“Travel is fatal to prejudice,” Mark Twain trenchantly observed after a lifetime of wandering. The US State Department seems to fear he was right.
Last month it issued a scary warning to Americans: “Do not travel to Russia.” The official reason is that American tourists could be victims of terrorist attacks or “harassment by Russian government security officials.” That’s hard to swallow. This warning is the latest blow in a campaign to discourage Americans from learning about life in other countries.
As the Biden administration warns Americans against traveling to Russia, it is also making it comically difficult for Russians to visit the United States. In April the State Department announced that it will no longer process visa applications from Russians anywhere inside Russia; applicants now must travel abroad to file them. This will naturally lead many Russians to spend their vacations elsewhere.
The end result will be two nations that know and understand each other less and less. When people are kept ignorant of each other, they are easy prey for official narratives that reinforce prejudice.
This is hardly the first time the US government has sought to limit travel by American citizens. During the 1950s the State Department strenuously enforced a ban on travel to “Red China.” The ban was so absolute that when the Chinese offered to free two imprisoned CIA airmen if Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would allow a group of American journalists to travel to China, Dulles refused. In the 1960s, US passports carried a note saying “Not Valid for Travel to Cuba.”
Today such explicit bans are out of fashion. If the State Department makes it difficult for Russians to apply for tourist visas, however, and if Americans are warned that they face danger in Russia, the chilling effect is comparable.
“I have always been afraid of the ‘Iron Curtain,’ only now it’s not being imposed by our side but by the other side,” laments Ksenia Sobchak, a former Russian presidential candidate.
Much American news coverage of Russia — and of China, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and other places our government considers enemy territory — is written in the United States and deals with diplomacy or geopolitics. It’s not easy for consumers of our mass media to learn what life is like for ordinary people in other countries, or how the world looks to them. One way is to travel to those countries. But that carries a risk: It may provide insights that contradict what our leaders tell us.
A couple of years ago I traveled in Russia. At one provincial capital, Novosibirsk, I left my train and wandered alone for several hours. I was far off the beaten tourist track, but no one seemed to notice or care. The same was true everywhere I went. This experience naturally leads me to wince when I hear the State Department warning Americans to avoid Russia because of the danger of terror attacks. My impression is confirmed by the Global Terrorism Index, which reports that Russia has lower levels of terrorism than the United States, Britain, or France.
For the last year, US travel advisories have been unusually tough as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, the State Department has begun loosening those advisories. They should not be twisted to serve political purposes. Americans should be encouraged to educate themselves about the world, not protected from contact with “hostiles.”
Discouraging travel is not the only way the Biden administration promotes the closing of the American mind. In recent weeks the State Department has “seized” dozens of websites that it says disseminate propaganda or false information. All of them broadcast views that challenge US foreign policy. One victim was Masirah TV, which is run by the Houthis in Yemen, whom we consider unfriendly. Another was Press TV, the main English-language station in Iran. Press TV is sponsored by the Iranian government. Stations like these take an approach to world news comparable to that of the Voice of America, which is required by law to broadcast only reports that are “consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”
Does that make Masirah TV, Press TV, and the Voice of America propaganda outlets? Sure. As Americans, though, we should be allowed to watch foreign propaganda and judge it for ourselves. Stories about Syrian torturers, Iranian militias, and Russian cyberattacks do not tell us everything important about those countries.
It’s easy to understand why governments seek to restrict what citizens learn about other countries. An ignorant population is easier to manipulate. The United States, though, was founded on the Enlightenment principle of free inquiry. We should not exaggerate threats abroad as a way of keeping Americans at home. For those who cannot travel, the next best thing is to hear the news as people in other countries hear it. We should ban foreign news outlets only in the most extreme cases.
At the very least, we could ensure that our diplomats are informed. Last year the State Department closed the only two remaining US consulates in Russia. There is no American ambassador in Cuba, Syria, or Iran. Our intensifying self-isolation promotes misunderstanding and conflict. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things,” Twain reminded us, “cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.