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Sell It Again, Uncle Sam

Sell It Again, Uncle Sam

America has yet to design its artillery for today’s War of Ideas. It’s on, and the stakes are as important as ever.

Michael McFaul

For one euphoric moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, democracy and liberalism seemed to reign as universal values. Now, with the rise of China, the re-emergence of Russia, the erosion of many more democratic regimes, and the resilience of dictatorships in other parts of the world, the battle of ideas has resumed. The global ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy, liberalism and illiberalism, and open and closed societies will likely stretch decades into this century.

As discussed earlier in this series, improving the performance of our democracy at home towers above all other objectives as the most critical means of competing successfully in this contest. The radical assault on American democratic traditions on January 6, 2021, first from elected Senators and Representatives who sought to overturn the outcome of a free and fair presidential election and then by Trump-inspired insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, accelerated an already deep trend away from liberal democracy. That single day set back for years if not decades the American claim as a model, defender, and promoter of democracy around the world. At the same time, small-d democrats around the world do not want to and cannot wait for us to get our own house in order before we defend democratic values with more vigor abroad. Therefore, we must do both at the same time.

While focused first on democratic renewal at home, the Biden Administration must, secondly, develop a more creative and successful strategy to advance a positive agenda of liberal, democratic ideas abroad. The new administration must play defense too—combating illiberalism, disinformation, and violent extremism, as well as developing new policies for more effectively containing (and at times engaging) autocratic China and Russia. But the battle of ideas must also advance a confident, proactive message about the virtues of democracy.

Third, we cannot do all of this alone. As discussed in the previous article in this series, we must join forces and deepen ties with other democracies. We must become comfortable with being a partner, not always the leader, in the free world.

In fact, we must pursue these goals simultaneously. The first article in this series proposed ways to enhance American diplomacy in order to achieve these objectives; the second article discussed reforms first regarding American democracy at home but also in the areas of democracy assistance, sustainable development aid, and more. This third article focuses on ways to improve U.S. public diplomacy, strategic communications, global engagement, and government-funded media as means to support universal democratic values more effectively.

To explain U.S. policy and champion democratic ideas more seriously, while at the same time combating Chinese, Russian and Iranian propaganda, the Biden Administration must radically restructure, rationalize, and modernize U.S. government public affairs and media resources. In these areas we have become complacent; we are underperforming.

The Ideas Agenda

After the Cold War, we got out of the business of studying, let alone countering, propaganda from illiberal, anti-democratic countries and organizations. Because the United States was the sole superpower, leaders wrongly assumed that we didn’t need to explain ourselves to the outside world any longer. In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower had created the United States Information Agency in order to “understand, inform and influence foreign publics in the promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad.” But in 1999, the U.S. Congress compelled President Bill Clinton to shut it down. Since then, our adversaries have invested heavily in tools to propagate their ideas; we have not kept pace.

In recent years China and Russia, in particular, have spent and innovated more than the United States in this regard. In the words of a warning by Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund,

Unlike the United States, China and Russia have made the information contest a key part of their national security strategies. They have prioritized activities both in cyberspace (the network infrastructure underlying the Internet, such as servers and computer systems, which can be vulnerable to intrusions) and in the information space (the arena of data and public perception, where states can employ surveillance, gather data, perform espionage, and distort information).

Instead of pretending that the United States is not engaged in an ideological struggle, the Biden Administration must embrace the ideological and informational competition of the 21st century.

Here are nine ideas we can use to rethink our strategy and modernize our architecture for global communications, government-owned media, and society-to-society engagement.

First, the Biden Administration must upgrade our game, as China and Russia have already done. The U.S. budgets that finance media, communicate about our foreign policy, explain our country, and more generally support public diplomacy are inadequate to achieve the global reach we need. Many secretaries of defense have argued that we need to spend more on soft power, not just hard power. As former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jeff Gedmin reminds us, “The current budget of $750 million for all U.S. media costs roughly what we spend on eight or nine top-shelf fighter jets.” It’s time to move from words to action, even if it means shifting some spending from the Department of Defense to these other dimensions of American power projection.

