news is that the cuts to fund the shift in emphasis proposed by the board on Feb. 6 (ironically enough the birthday of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator) will be terribly counterproductive. While an overall budget increase of 5.3 percent for Voice of America is being proposed by the board, cutting English will effectively shrink the reach of U.S. international broadcasting. These cuts come at a time when al Jazeera is ready to launch its own English-language service and Radio China International is adding English-language programming.

Unless Congress steps in, VOA's English-language service in short-wave radio will effectively be eliminated. Its primary, hourly news broadcast, "News Now" and its discussion show "Issues in the News," will disappear. There will be a few exceptions, i.e. VOA English to Africa, Special English (vocabulary less than 1,500 words) and VOA's Web site in English. If adding more money to VOA's budget is needed, then we must make this investment, so as not to destroy a highly valuable asset.

The decision comes after cutbacks in the English-language service over the last few years, which has brought English down from 24 hours a day, seven days a week to 14 hours a day at present. It will affect 53 positions -- as well as almost 100 other jobs in other language services that are also being cut -- Russian, Georgian, Serbian, Macedonian and Hindi.

So, what is it the Chinese and al Jazeera know that we seem to have forgotten? It could be that of all the world's languages, English has the widest reach. More than one-third of the world's population speaks English today, and that number is projected to be more than half in 2050. English is overwhelmingly the language of international commerce and of the Internet -- making it a phenomenally cost-effective medium.

Furthermore, while the Broadcasting Board of Governors justifies its cuts by saying that short-wave is the way of the past, and the Internet and television are the way of the future, but most of the world we are trying to reach does actually live in the past. There is nothing wrong with Internet and television, but wide swaths of rural populations throughout the world have no access to the Internet or even television. Yet, they, too, benefit from learning English by listening to VOA.

To borrow from Robert McCrum, co-author of "The Story of English," English, which embodies a set of principles, has had a great influence on the world: "In a very real sense it contains, encoded within it, an innate declaration of independence." Or as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, speaking in Washington in 1999, "The values of liberty, a bold sense of adventure and ability to adapt and change are mirrored in this language, four-fifths of whose vocabulary was borrowed from other languages."

English is a phenomenal, powerful tool of communication, and we should be eager to share it. As we juggle budgets, let's not cut off our nose to spite our face -- as the English would say.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Middle East

First Appeared in the Washington Times