Competing in the Information War

Posted December 17, 2016 on 10:58 am | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | by Jeff

“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
― Edward R. Murrow

In March of 2014 this blog published a lengthy post about Russia’s growing and America’s shrinking public diplomacy efforts, specifically international broadcasting. So here we are now with a population beginning a flirtation with Russia and its president – a man with an easy solution to his troublesome media – jail them, kill them, or both. Some of this new American infatuation with Russia and Putin is certainly due to the full force gale of Trump and his Breitbart accomplices, but there is considerable evidence that Russia Today TV has made successful inroads throughout the West. It has done this with a well supported, worldwide broadcasting effort with enough real news to gain a degree of credibility while slipping in the news that is not real when it suits them.

On a recent trip to Italy we had access to three government supported English language TV stations: BBC occasionally, Russia Today regularly throughout the day and an English language station operated by China. CNN International – a private organization of mixed quality – was also available. On a trip to Germany a few years ago we had access to CNN which was having a Wolf Blitzer extravaganza about the balloon boy and Al Jazeera English which was by far the better of the two.

International broadcasting, as a part of public diplomacy is cheap, has in the past been effective, and can reach millions of people – as the Russian program does. But in the great competition for American taxpayers’ money, U.S. armament companies win, with the help of job hungry Congresspeople. So we are spending over $500 billion on defense, including billions on costly and frequently failed weapons systems and can barely squeeze out $750M for international broadcasting. To put it in a different perspective, Russia, with a broken economy, currently spends in excess of $1.4B on international broadcasting, the U.S.spends ca. $750M. China spends an estimated $7B.

Looking to the future, the Congress recently provided a clue by passing the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that includes an amendment that would “permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position as head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that oversees all U.S.-funded non-military international broadcasting, while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency.” The philosophy behind the historic role of the Board has been that it serve as a firewall between broadcasters charged with providing honest, fact-based reporting and the ideological whims of politicians. It served the interests of the country through the years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama.

Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America made major contributions to ending the Cold War by providing honest journalism to countries behind the iron Curtain, but any lesson from this seems lost. The likely emasculation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors indicates that it will likely not survive the presidency of Donald Trump who may instead finally get his very own TV and Radio Networks to do with as he wishes. Under the new law the CEO who will take over the responsibilities formerly belonging to the bipartisan Board will be appointed by the President. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon for CEO?

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Public Diplomacy: America’s Lost Battle

Posted March 20, 2014 on 5:22 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Press, Public Diplomacy, Russia, U.S. Foreign Policy, Ukraine | by Jeff

The role of public opinion in the current Ukraine/Crimea crisis is a good illustration of the short sightedness of America’s reduced commitment to public diplomacy,  as it continues to have a defense budget that more than exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next ten largest countries’.

President Putin has committed considerable resources to Russia’s international TV, “Russia Today” (RT), including an American operation that can be viewed in English or Spanish. In 2011 it was the second most popular international broadcaster after the BBC and claims particularly high viewership in the U.S.’ five largest cities. An international TV network that competes with CNN for its audience, including and especially a Western audience, “Russia Today” is available to some 85 million Americans via cable TV and internationally to over 650 million people via approximately 250 cable and satellite providers. RT also manages a sophisticated website that focuses on U.S. news as well as international news. And while clearly a propaganda tool of Russian foreign policy, it has managed to find Western viewers tired of CNN’s diet of American-centric news augmented with a heavy offering of political and social drivel.

The 2011 budget for RT was ca. $380 million, a large jump from its 2008 $120 million budget probably partially due to a serous image deficit following the Russia – Georgia conflict. In any case from an American perspective RT amounts to Russian operated surrogate broadcasting within the U.S., much like what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were to the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

At the same time that Russia has promoted its image outside Russia via RT Putin has succeeded in improving his popularity at home with extensive and harsh control of traditional sources of information, especially TV, radio and the print press. While RT has ready access to American audiences Putin has banned Russian radio stations from affiliating with Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL’s Russian broadcast service, forcing that service to rely heavily on social media, access to its website and its increased popularity on You Tube. Native Russian investigative journalists have had a tendency to “go missing” or worse; anti-government rock groups go to jail and demonstrations merely lead to mass arrests.

During the Cold War U.S. surrogate radio broadcasts into Russia and its Warsaw bloc and Soviet neighbors provided news of their own countries and the world otherwise not available. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakdown of the Soviet Union those efforts were reduced and, in fact almost eliminated. Assuming the Cold War was over, the U.S. Senate, led by a somewhat naïve Russell Feingold, led a move in 1994 to cut RFE/RL’s budget from $210 Million to $75 million. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries (including Afghanistan, Iran, and of course Russia) in 28 languages via the Internet, SMS text messaging, online video, satellite radio, and popular social media networks with a budget of $95 million – less than one quarter of RT’s budget. America no longer seriously competes with Russia in the critical area of public opinion and the results are obvious as we watch the Russian people salute the re-emergence of an at least semi-cold war.