In addition, the mission must be elevated within the U.S. government in general and the Department of State in particular. The portfolio and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs—whose office should be renamed the Under Secretary of Global Engagement and Strategic Communications—should grow substantially in resources, staff, and mission in Washington and at embassies around the world, and become more closely integrated with the work of the secretary of state.

In May of 2019, the Trump Administration created a new Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) by merging the Bureau of Public Affairs with the Bureau of International Information Programs, but so far the merger has not produced greater strategic coordination between GPA and other public diplomacy bureaus and offices. The Global Engagement Center (GEC), which reports to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, also needs a radically expanded mission: to upgrade our offensive and defensive activities and expand our capacities against all foreign sources of disinformation so that we can comprehensively combat government-sponsored global disinformation campaigns that undermine American national interests.

GEC staffers must develop closer relationships with American social media companies in order to reduce the spread of anti-American, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal content—not by banning foreign actors on these platforms but by providing more transparency and information about government-sponsored activities from hostile countries.Greater coordination of efforts to identify foreign disinformation campaigns and share best practices on countering false content could improve both government and private-sector efforts. This area of American diplomacy must be elevated in stature and importance within the Department of State and the U.S. government more broadly.

Symbolism is also important: The office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should be relocated to the seventh floor, where the secretary of state sits. In addition, speechwriting for the secretary of state should be moved from the Policy Planning Staff to the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in order to validate its role and confirm its primacy in the mission of communicating American foreign policy to the outside world.

Mission Clarity

Second, the Biden Administration must reprioritize. For the last two decades, American public diplomacy efforts have focused on countering violent extremism (CVE), especially in the Middle East. Messaging resources have been tied closely to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the State Department bureaus responsible for democracy and for counterterrorism report to the same Under Secretary (and not the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs) underscores the marbling of these two missions. That must change. Most centrally, the job of countering illiberal messaging, especially but not exclusively from China and Russia, must rank higher than CVE on the Biden Administration’s priority list. At the same time, we need more attention to regions in which the ideological battle between autocracy and democracy is playing out: Africa, Southeast and Central Asia, parts of Europe and Latin America, and the Middle East.

Third, the State Department—along with every other department or agency with representatives working in American embassies—needs to shift more of its efforts toward explaining U.S foreign policy and the United States in general. The portfolio of every U.S. diplomat must be expanded, consciously, to include public diplomacy and strategic communications. Currently, diplomats spend too much time writing reporting cables to Washington and too little time communicating to the people who live in the countries where those diplomats work. As former Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel has put it, “Everyone at State should be a foot soldier in the global information war.” This mission should be embraced by U.S. officials in other agencies overseas as well.

An explosion of new global media and instant connectivity has radically reduced the role of diplomatic cables as a source of information for Washington. As former ambassador and current nominee for CIA director William Burns explains,

I witnessed first-hand during the course of my career how the near monopoly on presence, access, insight, and influence that diplomats used to have in foreign capitals and societies was eroding. The ‘CNN effect’ during the Gulf War showed the ubiquity of real-time information; and in the years that followed, the internet tore down the remaining barriers to information and direct communication. Heads of state and senior officials across government departments could interact easily and directly, leaving foreign ministries and embassies feeling anachronistic.

Embassies need public diplomacy to play a bigger role in their missions and reporting to play a smaller role. Diplomats should receive concrete, tangible incentives for this kind of change. For instance, a political officer should be rewarded for delivering a public talk as well as for writing a reporting cable. Evaluation of a diplomat’s public diplomacy work should be part of promotion evaluations. As a first concrete move toward investing more attention in public diplomacy, the Biden Administration must reverse the Trump decision to close our consulates in Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok, Russia.

