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The threat to American influence from the propaganda and disinformation activities of a range of actors—from powers like the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation to non-state actors like violent extremists—is one of the most pressing challenges to U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. Yet, the U.S. government is poorly postured to effectively compete in this vital theater of 21st century statecraft, and has been for some time, with the resources, authority, and personnel for contesting malign influence scattered across the interagency. Amidst a simultaneous global democratic recession and an authoritarian resurgence now into its second decade, America’s public messaging efforts have too often faltered, while high-profile malign influence campaigns, especially Russian government interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and, most recently, Chinese Communist Party efforts to exploit the coronavirus pandemic, have further exposed U.S. government vulnerabilities.
The crisis in American “soft power” was laid bare recently by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who argued, “Unlike China and Russia, the United States now lacks an effective strategy for communicating its message and countering those of its competitors.” He suggested that the U.S. “will have to overhaul its public messaging” with “a new top-level organization . . . to enable consistent strategic communication using all available venues.” Having spent our professional careers working in a range of national security and foreign policy roles concerned with influence and public messaging, we build on Gates’ call to argue the case for why a central agency for American public messaging is urgently needed and how such a mechanism could recalibrate American influence efforts. As the United States and its allies face a torrent of anti-democratic malign influence activities, American leadership (or lack of it) will be decisive in the global struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
The debate about whether the United States should establish a central mechanism responsible for public messaging is contested. Counterarguments broadly tend to claim that either the U.S. government’s interagency is sufficient for the task and more bureaucracy and centralization is not the answer or that the United States is not a credible messenger and the task of public messaging should be left to others. While such arguments have credible points, each respectively glosses over two crucial voids that represent important vulnerabilities and risks for the United States and its interests.
The first is largely bureaucratic. The United States’ interagency is an extraordinary machine, but the core competencies of its agencies are not in public messaging. The State Department, Department of Defense (DOD), and the Intelligence Community (IC) all have “influence” responsibilities of various shades, but these are, at best, secondary priorities and, when they are performed, they are often insufficiently coordinated. The result is messages that often confuse more than they convince. As Gates asserted, “Many entities have a hand in strategic communications, including the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Treasury Department, the CIA, and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, but for the most part, each goes its own way. The result is many lost opportunities.”
For example, the U.S. government’s communications efforts in response to COVID-19 have, so far, been one such lost opportunity. Aside from calling out Russian and Chinese disinformation, the United States has not had a compelling and unifying narrative driven by a proactive communications strategy in response to the virus. Some official State Department communications have highlighted U.S. development assistance and private donations to areas impacted by COVID-19, but these were overshadowed by stories that senior U.S. officials had insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” during G-7 talks, facilitated a Russian relief flight to New York, or that the U.S. government had bought up global supplies of remdesivir. These instances provided opportunities for adversaries to set the tone and tambor of U.S. communications while inadvertently contributing to more localized news stories that sought to portray the United States as an irresponsible partner in places like Sri Lanka and Japan. While much of this response is particular to the current administration’s approach to communications and the highly polarized nature of the reaction domestically to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of a centralized mechanism for cohering U.S. public messaging has made a difficult task, already hamstrung by a range of problems, nearly impossible.
Since 2017, the U.S. government has sought to strengthen its posture to deal with propaganda and disinformation threats. A beneficiary of these efforts has been the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is responsible for coordinating the U.S. government’s information activities in a practical and strategic sense. However, its congressional mandate and internal strategy are clear that it is not responsible for directly producing and disseminating messaging on behalf of the U.S. government. As analyzed in a recent assessment of the U.S. posture in this theater, the GEC’s focus on coordination, but not direct communication, is in many ways the result of an Obama-era institutional legacy and an intentional effort to narrow the GEC’s focus on being a “force multiplier” across the U.S. government interagency and its multisector partners. Put simply, there remains a communicative coordination void in the U.S. national security and foreign policy information sector that is best addressed through a centralized function responsible for producing U.S.-branded (“white”) messaging that acts as the communications “drumbeat” for broader interagency efforts.
The second void is more strategic in nature. The liberal world order that the United States was central to establishing after World War II is eroding. Since 2006, the global democratic recession has seen an annual decline in both the number of democracies and the freedoms within democracies. The democratic recession is worsening, and the anti-democratic malign influence activities of state and non-state adversaries are playing a key, if largely catalytic, role in these dynamics. The simultaneous global authoritarian resurgence has arguably been led by a Chinese Communist Party that explicitly ties the protection of Chinese interests with the destruction of the liberal world order. The United States is crucial to the health of global democracy. It does not serve as the canary in the coal mine, but as the mine’s adit, which, if weak and crumbling, threatens the entire cause.
A supportive international environment is crucial to democracy’s resilience, and the United States has historically acted as the global leader of that effort. As Larry Diamond argues, “It is hard to overstate how important the vitality and self-confidence of U.S. democracy has been to the global expansion of democracy.” In the 21st century, Western governments have too-often appeared not just indifferent to the global democratic cause, but willing to dilute or suspend democratic promises and freedoms in ways that have seemed increasingly egregious. Such self-inflicted wounds to democracy not only diminish the appeal of the democratic cause at home, but abroad, too. Genuinely championing the global democratic cause is more than just a moral imperative, but one that serves the best interests of the United States and its allies. To do so, the United States must bureaucratically and strategically revamp to meet the challenges of 21st century statecraft.