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Turkey: The Rise and Fall of Secular Democracy

Posted February 23, 2014 on 2:13 pm | In the category Erdogan, Europe, International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, Turkey, Uncategorized | by Jeff

Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey, has signed into law a government proposal designed to give the government extraordinary powers of censorship over the Internet, including blocking of specific sites viewed as a threat to the Turkish government and collecting the histories of web searches of individuals’ computers. This is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest attempt to eliminate free speech in a country that until recent months had served as a model of secular democracy in the Muslim world.

While Turkey’s economy and its people’s overall quality of life had flourished for 11 years under Erdogan, the very personal nature of his leadership had for some time been moving the country toward a less democratic culture in which religious Islam began to play an increasing role, personal and political corruption began to flourish, and freedom of expression began to suffer. The root of the problems is a competition between Erdogan and his brand of Islam and that of Fethullah Gulen the leader of a Sufi-based brand of Islam. Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan operates a large Turkish social, political and educational enterprise from his current home in Pennsylvania. He became disillusioned with Erdogan’s personalized Islam-centric approach to leadership which at best can be characterized as arrogant; at worse as megolamanic.

Political moves by Erdogan during the past year have placed the country’s commitment to secular democracy as well as his power at risk. It began with a public demonstration against Erdogan’s move to replace a public park in Istanbul with a shopping mall but it was clear that much of the demonstrators’ incentive was Erdogan’s increased authoritarianism. The demonstrations grew in size and led to a brutal police crackdown that was abrupt and violent, leading to at least 7 deaths and thousands of injuries. Erdogan’s response included a clumsy attempt to blame the U.S. and Israel for inciting the demonstrations. What followed included street riots, and police arrests of Erdogan allies for crimes of vast public and private corruption. Erdogan responded with take-overs of the police and judiciary, censorship of news, arrests of journalists and academics for speaking out, and the new restrictions on access to Internet content. All of this has contributed to a decline of the Turkish economy, and the erosion of the Turkish model of a secular democracy into a state with two Islamic sects fighting for power while secularists struggle to regain influence.

While most of the damage done to date is to the Turkish people and their democratic state, Turkey’s importance to the West raises the international stakes. Turkey’s geography, its importance for stability in the Middle East, and its unique ability and position to blend secular democracy into a 99% Muslim population with a rich history of power and influence lends it an importance beyond the merely symbolic. It has benefitted from a successful, growing economy, a commitment to education for all (including women), a thriving tourist industry, an agricultural output that is the envy of its region, and the second largest military among NATO members.

While its efforts since the late 1980s to become a full member of the EU have been rebuffed, that became less of an issue as EU countries’ economies have suffered through years of an ill-advised austerity while Turkey’s thrived. There is, in fact, little incentive or interest now in Turkey in becoming an EU member. As a further indication of Erdogan’s movement away from the West, he gave a contract to China to build its missile defense system, provoking alarm among fellow NATO members – especially the U.S. – while signaling his desire to shift turkey’s interest away from the West and towards greater influence in Asia.

Western democracies have held up turkey as a model of what can be accomplished in a Muslim country committed to secularism and democracy. As Erdogan continues on his current path that model may cease to exist. While the future of turkey lies in the hands of its people the West needs to do whatever is possible to short circuit Erdogan’s autocratic limits on free expression. The U.S. has begun to play a small role in that effort by supporting various “pirate” radio stations run by Turkish expats dedicated to providing a free flow of information currently being kept out of Turkey’s tradional press and media. While clearly premature for the U.S. to add Turkey to its official international surrogate broadcasting efforts the time for a Radio or TV Free Turkey may well be approaching. The European Union also needs to take a hard look at Turkey’s limited membership role in the Union and begin to apply pressure for the return of basic human rights, including a free press and unfettered access to social media and the Internet in general.


Canada, Obama and the Northwest Passage

Posted January 15, 2009 on 8:29 pm | In the category Canada, International Broadcasting, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Mackenzie Brothers

Things have started out well with regard to relations between the new Obama regime in Washington and the old Harper one in Ottawa. It has been announced that Obama will make his first foreign visit to Ottawa – apparently it is his first visit to Canada – as had long been the tradition before George Bush decided to go to Mexico City first. This first apparently trivial but symbolically weighty step led to 8 years of poor relations between the supposedly friendly neighbours when Bush failed to mention Canada in his public thanks to many countries for aid after the attack on New York. He later went on to explain that he sort of considered Canada to be part of the US so it didn’t need any special mention. That hardly helped matters and nothing he did later did, either, although his views on such an important matter as free trade seem to be closer to Canada’s than Obama’s have been at times.

