Don’t let Putin close his new iron curtain


One of the most essential elements of the statecraft of any country abroad is public diplomacy, often described as diplomacy between people. Public diplomacy, essentially soft power, includes a wide range of media/information work and cultural/educational programs and exchanges. At one time, it included American centers overseas that were open to the public and physically separate from American embassies.

The bright and shining time in American public diplomacy was the 1950s and 1960s. It was actually a Cold War creation implemented by an organization independent of the US government known as the Agency for United States Information (USIA) in coordination with the overseas broadcast of Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Essentially, the USIA was created during the Cold War to “win hearts and minds” against the Soviet Union. In fact, the USIA had a separate rapid-response unit dedicated to disproving Soviet lies and disinformation as they appeared in print media and broadcasts around the world.

The Biden administration is well aware that Russia has relaunched its global disinformation campaign, especially in the now independent former Soviet socialist republics that the Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Acting US Ambassador to Ukraine: Families from Embassies Evacuated by ‘Over-Caution’ Energy and Environment Overnight – ‘Forever Chemical’ Suits Face Time Constraints US Expedition of military equipment and ammunition arrives in Ukraine MORE claims to be “Russia’s special sphere of influence”.

What happened?

The USIA existed until 1999, when then-Secretary of State Madelyn Albright apparently traded her independence for Sen. Jesse Helms (RN.C.) vote to adopt the chemical weapons convention. The Soviet Union had fallen and the United States, at that time, was seen as the only remaining superpower in the world. Helms wanted the USIA and other independent agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), makes disappear, or at least integrated into the State Department where they could be more easily controlled, as he seemed to regard them as liberal benefactors. In this dust, USAID survived as an independent agency; The USIA did not.

The USIA was, in fact, partially responsible for its own demise, as I witnessed during my time there. After the 1973 Church Commission who investigated America’s role in the Vietnam War found that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used USIA positions for cover at the US Embassy in Saigon, a cultural shift happened within the USIA. A general feeling emerged that the agency, if it wanted to maintain US credibility, had to keep a firm distance from the State Department which had readily provided cover positions for the CIA. This philosophy too often portrayed the State Department as “dirty” and the USIA as “clean.”

When the USIA was decommissioned in 1999 and merged into the State Department, an entire generation of highly experienced senior USIA diplomats resigned rather than join the State Department. I had started my diplomatic career at the USIA and was, in fact, excited about the merger, as I had always been intensely interested in politics and policy-making. In my blind optimism, I believed that within a few years public diplomacy would become an integral part of American foreign policy. It didn’t work out that way, however, because many USIA officers who joined the State Department brought their USIA corporate culture with them.

The aftermath of September 11

In addition, a major setback occurred following the September 11 attack in the United States. As part of the massive security escalation of U.S. embassies and diplomatic personnel around the world, nearly all formerly self-contained U.S. centers overseas that hosted walk-in local citizens have been permanently closed and reopened. American embassies. But in the massive project of the early 2000s to build new “safer” US embassies in many places around the world, these new embassies were often moved from easily accessible city centers to remote suburbs behind high concrete walls. topped with barbed wire. armed guards at the gate – not exactly welcoming to local citizens. Eventually, the State Department created American corners, essentially stripped-down, stripped-down American mini-centers plugged into local universities but with no American-citizen employees. It just wasn’t the same.

Double whammy: the COVID-19 pandemic and the dominance of social media

But then the world changed again when COVID-19 severely limited in-person meetings essential to public diplomacy, exacerbating something that had happened even before the COVID-19 disaster, especially on the media side. and public diplomacy information. This shift has been the tsunami wave of social media. Every U.S. embassy around the world now has, at a minimum, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. And it’s just become too easy for public diplomacy diplomats to do the day-to-day website postings and then feel like the job is done.

No, this is not the case. This type of work, while essential, is simply not the same as going out and building trusting in-person relationships with influential people. It is not about sitting down with local journalists and carefully explaining in detail the American view of what is happening behind the scenes of the bilateral relationship and, thus, effectively helping to shape the news. A post on Twitter cannot replace the subtlety and effectiveness of the communication that occurs during a face-to-face meeting. It is not enough to publish a political point, a sound clip or a photo of an event.

Against Putin’s version

Putin has long described the independent nations of the former Soviet Union as Russia’s “special sphere of influence”. During recent US-Russian negotiations over the long-running Ukraine crisis, Putin made it clear that he wanted an “exclusive sphere of influence”. If he cannot reconstitute the former Soviet Union, his objective is clearly once again to close a new iron curtain, with the West on one side and Russia on the other.

For this reason alone, Washington needs to dramatically bolster its soft power with more effective and visible public diplomacy. It is time to dig the new American trenches in the current Russian disinformation war and bring in our troops of public diplomacy officers.

It is time for Congress to act and properly fund a new American public diplomacy.

Ambassador (Retired) Richard E. Hoagland is the chair of the Caspian Policy Center’s Security and Policy Program. He previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia at the State Department. He also served as United States Ambassador to Tajikistan (2003 to 2006) and United States Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008 to 2011).


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