Today, the United States faces a new era of statecraft, where its traditional military and diplomatic tools are less effective against a range of adversaries that have centralized messaging, influence, and information activities to undermine American interests. There is currently no overarching mechanism to coordinate U.S. government messages to the world, evaluate those efforts, and harmonize the knowledge, skills, and training of the tradecraft of persuasive communications. The result is information activities that are overwhelmingly tactical and ad hoc. Its efforts are akin to the United States trading the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency for a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
We argue that a new mechanism is required, ideally, as an independent agency of the State Department. This new agency would not be a new United States Information Agency (USIA), which managed the delivery of cultural, educational, and information programming during the Cold War. Delivery of those activities would still sit with the Department of State’s Bureau of Public Affairs and the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Certain influence operations would also remain with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community. The new agency would instead be responsible for four key unifying functions across the U.S. government. First and foremost, it would be responsible for producing U.S. government-branded public messaging designed to persuade foreign audiences to support liberal democratic values and freedoms. It will be essential for this messaging to promote the practical and tangible ways in which the United States and its democratic allies have supported free and fair elections, human rights, and fundamental freedoms around the world; it would also amplify the reach and impact of aid and development programs.
Second, the new agency should be responsible for media buying and dissemination on non-U.S. government-owned or -sponsored channels. Currently, if a U.S. government agency wants to reach an audience outside of government-owned channels, such as an embassy’s Facebook page, it buys ad space like any other advertiser, albeit with a host of onerous restrictions. Most multinational companies, and indeed other large democracies, centralize global media buying to achieve economies of scale.
By centrally managing media buying, the new agency would also be charged with measuring the return on investment for U.S. government media spending—its third key function. The United States is different from commercial advertisers in that it is not selling a product and is generally prohibited from tracking audiences, for example by using cookies to build audience profiles. As a result, most government communications efforts are not measured in the same way as the rest of the industry, if at all. Additionally, because activities are decentralized, they employ a range of different monitoring and evaluation methods. For example, an embassy’s public diplomacy campaign in Europe might rely on Facebook reach metrics, while an information operation in Asia could rely on message testing and post-campaign survey data. To its credit, Congress has recognized this gap and the House version of the Department of State Authorization Act of 2019 instructs the Department to appoint a Director of Research and Evaluation to centralize the department’s efforts. This step, however, would be limited to State Department public diplomacy programing, and not include DOD, USAID, USAGM, or USIC campaigns.
The fourth function of a new agency would be the development and implementation of overarching doctrine and training in the tradecraft of persuasive communications. This could require a new federal service responsible for recruiting, training, and developing a professionalized corps with a common tradecraft that would then be deployed across the interagency to provide specialist support. Current U.S. efforts are hampered by a lack of common doctrine, training, and tradecraft, which are partly the result of the State Department’s Foreign Service’s generalist officer model that eschews specialization despite calls for reform to a model last updated in 1980. A national influence and information service could be an important component of a larger reform effort.
Centralizing these four functions would allow for better coordination and effectiveness across the government’s current messaging archipelago while still preserving the benefits of the sector-specific and more localized approaches offered by the activities of a diverse interagency. Communications managers—an embassy’s public affairs officer or a military information operations team—would not be burdened by another level of approvals, but instead would be provided with a common pool of resources and specialists to draw upon when needed. Standardizing the design and deployment of “white” metanarratives that provide a steady “drumbeat” of messages to the world would not only act as a prompt for broader interagency and even allied efforts, but also better position the United States to combat adversarial influence operations.
Legislative mandate is another crucial factor. Creating a new agency responsible for these four tasks would require legislative change and strong leadership from the White House. Congress has demonstrated its interest in strengthening U.S. influence capabilities with a range of bills from both sides of the aisle in recent years (e.g., National Defense Authorization Act 2019). Most of these changes, however, have involved supporting or amending existing structures rather than the kind of significant, but necessary, changes that are necessary to re-posture the U.S. interagency to meet the challenges of 21st century statecraft. The Trump Administration is unlikely to take on this task in 2020, but the next administration, led by either Trump or Biden, should.
With the United States grappling with a pandemic that is devastating its communities, civil unrest exposing deeply rooted social tensions, and an economy falling into recession, some may argue that now is not the time to reform how America communicates to the world. Given the willingness of America’s adversaries to use malign influence operations to exploit these and other crises, there is perhaps more a convincing argument that the current malaise is precisely why a more robust and coordinated U.S influence effort is needed. Others may point to the rhetoric and policies of current and former administrations to argue that America is not a credible messenger for democracy’s cause. But this would ignore America’s historical importance in such efforts and the persistence of favorable views of the United States overseas, especially compared to China or Russia. Ronald Reagan warned, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Championing the global democratic cause is more than just morally right, it is strategically imperative for protecting the interests of the United States and its allies. To do it effectively, significant reforms of the U.S. information sector will be vital.
The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government or the Foreign Policy Research Institute.