Now Hilary Clinton, who had much experience in Canada as first lady, went out of her way to point out to the Senate committee considering her nomination as Secretary of State that she intended to work hard on improving relations with Canada which happened to be the US’ leading trade partner and one of the very few countries that was punching way above its weight in Afghanistan, while most US allies preferred watching from the bleachers.
That is all promising particularly since the new secretary of state is so much better informed than her clueless predecessor. But Bush threw out one more mine into troubled waters just as he was abandoning ship. In his last week in office he proclaimed the US position on sovereignty in the Arctic in such a way that no Canadian government can accept it, saying that the US had the right and even the obligation to extend military control over Arctic waters, including the northwest passage, that Canada considers to be internal Canadian waters between Canadian islands. Harper has announced plans to increase the presence of the Canadian Armed Forces on northern islands exponentially along with the strength of icebreakers and arctic warships. The two proposals do not mesh and the topic will inevitably come up during the upcoming meetings in Ottawa. It is clear what Canada’s position will be, and that will likely be even more forceful if Michael Ignatief, who has many former Harvard colleagues among Obama’s closest advisors, becomes Prime Minister, so it will be up to Obama to comment on Bush’s view of the north. It is an areas where Obama has little or no experience and his response could be an interesting clue on how he will attempt to guide his ship of state through troubled waters where he has never sailed before.

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The Trivialization of Public Diplomacy

Posted January 7, 2009 on 1:27 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

When Edmund Gullion, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, coined the term “public diplomacy” in the mid sixties it’s unlikely he thought the best way to carry out such a program would be to send American sports figures around the world. But that is how it has seemed to have evolved during the Bush presidency.

The United States’ practice of public diplomacy preceded the coining of the phrase with serious and effective cultural and educational programs including Voice of America, and the many cultural and arts programs of the United States Information Agency (USIA). While on one level America’s public diplomacy has traditionally been a governmental effort to promote American interests by informing foreign audiences, on another level it has included efforts by private individuals and groups to develop and maintain civil, educational dialogues among people throughout the world. These non-governmental efforts took on increased importance while the government’s efforts have veeered toward the trivial over the past eight years. In addition, surrogate broadcasting efforts like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty provided domestic news to countries with state monopolized media.

In the age that gave us rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Iraq War a strong public diplomacy program was an oxymoron, but as we come out of the Dark Ages the government can do better.

While there is nothing wrong with sending athletes like Cal Ripkin, Jr and Nancy Kwan out into the world, it is not enough to rely on sports figures and/or minor league actresses to be “public diplomacy envoys”. Furthermore, the recent use of Twitter as a public diplomacy tool is simply a victory of style over substance. Surely we are at a point where we can begin to rebuild the cultural, educational and artistic exchanges and programs that over the years have slipped into disuse.

Hopefully the Obama transition team is considering the range of possibilities that together form our “soft power” and will make the kind of long-term investment that can pay off over time. The current state of our image in the Arab world reminds us of the need both to match policy with our traditional values and to make the investment to clarify those values to the outside world.

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The chickens come home to roost in Georgia

Posted August 22, 2008 on 1:57 am | In the category International Broadcasting, Russia, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Mackenzie Brothers

It did not take long for the chickens of Kosovo to find a splendid first roosting place in Georgia. When the topic of independence for Kosovo came up only a few short months ago, red warning flags were flying in many quarters from those with knowledge and experience of ethnic conflicts in the powder kegs of the Balkans and the Caucasus Mountains. Many countries, like Canada, took a long time before agreeing to recognize an independent Kosovo fostered by the United States, and a fair number still don’t, because they see the danger to their own national boundaries. A periphery province of a legally established national state with internationally recognized borders was declaring its independence from the much larger state to which it legally belonged. What would happen in France, Spain, Italy or the United States if such a situation arose at home? Not to mention China.