Democracy’s Voices Abroad

Fourth, and urgently, we must restructure U.S.-government-funded media organizations. The current organizational chart and mission statement of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) did not work, even before the agency was politicized by the Trump Administration. Most media organizations currently located within USAGM—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Farda (which broadcasts in Persian), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio Martí), Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), and the Open Technology Fund—should become completely independent, with non-partisan boards and independent sources of funding, from the U.S. Congress, similar to the funding for the National Endowment for Democracy. Their missions must not be to explain U.S. foreign policy or even to work directly “in support of freedom and democracy,” as the USAGM website now states. That goal can be pursued only indirectly—by demonstrating, for example, the value of independent reporting. As then-Senator Joseph Biden rightfully observed nearly three decades ago, if these surrogate media organizations are “direct agencies of the U.S. Government,” they will have “neither the appearance nor the reality of journalistic independence.”

Independent media organizations for Africa and Latin America, modeled after RFE/RL, should also be created. All journalists from Voice of America (VOA) who are engaged in reporting about foreign countries should eventually be reassigned to these new, free-standing entities. No one working at these organizations should be an employee of the U.S. government.

But creating more independence from the U.S. government by means of a thick firewall is just the first step. These organizations must also rethink and modernize the way they report, amplify local independent media, and reach target audiences. After four demoralizing and disruptive years, the first step is to rebuild talent. As Gedmin has reminded the new Biden Administration, the agencies should “focus on the thousands of people—the editors, technicians, producers, and journalists—who create the content. It is, as they say, king; and these content creators are treasures. “They are also,” Gedmin adds, “mostly foreign nationals.”

Beyond issues of independence, not all U.S.-government-funded media organizations have kept pace with the radical changes that have occurred in the way media content is delivered and consumed. Foreign audiences receive news from a wide variety of sources (radio is key in Afghanistan, not so much in China); and all U.S.-government-funded media need to upgrade, diversify, and innovate. We need less TV and more TikTok, fewer roundtables with talking heads and more Telegram and YouTube channels. The use of text messages, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Instagram must expand dramatically. The lines between the American organizations and local reporters must become less distinct: more local stringers, redistribution of existing domestic channels, and increased use of third-party content from other journalists and organizations, including pro-democracy forces, anti-corruption organizations, and civil society groups.

However, to ensure that independent outlets and local journalism do not get labeled as foreign agents and, as a result, get shut down, the U.S. government should not underwrite the promotion of particular policies or ideologies or even directly fund local media, but should instead support the ecosystem and infrastructure of independent reporting. If these U.S.-government-funded entities focus on aggregating and amplifying local reporting and content, they will be behaving less like traditional print or broadcast news organizations and more like social media platforms. If local independent media do get shut down, U.S.-government-funded media outlets can serve as external platforms that can publish and circulate their content.

Real metrics of impact also must be established, reviewed, and used to guide future budgets. In the absence of demand for U.S.-funded media in a very crowded landscape, some entities could be shut down altogether.

In addition, VOA must be fundamentally reorganized. It now vacillates among operating as an independent media organization, a public relations arm for the United States, a communications operation that explains U.S. foreign policy, and an ideological content provider with the aim of advancing freedom and democracy. No single organization can or should pursue these missions simultaneously. Existing VOA capabilities should be reallocated to distinguish more clearly among VOA’s core missions, and between its functions and those of other U.S.-government-funded media organizations.

One option, a radical one, would be to transform VOA into an organization with the sole mission of reporting the news rather than explaining U.S. foreign policy, selling America, or promoting democracy. VOA could become part of or be affiliated with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, giving it access to quality content and increasing its journalistic credibility. It would be, in essence, an American version of the BBC.

However, this combination—a new mission plus a demand for more funding—is most likely not in the congressional cards.

A second, more modest possibility would be to assign VOA the more exclusive mission of reporting on the United States, describing and explaining U.S. foreign policy, and promoting democratic values to international audiences. This objective could be achieved in one of two ways. One way would be to place VOA under the control of the Department of State’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. VOA would be the policy explanation arm of the U.S. government. Alternatively, VOA could remain the sole independent entity in USAGM but be given a more sharply defined mandate: to explain American foreign policy and describe American society; to refute the propaganda, disinformation, and ideologies of our adversaries; and, as the USAGM website describes its own mission, to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

VOA should not, however, seek to become Russia’s RT or China’s CGTN, which in practice operate as propaganda instruments. If we act like them, we lose.

