Is Bruce Blair a dreamer or a hard-nosed pragmatist?
Blair, an expert on U.S. and Russian security policies, has spent the past five years consumed with finding ways "to bring the world to America and America to the world in a serious and broad way."
He wanted Americans to break free of their isolation and foreigners to have a more realistic view of Americans. "I am often disturbed by the conceit of literate foreigners about what they think they know about us," Blair said. "The information they receive is dangerously contaminated and distorted."
American news media are geared toward Americans, not an international audience, Blair pointed out. And foreign news media based in the United States tend to focus on the U.S. government, not on average Americans.
So in 2001, Blair began gathering seasoned journalists from Russia and China who were in the United States for various reasons and launched the World Security Institute's International Media Division, an online news service offering in-depth articles to small newspapers, individual editors, academics and day-to-day readers around the world, free. More recently, he has added journalists with Iranian and Arab backgrounds to the group.
The journalists he recruited "are professionals who know the United States and who can interpret and explain America to their regions in their own language and in an interesting way," Blair said.
Their offerings include pieces about the process of selecting a Supreme Court justice in the United States, the U.S. intelligence debate on China's military power and recent scandals involving House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
The International Media Division offers several language-specific services: The Russian-language service, Washington ProFile, is cited more frequently in Russian media outlets than any other source, according to the Russian Web search engine Aport. The service also fills a void in the former Soviet republics, most of which do not have correspondents in Washington, Blair said.
The Chinese service, Washington Observer, reaches 300 million people a week in China, Blair said, and has offered articles about the proposed lifting of the European Union arms embargo, SARS and the Chinese bid, since withdrawn, to take over the U.S. oil company Unocal. It also includes features on Chinese Americans.
In Iran, both reformist and government newspapers have reprinted articles filed for the Farsi news service.
The International Media Division's parent group, the World Security Institute, is a global research organization based in Washington that was previously known as the Center for Defense Information. The CDI continues to research nuclear and military policy, but as a subdivision of the World Security Institute.
Blair, 58, used to focus on writing books and articles on security issues. But today he's likely to hand you a small fan of business cards carrying his various titles: president of the World Security Institute, president of CDI, executive producer of Azimuth Media, and so on. He jokes that he has "multiple personalities."
Blair grew up in Monticello, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Illinois in 1970. He then entered the Air Force for four years, serving as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer and support officer for the Strategic Air Command's Airborne Command Post.
He also trained on warplanes and on the launching of up to 50 missiles.
He earned a doctorate in operations research from Yale in 1984.
From 1982 to 1985, he worked at the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment. In 1987, he joined the Brookings Institution and remained there until 2000. In 1999, he was named a MacArthur fellow, an honor that comes with $350,000 to pursue one's dream or purpose.
At the World Security Institute, Blair has doubled his organization's budget in the past five years by urging donors to back efforts "to engage the world."
Blair credits Lynn Strauss, a former educator who lives in New York, for being the impetus behind the Farsi and Arabic services, which were launched this spring.
"We took a trip to Iran around 1999," Strauss said in a telephone interview, "and we were just so impressed by the way young people are for everything American. They seemed so dynamic and engaged. I felt we should be in close touch with them. As I heard of what Bruce was doing in Russia and China, I told him, 'You have got to do this in Farsi and Arabic.' " Strauss donated $1 million to the effort.
"I think there is a revolution underway," Blair said. "My dream is to find something lucrative to pay for our project at WSI and our fledgling operations. I'd like to figure out a model to become the Microsoft of NGOs. The purpose would not be to make money, but to subsidize our effort."