March 5, 2009

March 5, 2009 | Commentary on Terrorism

Improving the International Marketplace of Ideas

Margaret Thatcher once said that America is the only nation in the world "built upon an idea." This idea -- liberty -- has transcended geography and ethnicity to shape American identity and to inspire political discourse, both domestic and foreign, since the nation's founding.

Indeed, John Adams wrote that the American Revolution occurred first "in the hearts and minds of the people." Ideas lie at the very core of this country. Unfortunately, the U.S. isn't doing a good enough job of explaining our ideas overseas.

Our leaders say they understand the problem. For example, in November 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that "[w]e must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military…. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years."

Our enemies already understand this.

In an age when information can be accessed easily and instantly via satellite television, the Internet and cell phones, perception heavily influences and sometimes even becomes reality, if it doesn't trump reality outright. Al Qaeda and insurgent groups in Iraq have utilized these technologies to spread daily press releases, weekly and monthly magazines, video clips, full-length films, and even television programs.

Mainstream Arab media subsequently amplified the insurgents' and terrorists' efforts, spreading their messages to an audience throughout the Muslim world. These methods have proven so effective that these groups have shifted their tactics on the ground. Rather than simply recording their exploits, these groups often conduct operations with no clear objective other than to provide additional footage to post online.

In contrast, the U.S. government often adds fuel to the fire. A recent study by Harvard economists Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten suggests a direct correlation between the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq and public statements in the United States that are critical of the war. The authors found that when U.S. political leaders seemed to demonstrate weakening resolve, anti-coalition attacks increased between 5 percent and 25 percent. These effects were strongest in Iraqi provinces with greater access to satellite television.

This example is cited not to suggest that criticism of the war should be silenced in the United States -- free speech is a cornerstone of American democracy -- and not as an argument to engage in propaganda. But the institutions involved in strategic communications (informing and influencing foreign publics) are given too little money and generally don't work well together. Consequently, their messages are often ineffective, incoherent and sometimes contradictory.

As a first step, the United States must delegitimize the extremists' message of hate and fear. As a second step, information campaigns should explain American values, especially religious freedom and individual responsibility.

Our nation's failure to explain itself is inexcusable. Government officials, policymakers and scholars have known about this problem for years. Since 9/11, government and non-governmental organizations have issued more than 30 reports that address the nation's inability to use its resources to win hearts and minds abroad.

The United States needs a new institutional framework focused on a new agency -- a U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications -- as well as substantial reforms of the Department of State and greater utilization of the Pentagon's combatant commands.

Now, it's not often that a conservative calls for the launch of a new federal agency. However, the point here isn't to create a new bureaucracy, it's to reorganize America's existing public diplomacy offices so they're able to work together to tell our national story and promote our national values effectively.

The U.S. lost an effective (although far from perfect) voice when the United States Information Agency was shut down in the 1990s. Established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, the USIA conducted America's information campaigns and promoted the ideals of democracy, individual rights and free markets for more than four decades during the Cold War. In an effort to cash in on our supposed national "peace dividend," Congress and the Clinton administration abolished the seemingly useless USIA, carved up its various functions and assets, and rolled them into the State Department bureaucracy where they were promptly swallowed up.

Luckily, Congress has become increasingly aware of the inherent defects of the post-USIA framework. In the House, Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Mack Thornberry (R-Texas), offered an amendment last year aimed at strengthening interagency coordination and providing additional resources for strategic communications research. In the Senate, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has introduced the Strategic Communications Act of 2008 (S. 3546), which would comprehensively transform, rather than reform, the nation's strategic communications framework. Principally, the bill would centralize the government's strategic communications, including "information, educational and cultural activities," in a new agency, the National Center for Strategic Communications.

Both pieces of legislation contain critical and long-overdue reforms.

The Smith-Thornberry amendment addresses the lack of leadership, interagency coordination, defined roles and missions and adequate resources that have plagued U.S. informational outreach since the end of the Cold War. However, these proposals might not be enough. Strategic communications and public diplomacy would continue to be a subset of, and thus overshadowed by, the primary responsibilities of the State and Defense Departments.

The National Center for Strategic Communications proposed in the Brownback legislation would fill this gap. In addition, the bill addresses many of the problems that plagued the USIA by providing a clear and effective mission and set of principles. It also would empower the National Center for Strategic Communications as the lead implementer and coordinator for informational outreach. However, the bill doesn't address or even mention the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Defense, a key agency in informational outreach.

Further, both proposals fail to address a key problem -- defining informational outreach -- that has beset government strategic communications and public diplomacy efforts since the Cold War.

Too often, officials use their own communications capabilities to advance their own interests and ignore or contradict efforts both inside (public affairs vs. public diplomacy/information operations) and outside of their agencies (State Department vs. DOD). Without an interagency definition of strategic communications, dysfunction will likely continue regardless of structure or resources.

To address these problems, President Obama and Congress should:

1) Establish a U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications.

As described in the Brownback legislation, this agency should serve as the focal point for U.S. informational outreach capabilities. Under the guidance of the Director of Strategic Communications, who would report directly to the president, the center would craft and implement an interagency strategic communications strategy, oversee U.S. broadcasting and administer grants to nonprofit groups engaged in useful information operation activities. The director would also be responsible for interagency coordination of strategic communications, including coordinating the Pentagon's regional information activities with the rest of the U.S. government. In addition, the research center advocated in the Smith-Thornberry amendment should be incorporated into the U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications. Finally, Congress should fund and equip this new organization by transferring the State Department's public diplomacy budgets and the BBG's broadcasting assets.

2) Establish a new strategic communications strategy that specifically defines the elements of information outreach.

As one of its first tasks, the U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications should establish a new national strategy and definition of strategic communications. Public affairs, public diplomacy, international broadcasting, and information operations should be specifically defined so that their implementers understand where they fit in the strategic communications strategy and process. The Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication has provided the most comprehensive and effective definition of strategic communications.

3) Reform the State Department.

In creating the U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications, Congress should transfer all functions and assets of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to the Director of Strategic Communications, except for the Bureau of Public Affairs, which would continue to serve as the State Department's public outreach arm. In addition, the State Department would no longer have a connection to U.S. broadcasting and would focus exclusively on its state-to-state, regional and multilateral foreign affairs functions.

4) Make use of the Pentagon's combatant commands.

Strategic communications should be implemented not only at the country level, as advocated within the Brownback legislation, but also at the regional level through the combatant commands. Often, an ongoing crisis can overwhelm the capacities of a local country team or involve more than one nation, requiring a regional response. The combatant commands are uniquely suited to providing such a regional response because they have evolved into one of the few established mechanisms capable of monitoring and coordinating government efforts across wide geographical areas. Consequently, the U.S. Agency for Strategic Communications needs to establish plans for informational outreach run through both the embassies and the combatant commands.

For the United States, whose purpose is rooted in the aspirations of freedom for everyone, winning hearts and minds is a critical part of any effective foreign policy. Yet without substantial reforms in its structures and methods of public diplomacy, the U.S. will remain, as Secretary Gates said, "miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals."

Congress and the president must ensure that the United States fully engages in the war of ideas by creating a new agency and a comprehensive framework to use strategic communications as an effective, proactive tool.

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: Terrorism

First Appeared in Public Diplomacy