At the same time, the U.S. government needs a more sophisticated strategy for explaining our policies and showcasing our country’s unique attributes and values. America already has private media companies and publicly funded news organizations with extensive foreign reach. Hollywood, social media companies, the music and arts industries, universities, the sports business, and Rotary Clubs are just a handful of America’s soft power assets. China and Russia have nothing like them. We don’t need a VOA with a muddy mission in our mix.

Countering the Dangers

Fifth, in addition to communicating more effectively about our policies, democratic institutions, and way of life, the U.S. government—along with allied governments, the private sector, and the NGO world—should increase its ability to confront disinformation from autocratic rivals.

Our ideological competitors seek not just to offer alternatives to liberal democracy but to undermine the appeal of our ideas. Part of this strategy is to undermine the very ideas of truth, facts, and evidence. Therefore, a more effective U.S. counter-strategy begins with refuting lies, promptly and bluntly. We are hampered by our currentpolarization, the “echo chambers” of our content consumption, and the degradation of science and facts in the United States. The largest volume of disinformation undermining American democratic institutions is home-grown; again, getting our own house in order is priority number one. But it is equally true that we have to push back on the false narratives that hostile foreign governments propagate about the U.S. system of government, society, and policies.

Since Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, some American social media platforms have introduced important reforms to provide greater transparency about the messaging and information that are produced by state-owned or government-controlled media—labeling their content, banning the purchase of ads by these companies, adjusting search algorithms to prevent companies like RT, CGTN, Al-Manar, and Sputnik from dominating YouTube or Google News. The U.S. government now requires journalists employed by RT, Sputnik and CGTN to register as foreign agents. However, democracies and companies within democracies must still develop common policies and regulations to combat illiberal, anti-democratic, and anti-American propaganda, including, first and foremost, greater transparency about content generated by autocracies. Users must also be given more power to control the content they consume.

Sixth, the Biden Administration must coordinate with allies to expose corruption and money laundering through anonymous shell companies, foundations, and real estate purchases in democracies. Such reforms would not just reduce the influence of dark money from adversarial regimes, but show the citizens of autocracies the places where their extracted (and sometimes stolen) resources are being spent. Tremendous progress was made toward this goal when the Corporate Transparency Act became law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. The measure requires disclosure to the Treasury Department of ownership information for corporations and limited liability companies established in the United States, making anonymous money laundering and tax evasion more difficult. However, this legislation remains only a partial step: Certain entities remain exempt from disclosure requirements, and ownership data are not available to the general public. Other mechanisms for hiding illicit money remain. The Biden Administration should eliminate them. The new Biden team should take the additional step of declassifying more information about assets controlled by corrupt autocrats, as well as their families and cronies.

Shoring Up Our Advantages

Seventh, all American-funded educational exchanges and shorter term leadership training programs should be radically expanded. The more foreign students, NGO leaders, journalists, members of parliament, professors, trade unionists, entrepreneurs, and government officials who spend time in the United States, the better. The Biden Administration should not only expand existing exchanges, but also underwrite new networks of students, activists, entrepreneurs, and academics. As International Research & Exchanges Board President Kristin Lord recommends,

A new administration could create a network of global leaders advancing climate change, accelerating green economic growth, or fighting corruption. The USG could develop for other world regions an equivalent to the highly successful Young African Leaders Initiative, and their equivalent programs in Southeast Asia and Latin America. It could develop a strategy to engage the global youth population—now the largest in human history and concentrated in critical countries and regions—that will shape the future.

In addition, we must reverse the declining numbers of foreign students enrolled in our universities. We want the most talented students from around the world to study in the United States—and to stay, responding to incentives we could offer. To undermine anti-American propaganda, the Biden Administration should make it easier for individuals studying in autocratic countries with restricted media environments to visit the United States—offering, in particular, expedited visas to students in China, Russia, and Iran and encouraging our democratic allies to do the same.

