Over the last six months, the Russian propaganda machine has pursued a two-pronged strategy toward its domestic audience. The first prong, used to justify Russia’s takeover of Crimea, is a replay of what Hitler called the “Big Lie” — a false historical narrative in which the pro-democracy forces in Ukraine are portrayed as US-backed fascists out to commit genocide against ethnic Russians. Repeat a story often enough, the idea goes, and a majority of the population will come to accept it.
The second prong, adopted after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, might be called the Big Confusion. Faced with an event that threatens your Big Lie, start a disinformation campaign. Fill the domestic airwaves with so many bizarre rumors, conspiracy theories, and paranoid fantasies that a cynical public stops caring what really happened.
Russia’s propaganda effort also has a global dimension. In the last few years, the Kremlin has launched a slick, fast-paced satellite TV channel, Russia Today (RT), which pays top salaries to British and American broadcast journalists willing to repeat the same messages in English. A surprising number of viewers are tuning in.
How should the US government respond? Should it fight fire with fire, bombarding Russia and Ukraine with counter-propaganda? Or should it do what comes naturally to a democratic society with freedom of speech and the press — gather the facts, articulate the values at stake, and disseminate both as forcefully as possible, even if some aspects of the story do not reflect well on the United States?
This second option has a name: public diplomacy. The term was coined in 1965 as a meaningful alternative to propaganda, which acquired a bad odor as early as World War I, when the British and American governments fabricated reports of atrocities committed by the “evil Hun.” By the 1930s, both governments realized how much damage their hate propaganda had done. Not only did it inspire Hitler (as did Soviet propaganda), but it also fostered incredulity toward early reports of Nazi atrocities, based on the assumption that those reports, too, were fabricated.
So during World War II and the Cold War, both Britain and America took the relative high road, when communicating with foreign populations, of refusing to spread blatant lies and disinformation. Compared with the aggressive propaganda of the Third Reich and the Soviet Communist Party, this approach was decidedly asymmetrical. But it worked.
Public diplomacy, sadly, was an early casualty of the post–Cold War era. In the early 1990s, America’s mood was “triumphalist” — meaning not “triumphant” but something more like “full of it.” Not only did Americans declare ourselves the indispensable nation, but we also stopped practicing public diplomacy. Congress slashed funding by one-third. In 1999 the US Information Agency, which had coordinated public diplomacy since 1953, was dismantled.
There are still great public diplomats out there. For example, during the US occupation of Iraq, when American troops faced a fierce insurgency, a foreign-service officer named Alberto Fernandez stepped into the communications vacuum. A fluent Arabic speaker, Fernandez made over 500 appearances on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and other Arab TV channels, allowing himself to be grilled by celebrity hosts and enraged callers alike. In the opinion of Arab media expert Marc Lynch, this “one-man show” was effective because, instead of a “grim diplomat reading from a script,” it consisted of a flesh-and-blood individual “willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes — in short, to offer a real human face.”
In 2006, the domestic US media erupted over a comment that Fernandez made on Al-Jazeera: “We tried to do our best, but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq.” Red-state pundits pounced on the comment, which Fernandez quickly retracted. But it was part of a longer statement intended to reach out to Sunni insurgents opposed to Al Qaeda, a strategy that eventually led to the cessation of violence known as the Sunni Awakening. Clearly, public diplomacy performed at this level is a high-wire act, fraught with risk not only from enemies overseas but also from attention-seeking politicos at home. But sometimes a high wire is the only possible path across an abyss of distrust.
Truth-telling is not an easy principle for any government to follow, but not every government lies to the same extent. If this were true, then Americans and Europeans would not be outraged over the alleged removal of evidence from the Flight 17 crash scene in eastern Ukraine. Free societies accept that there is such a thing as objective truth — and that the facts speak for themselves. But facts cannot speak, only people can. Russian President Vladimir Putin has crushed the development of institutions that respect the difference between fact and fiction. And after a century of intelligence-insulting propaganda, the Russian people have been conditioned to roll their eyes at claims of objectivity.
Americans are more trusting. But lately, some — particularly on the left — have become disillusioned enough to think that America’s way of communicating with the world is no different from Moscow’s. On the right there is more support for America’s claims to the truth, but that may not translate into support for a more robust public diplomacy. Many libertarians do not consider it the government’s responsibility to communicate US interests, intentions, and ideals to a turbulent and skeptical world. Instead, they assume that the job is best left to the private sector, including commercial news, Hollywood, and Internet companies.
Indeed, Americans across the political spectrum remain sufficiently enamored of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to believe that the best response to authoritarian propaganda is to help the whole world gain access to the Internet. Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes, notably China’s, show growing expertise at using the same technology to censor free speech and glut online forums with propaganda camouflaged as private opinion.
No effort to deal with these challenges can succeed without a new cohort of public diplomats able to communicate with foreign publics in their own languages, as well as field the inevitable questions and take the inevitable flak with humanity, humor, and grace. This is best done in a live setting, but to reach large populations it is necessary to use whatever media platforms are prevalent in a given region. This is what VOA and other government-sponsored broadcasters do well. Just to cite one example, the most popular international radio channel in Cambodia, the Khmer-language service of Radio Free Asia, uses Internet and FM in Phnom Penh but shortwave in the countryside.
As for Russia and Ukraine, both are still in the orbit of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE-RL), the Cold War channels that relocated to Prague in 1995 and now communicate in 28 languages with 21 countries, including all the Central Asian republics, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These channels are needed because — unlike the Arab media, which are relatively free because they are owned by competing governments and serve a 24-nation market — most of the world’s media are becoming more censored, not less.
Unfortunately, international broadcasting has suffered the same neglect as public diplomacy more generally. Poorly governed and chronically underfunded, RFE-RL has struggled to penetrate the vast Russian market. The same poor governance is also responsible for the dearth of US communication with Russian speakers in adjacent countries, notably Ukraine. There is now a rush to fill this vacuum, but without the long-term trust built up by a steady, reliable presence, any new effort is bound to be dismissed as — you guessed it — propaganda.
To turn this situation around, Americans need to do two things. First, we need to find some common ground when communicating with the other 95 percent of humanity. This can’t wait until we resolve our cultural and political differences, because those differences will never be resolved. But this is precisely the point. America’s most important message is that it is possible to build institutions that, by recognizing the inevitability of disagreements, make it possible for people to live together in spite of them.
Second, Americans must reckon honestly with public diplomacy’s essential function, which is to further the nation’s agenda as forcefully as possible without engaging in propaganda. This is nothing to apologize for. Public diplomacy emerges from a unique tradition of truth-based persuasion, rooted in constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, press, and debate. When this tradition is upheld, it highlights the difference between democratic and authoritarian regimes. When it is neglected, the difference becomes blurred. And that is a very great danger.
Martha Bayles, who teaches humanities at Boston College, is the author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.”