President Obama’s foreign policy thus far has been marked by an emphasis on public diplomacy. As a result, successfully engaging foreign publics has become a top priority of his administration. The President himself has taken an active role in this effort, delivering several high-profile speeches to audiences around the world. His July 7th oration in Moscow, which focused on the importance of media freedom and human rights, was one such occasion.
But Obama’s message failed to reach his intended audience- the Russian public. On Russian television, which is tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Obama’s remarks were largely ignored, receiving hardly any air-time.
To make matters worse, a crippling cyber-attack had rendered the international websites of Voice of America (VOA) useless. As a result, VOA, the federally-funded broadcast service congressionally mandated to provide objective, accurate news to foreign audiences, was utterly incapable of offering the Russian public unbiased coverage of the President’s speech. VOA’s loss of web-based capabilities might have been less damaging if not for the fact that its oversight, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, decided in 2008 to completely do away with VOA’s Russian language radio and television broadcasts into the country.
VOA has demonstrated its ability to circumvent anti-American state-media and deliver objective news programming, most notably in Iran following the June 12th election. However, the internet-only approach in Russia, and the inability to provide sufficient security for this service, allowed Kremlin-controlled media to undermine Obama’s attempt to connect with the Russian public. Unless the Obama Administration takes the necessary steps to ensure the vitality of VOA and similar programs, our nation’s outreach to foreign publics will continue to be rebuffed by unreceptive governments.