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What the U.S. can learn from its Cold War fight against Kremlin propaganda

- January 13, 2017

In January 2017, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, called for a new U.S. Information Agency (USIA) “on steroids” to counter Russia’s deployment of disinformation and propaganda. He’s not alone. In recent months, a number of voices called for a stronger American effort at counter-propaganda and public diplomacy. In 2016, Congress authorized the establishment of a Global Engagement Center that, although originally imagined as a mechanism to counter the Islamic State militant group, was soon framed by its legislative backers as part of a pushback against the Kremlin.

Throughout these discussions, the USIA has been cited as a point of reference and past success. Little attention in the current debate is being given to the actual historical agency, which from 1953 to 1999 worked, as its own motto stated, “telling America’s story to the world.” Attention focuses instead on an idealized agency with miraculous powers to squash Soviet lies and teach the world to love America.

What did the USIA achieve, and would a resurrection with “steroids” even help? The USIA certainly had its effective moments of crisis communication. It was particularly effective in handling media around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the moon landings and the bicentennial in 1976, and in turning what might have been massive low points (the civil rights crisis, Watergate, Iran-contra) into teachable moments in a rolling global civics class. But its true value was its sustained work, not its crisis surges.

Engaging foreign publics through exchange

The USIA systematically engaged foreign publics by building long-term relationships. Its cultural, educational and exchange programs built networks of mutual understanding. Generations of emerging people of influence first visited the United States as guests of the USIA. In Tony Blair’s first cabinet in Britain in the 1990s, half the ministers had received this kind of cultivation. In West Germany in the late 1950s, the figure approached 100 percent.

Listening to foreign citizens

The agency knew how to listen to foreign audiences, but its knowledge of international opinion was only sporadically integrated into U.S. foreign policymaking. “Steroids” in the form of a bigger budget, aggressive management or a focus on countering Moscow’s media would make little difference to this. Instead, an effective agency requires a commitment on the part of a president to take foreign opinion seriously.

Importance of an administration’s support

Success in the executive branch requires strong budgets and strong leadership. The USIA did best when the president himself cared about public diplomacy and was close to its director, as was the case with President Ronald Reagan and his director of the USIA, Charles Z. Wick. Still, regardless of the individual director, it always helped to have someone at a high level for whom the engagement with foreign publics was the highest priority. That was lost with the agency in 1999.

The USIA and Russia in the 1980s

The current panic over Kremlin disinformation has directed particular attention to a small element of the USIA’s lineup in the 1980s: its counter-disinformation unit. This unit worked to reveal stories devised by the KGB to discredit America (the most famous claimed that AIDS had been engineered by the U.S. Army).

In the later 1980s, the USIA was party to a series of talks with the Soviets that addressed issues of mutual stereotyping and opened new avenues for exchange. It was this kind of conventional diplomatic process that blunted the AIDS libel. The USIA told Moscow that unless the Russian government stopped blaming America for the virus, the United States would suspend its medical and bio-tech cooperation with the Soviet Union. It was negotiated disarmament in an information war.

Although the USIA had an underlying anti-Soviet purpose, it was never narrowly focused on a small number of issues or adversaries, as the new Global Engagement Center seems to be. The need to counter Soviet propaganda meant a global mission, and outreach to the East Bloc was only one aspect. Much of the agency’s energy went to building sound relationships within the Western alliance, and it became a major conduit of communication with the global South.

The USIA publicized Russian misdeeds — of course — but it understood the equal importance of communicating the virtues and visions of the United States. The agency also knew that honesty about the limits of American society had to be part of the picture.

What went wrong?

The USIA always sold itself on Capitol Hill as a necessity of the Cold War and became a casualty of its own success. In the 1990s, the agency seemed like an expendable holdover. Its merger into the State Department in 1999 was supposed to infuse the traditionally minded senior agency with insight into modern communication but, in reality, often marginalized such concerns.

The years since 1999 have been a steady learning process. While the management of U.S. public diplomacy and its internal organization is far from perfect, an entirely new agency will unlikely fix it. However, lessons from the USIA suggest that improved funding, coordination across the policy process, leaders who are prepared to make the case for public diplomacy and more public diplomats to do the job may.

There is one final caveat. While the United States is compelled to respond to foreign propaganda, history shows that acting alone won’t work. Rather, by seeking out partners, the United States can lead a coordinated pushback against the Kremlin and other hostile media.

This collective action could prove most effective in the most propaganda-saturated zones on Russia’s immediate border, where a merely louder American voice won’t be heard. Building up locally credible partners — such as the multilingual Ukrainian counter-propaganda website StopFake or independent Russian-language television station Hromadske TV — does help.

A final lesson from the USIA’s Cold War experience will be to ensure that any U.S. response not lapse into a general anti-Russian approach. Anti-Russian propaganda — as opposed to specific rebuttal of Kremlin claims — simply plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s media czars and squanders an impressive groundswell of goodwill toward the United States on the part of many ordinary Russians. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, realistic and well-informed consideration of and investment in American public diplomacy, not steroids, make U.S. counter-propaganda successful.

Nicholas J. Cull is a professor of public diplomacy and is the founding director of the master of public diplomacy program at the University of Southern California. The historical claims made in this piece are documented in his studies of USIA: “The Cold War and the United States Information Agency, American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989” (Cambridge, 2008) and “The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency, 1989-2001” (Palgrave, 2012). You can follow him @NickCull