News flash: “We are in an information war, and we’re losing that war.”
This source for this conclusion was not one of the at least 15 reports on U.S. public diplomacy that have appeared over the last decade; it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2. For years, the State Department has been in denial, and Clinton’s admission of failure is therefore particularly welcome. Maybe we can now have an adult conversation about what needs to be done to reverse the decline in America’s standing overseas.
In the course of hearings on the Obama Administration’s lavish $47 billion 2012 budget request for diplomacy and development, Clinton was questioned by Senator Richard Lugar (R–IN) about the role of U.S. international broadcasting as a part of the information war. Now, the State Department is responsible for public diplomacy programs such as student exchanges, America Centers, and other outreach programs (and frankly not doing a terribly good job of it). Voice of America and the other international broadcasters of the U.S. government, on the other hand, are not part of the State Department, but Clinton has a seat on the nine-member Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees these broadcasters.
In her response, Clinton bemoaned the loss of broadcasting facilities and networks after the Cold War. “Unfortunately we are paying a big price for it,” Clinton correctly said. In actual fact, though, the BBG’s budget for 2012 follows a continuous upward trend, coming in at $767 million. The problem is not funding but prioritizing at a time when radio and television compete with Internet and cell phones for the central place in U.S. broadcasting strategy. Many believe—as evidently Clinton does—that the wrong set of priorities has been in place for some time.
As Clinton noted in her response, Arabic-language cable channels are multiplying in the Middle East while English-language broadcasts have been launched by the Chinese and the Russians. Meanwhile, “we’re cutting back,” she said. “BBC is cutting back.”
The State Department itself has invested heavily in social media and declared Internet freedom a policy priority. The implementation of this policy, however, has been controversial, mainly because State has been slow in disbursing $30 million appropriated by Congress for Internet freedom projects.
“Most people still get their news from TV and radio,” Clinton said. This is entirely true, which makes it hard to understand why the BBG in February stated that it would end VOA radio and television transmission to China by next October, a decision that has caused joy in Beijing and great consternation among VOA employees and Chinese dissidents.
In response to a question from Representative Russ Carnahan (D–MO) in her testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the day, Clinton made the same points, adding that she had spoken to BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson about the decline in U.S. global influence. If anyone could have a direct influence on the future of U.S. international broadcasting, it is her. Maybe Clinton should show up for some of the BBG’s monthly meetings and put her foot down.