On Restoring the Voice of America and America’s Tools of Public Diplomacy

Published February 23, 2017

During part of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan I served as the Chief of Staff and the General Counsel of the United States Information Agency. USIA was the parent agency of, among other units, the Voice of America radio service, which broadcast around the globe mostly on short-wave channels in most parts of the world, but on AM / FM bands in certain areas of high-density population.

The Voice, which was born in World War II, had an amazing reach by the 1980s, transmitting America’s story, information about American life, hard news that people in many lands could never learn otherwise, and the editorial views of the United States Government.  It reached every corner of the world, operated around the clock, and was heard in upwards of 40 languages in addition to English.

USIA also operated other broadcasting services, including WorldNet Television and Radio Marti (directed at Cuba).  It also operated countless US Information Centers, US Libraries, and other public information centers around the world;  staffed U.S. embassies with their information and cultural consuls and other officers;  conducted foreign exchange programs of all kinds,  sent cultural ambassadors on missions everywhere;  carried on the Fulbright and other scholarship programs;  oversaw the au pair program;  generally provided public relations, public information, and other communications services for the President, the State Department, and other agencies overseas;  monitored foreign media;  sampled foreign public opinion, including under the challenging circumstances presented by closed societies in which public opinion was completely distrusted and discounted by the people’s own governments;  and had overall charge of the nation’s public diplomacy program.  The aim of the effort was to communicate with the people of other countries by going over the heads of their governments, local news media, and barriers to contact and understanding.

On my watch Richard Carlson (Tucker’s father) was the Director of the Voice of America and Robert Reilly directed the Voice’s editorial operations.  They were patriotic Americans, loyal Reaganites, and brilliant journalists and communicators.  Bob Reilly went on to serve as the Director of the Voice in the early going of President George W. Bush’s administration. USIA then was also served by an Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, peopled with sophisticated thinkers, strategists, and cultural movers-and-shakers, appointed by President Reagan.  Its chairman in my day was Edwin Feulner.

Unfortunately, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism, and the premature declaration of “the end of history”, many in Congress and in the Bush (41), Clinton, and Bush (43) administrations thought that USIA was no longer needed.  The agency was abolished, its foregone budget toted up as an end-of-the-Cold-War “dividend”.  The Voice survived, but was relegated to an administrative backwater.  It was sharply reduced and its mission obscured.  Some of the rest of USIA’s operations were transferred to the Department of State, which has since discharged its worldwide responsibilities for public diplomacy with little rigor and less vigor.

At the same time, and on account of the same flawed perceptions (“the end of history” wrongly construed) and desires to shift expanding government spending into domestic programs, U.S. intelligence assets and operations were significantly reduced or eliminated, including in the Middle East and elsewhere throughout Asia and Africa.

Alas, this abandonment of the field of public diplomacy occurred just as the Middle East and other parts of the world were erupting with multi-polar challenges to the United States and our security and interests.  In the years since the 9/11 attacks, American Presidents and policy-makers have been largely bereft of the tools of public diplomacy and been faced with a flow of intelligence diminished in both quality and quantity.  Thus they have had few alternatives to nearly exclusive reliance on military options to influence events.  The consequences in some cases have been disastrous and in all cases less than optimal.

There was once a sharp line between “domestic dissemination” of the products of USIA and their transmission around the world outside the United States — this to ensure that the U.S. Government was not “propagandizing” the American people at home.  Thus, most Americans, unless they were attentive travelers or otherwise had significant contact with foreign community leaders, teachers, students, journalists, cultural figures, business people, and others, were completely unaware of USIA’s operations and their size, scope, and impact.  In the mid-Reagan years the agency had about 10,000 employees, in both the civil service and the foreign service, and operated more than 200 overseas posts and facilities around the world, including about a dozen huge and strategically-located broadcast transmission centers, all controlled from headquarters and sophisticated new broadcast studios, built and dedicated by President Reagan, in Washington.

In today’s world, with the internet and other evolving technologies, lines of demarcation that might once have cleanly separated “domestic” and “foreign” zones of dissemination have been completely erased.  Nonetheless, the need for America to have powerful tools of public diplomacy — of which the Voice of America ought to be a centerpiece — has never been greater.  We are at war, not just with highly dispersed and low-intensity armies of terrorists, but also with their state sponsors and with the tyrannical and totalitarian ideologies that motivate them and enable them to recruit their soldiers and activists.  We ought to be defending ourselves intelligently, by taking the fight to the level of ideas and confronting and undercutting the ideologies and false perceptions that are at the core of the security threats we face.  For example, the internet is replete with voices of Islamic extremism, easily accessible to people around the world (including susceptible young people in America and elsewhere in the West);  there is no coherent countervailing voice defending, explaining, and recruiting adherents to the cause of freedom and the civilization of the West;  nor is there any sophisticated promotion in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa of the Islam that is at peace with and, indeed, an integral part of, the civilization of the West.

Last Saturday The Wall Street Journal published a superb article by Bob Reilly in which he calls for the restoration and reinvigoration of the Voice of America. His is a motion that I second — and that I would expand by urging the restoration of an independent agency, under the direction of the President, attending to the work of American public diplomacy on a broad front embracing all technologies, all arts and apsects of culture, and resolutely and without embarrassment or reservation dedicated to making the case on a worldwide basis for the American Experiment and the principles of the American Founding.