The reason was simple; after long standing violent conflicts between the two ethnic groups of that breakaway state, powerful outside nations took the side of the ethnic group that it felt was under almost genocidal attack by the mother state, which they then bombed unmercifully. This was Serbia in the late 1990s as NATO troops punished it for its atrocities against the Albanian ethic group of Kosovo. But it is also way too close for comfort for the situation in Georgia and its illegal breakaway republics with a large Russian majority, the Georgians having decided it was safer to leave. But this time, it was the US-sponsored Georgian army that took on the role of the Serbian aggressor, as it attacked the breakaway provinces. And who should come rushing to the defence of the poor threatened minority ethnic group but Tsar Putin, who must have thought he was dreaming when he saw that his increasingly dopey rivals had presented him with the opportunity to defend Russians (since he had given most of them Russian passports) under attack while at the same time squashing a tiny annoying tick on the skin of the Russian bear. So that of course is what happened. Poor Condoleeza Rice, sent out on a Don Quixote mission to chastise (and absurdly threaten?) the Russians for doing exactly what the US had done in Serbia less than ten years before, must be wishing her next job involves dealing with fractious faculty clubs, because she has served an extraordinarily foolish master for too long to retain her own dignity. Wasn’t she early on in her diplomatic career supposed to be an expert on Russia? How could anyone mess up the Russian desk in only 8 years as much as she has?

The result is a clear demonstration of renewed Russian power (and threat) along all its borders, a completely crushed and bankrupt exotic ally of the US which somehow misinterpreted US bluster for true support, and a really serious impediment to the free flow of essential Asian natural gas and oil to European consumers. Now we can wait to see if all of those countries who pushed for an independent Kosovo are as quick to recognize the new state of South Ossetia. Wanna bet?


Canada goes to war

Posted July 13, 2007 on 2:01 am | In the category Canada, International Broadcasting, Iraq, Russia, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Sixty-six Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. The death of each one of them has received front-page coverage in leading Canadian papers, and the CBC runs the risk of becoming repetitive with its films of funerals and returning coffins. Sixty times as many US soldiers have died in Iraq, but in total their stories have probably not been told as prominently, movingly and dramatically as have those of the dead Canadian soldiers in their home media.
The US effort in Iraq now surely seems doomed to catastrophic failure, at least partly because, as Senator Joe Biden recently put it, Americans have lost any desire to keep sending their kids to their deaths in the meat grinder of Iraq. At the same time the Canadian armed forces are having no trouble finding record numbers of recruits, despite the daily scenes of violence and death in Afghanistan. There is certainly some opposition to the war in Afghanistan. The socialist NDP Party wants the troops brought home immediately, the opposition Liberal Party wants a withdrawal at the end of the current mandate in 2009. But in general there is a perhaps surprising amount of general public support for the sudden display of Canadian military strength in what is considered a just cause.
Prime Minister Harper announced this week that Canada would design and build, at a cost of 3-4 billion dollars, 6-8 frigates with moderate ice-breaking capabilities to patrol Canada’s increasingly threatened Arctic water routes, particularly the Northwest Passage. For the first time, a Canadian submarine will be present in the Arctic this summer and Harper has promised to build a deepwater port in the Arctic. Critics of Harper’s announcements demanded more not less for the Arctic, including the 3 full icebreakers he had claimed he would build. These are enormous expenses for the world’s second-largest country, with one-tenth the US population, caught in the Arctic between the first and third largest, both of whom have shown they can afford nuclear ice breakers. But it seems to be an expense that Canadian citizens are willing to pay and that’s at least partly because the Canadian military has managed to begin to regain something of the stature it once enjoyed as a result of its powerful presence in both the First and Second World Wars. It may not yet be punching above its weight, as it did back then, but it seems at least to be returning to the weight class to which it rightfully belongs

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The Catastrophic Near Miss

Posted June 26, 2007 on 7:13 pm | In the category Europe, Germany, International Broadcasting, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Italian prime Minister Romano Prodi called the compromise solution to the European Union’s attempt to settle its endless bureaucratic wrangling over national and European-wide powers a step backwards. Europe, he suggested, had fallen into a situation in which some countries put their own national interests first while others presented those of Europe, whatever that now may mean. There is no question about who he meant by the former. Poland had made its intentions to play the spoiler clear for the last couple of months, and Great Britain, with Tony Blair leading it for the last time, once again in the end played an anti-Europe card which left mainland Europe wondering if the island kingdom really ever considered itself part of Europe.

In the end all 27 countries signed onto a compromise (otherwise there would be no rules of order for the EU today) which many, like former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, felt “hardly avoided a total catastrophe.” If there was anyone who came out of this event looking good, it was German Kanzlerin Angela Merkel, who piloted the leaking ship of state with more patience and expertise than most would have imagined not long ago, and managed to sail it into some kind of safe harbour for the time being. Unfortunately for the EU, her term of office as president of the EU runs out on July 1, and her successor will have to have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon to get that ship back on a stable course.