Eighth, the State Department should increase its focus on explaining U.S. diplomacy to the American people. The incoming Biden Administration has emphasized its intention to pursue a foreign policy for the American middle class. A key part of this strategy is to communicate better to the middle class and the rest of America about our foreign policy and national security objectives.

Every U.S. embassy in the world has a public affairs section. Each of the fifty states should have a similar unit, even if virtual, to explain to the American people why we have embassies and how their diplomatic activities and resources directly serve the country’s security and welfare. Within the State Department, the Office of Public Liaison owns this mission, but its resources are inadequate. Just as diplomats rotate between Washington and foreign countries, they should do short-term tours in Montana, Ohio, and Alabama. This reform would be a huge lift and would probably require amendment of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (the Smith-Mundt Act), as updated in 2012, which restricts the dissemination of State Department-produced content within the United States. But the change would be worth it: The American people deserve to know more about our diplomacy and assistance abroad.

Know Thy Enemy

Finally, we must invest more heavily in understanding China, Russia, Iran, and other autocratic regimes much as we did in dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Because of methodological trends in academia and limitations on the available data, U.S. universities employ only a handful of professors who specialize in the Chinese economy; the deficit of economists working on Russia is even greater. After rising for decades, the number of American students now learning Mandarin is falling; enthusiasm for studying China-related topics is significantly declining, as well. These trends are dangerous to our national security: we need more Americans studying China, Russia, and Iran, as well as more speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Uighur, Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, and Persian.

The Biden Administration should expand initiatives like the Boren and Fulbright programs to encourage more Americans to gain expertise on China, Russia, and their regions and add more resources to the Department of Education’s Title Six and Foreign Language Area Studies programs in order to deepen the study of these countries. (The Trump Administration’s decision to cancel the Fulbright program with China has to be reversed.) We must also stop the politicization of these areas and instead encourage academic freedom in Chinese, Russian, and Middle East studies. When American students return from studying in China or Russia, they should be encouraged to use their knowledge to serve their country rather than being deterred from seeking government careers because of alleged counterintelligence concerns.

We also need more specialists with deep expertise in Chinese relations with Africa, Southeast and Central Asia, Latin America, and even Europe, as well as more knowledge about Chinese artificial intelligence, the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, the United Front, the Belt and Road Initiative, and similar specialized subjects. Vladimir Putin’s efforts to spread his brand of nationalist orthodoxy in Europe and around the world demand greater study. Our bench of experts on Russian nuclear and conventional weapons is thinning. Our knowledge as a nation about Iranian politics, economics, and foreign policy is too shallow. During the Cold War, the U.S. government provided incentives for students and scholars to develop dual competencies in Russian history, language, and culture as well as international relations. We need similar programs for specialists on China today, with the second competency expanded beyond security studies to include climate change, digital technologies, or AI.


The United States, together with our democratic allies and small-d democrats around the world, still maintains a distinct advantage in the war of ideas. Democracies are better than autocracies at representing the interests of their citizens. On average, over time, democracies outperform autocracies in delivering desired outcomes like economic development, health, education, and security. To be sure, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in some democracies and strengths in some autocracies; but it’s a mixed record: Some democracies have performed remarkably well, and some autocracies have performed poorly. But on many other desired outcomes, people around the world still think that democracies deliver better than autocracies. Public opinion surveys show tremendous global demand for democratic ideas over non-democratic ideas. Moreover, over the last several hundred years and despite a recent democratic recession, the long arc of history still bends toward democracies, not autocracies.

The United States must do more to bend that arc. That work first begins at home with American democratic renewal. At the same time, the Biden Administration has to improve U.S. government strategic communications, public diplomacy, media, and information dissemination to meet the daunting challenges of our new era of ideological great-power competition. Having the better ideas is necessary to, but insufficient for, winning this ideological contest. We must also develop more sophisticated means of communicating our ideas globally.

Michael McFaul, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He served as senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council and as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation in the Obama Administration. This is the final article in a series of three adapted from his forthcoming book, American Renewal: Lessons from the Cold War for Competing with China and Russia Today (2021).


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