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The Last Polish Joke Show

Posted June 18, 2007 on 11:39 pm | In the category Europe, Germany, International Broadcasting | by Mackenzie Brothers

The European Union, currently celebrating its fiftieth birthday, is about to display its farcical administrative side, and simultaneously demonstrate its inability to function if faced with controversial decisions. There are now 27 members, ranging in size and power from France, Germany and the UK to Malta, Latvia and Cyprus, resulting in a linguistic chaos at its meetings in Brussels as the frantic search goes on to find a Finno-Maltese translator. This is farce, although, it’s an incredibly expensive and cumbersome production, but that is nothing compared to the fact that its constitution demands unanimity for anything to be agreed upon. Every country, no matter how small, has the right to veto.

Now, at this year’s EU summit meeting, it is about to face the music for this anachronistic rule that was passed when there was a small core group. All but one of the 27 nations is in total agreement that something must be done about the way that the number of votes has been assigned to each country. In Nice in 2000, after an all night session, bleary-eyed representatives passed a temporary measure on vote distribution that resulted in the still-prevailing situation in which the largest financial contributor to the EU. Germany, with a population of 85 million, received 29 voting representatives while Poland, the largest recipient of EU funds with a population of 38 million, received 27. Afterwards, the sleep-deprived voters could scarcely remember why they had ever reached such a strange result other than that it was the only way they could get unanimity.

Now the time has finally come to agree to a constitution that distributes the votes more reasonably, and even the UK and Malta agree that a referendum to that effect must be approved at the EU summit. But Poland doesn’t and the Polish Prime Minister, Lech Kaczynski, has ignored personally-delivered lectures by the prime ministers of France, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Germany in the last week and continues to say that he will not compromise but will veto. German analysts speculate this is because Poland does not want Germany to have the honour of solving the vote-distribution problem of the EU during its term as President. Instead Kaczynsky has proposed a reckoning by what he calls “rectangular roots” that has even mathematicians struggling for comprehension.

The Germans have lost their sense of humour on this latest example of odd behaviour by the reigning Polish government. The liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung finished its editorial on the topic as follows: “If Europe should really slide into the greatest crisis imaginable after the failure of its constitutional referendum, then the Germany may be accused of having underestimated the size of Polish ignorance of Europe for months on end. But Poland itself will bear responsibility on its own for everything else. It is going to have to pay a price for that.” This is not the way the German liberal press normally talks about Poland, and it does not bode well for future Polish-German relations.

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Al Hurra: Fair and Balanced News?

Posted June 7, 2007 on 10:12 pm | In the category International Broadcasting, Middle East, Public Diplomacy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

Al Hurra is America’s Arabic language TV station and it is performing with typical Bush administration competence. Intended to bring trustworthy news to the Arab world as an antidote to anti-American media in the region and by so doing, to serve as a tool of American foreign policy, the station has managed to turn itself into a propaganda conduit for the other side.

In an incredibly naïve strategy to build credibility among potential viewers the station has – on several occasions – broadcast speeches, rants, and statements from leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas, many of which have been rabidly anti-American and all intended to present reality through the prism of terrorist rationales.

Al Hurra has been a disaster since its inception and bringing in Larry Register last fall from – of all places, CNN – to run the operation has proven to be a major mistake. CNN is – like most of the major broadcast news media – committed to pretending to be objective by giving time to even the most ridiculous points of view on major issues.  It fills time and God knows we would not want a news organization to accept facts as they are and simply report them. So we have endless programs with all sorts of weird views presented because – well, someone believes them and we need to give them a chance to peddle their snake oil.

Apparently Register thought it important to provide a soapbox for some of the most destructive characters in the Middle East as proof of our “objectivity”.  This is reminiscent of the decision VOA made after the attacks of 9/11 to broadcast – in its entirely and without challenge – a mind-bending speech by Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

Should American international broadcasting ignore the statements of leaders of groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban? Of course not, but the way to do that is to invite them on to either be interviewed by a tough, knowledgeable interviewer or invite them to participate in a round table with a variety of points of view represented. They would in all likelihood decline the invitation but then that refusal can be reported.

Finally, for those moderate voices in the Arab world – those seeking peaceful change in the region – the broadcast of unchallenged speeches from leaders of terrorist groups for them simply destroys the credibility that Al Hurra needs to be effective. Imagine Radio Liberty broadcasting Stalin’s speeches during the Cold War. Their audience would no longer trust them and no longer listen to them.

The Arab world’s moderates and reformers are the ones that we most need to support and Al Hurra, if managed well, could provide some of that support by broadcasting honest news without pandering to the fringe elements. The expected resignation of Larry Register in the next week or so is a good first step.

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