The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Biden administration needs to up its game on public diplomacy

A journalist watches a broadcast of President Biden's remarks on the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan on Aug. 16. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
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I participate in a lot of discussions with foreigners about U.S. foreign policy, and I’m struck by how often people around the world are asking me to explain what the Biden administration is up to. Ukrainians want to know why President Biden supports the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia. Chinese citizens wonder why Biden has not lifted tariffs put in place by the Trump administration. Afghans, as well as many others around the world, still cannot make sense of the timetable behind the U.S. withdrawal from their country. These are just a few examples.

After each of these interactions I can’t help wondering: Why isn’t someone from the Biden administration — rather than me — talking to these people on Ukrainian television, Russian radio, Hong Kong Zoom conferences, Twitter, Substack or Facebook? Making tough decisions is just one dimension of crafting foreign policy. Explaining them to the global audience is also a necessary component of effective diplomacy. Biden and his team need to take public diplomacy and global strategic communications far more seriously.

They should start with the simplest steps: nominating an undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and a new chief executive for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Inadvertently, Biden is sending a signal of indifference about public diplomacy by not yet announcing nominations for these posts. He should select individuals with real experience in media and communications — the higher the public profile, the better.

But this problem cannot be solved with smart personnel decisions. In today’s ideological competition between illiberal autocracy and liberal democracy, Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have made major investments in tools for propagating their worldviews and explaining their policies. The United States has not. It’s time to catch up.

The Biden administration and congressional leaders must start by radically restructuring, and then dramatically increasing funding for, USAGM. The Trump administration made a huge mistake by politicizing government-supported media organizations. Biden, working with Congress, should make all USAGM entities that are dedicated to news — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Martí — completely independent of the executive branch, with funding provided from Congress and oversight from nonpartisan boards. The highly effective Open Technology Fund, which funds Internet freedom technologies at every stage of the development cycle, should also become an independent organization.

Second, the Biden administration also should promote independent efforts to provide more resources for public media. At his Summit for Democracy in December, Biden should lead the free world in pledging massive resources to the Independent Fund for Public Interest Media.

Third, Voice of America (VOA), currently housed within USAGM, needs to be radically reconfigured. One single organization can no longer manage VOA’s current three-pronged mandate of serving as a consistently authoritative source of news, providing a comprehensive projection of significant U.S. thought and institutions, and representing U.S. policies clearly and effectively. In 2021, that’s an impossible mission. The parts of VOA that provide news should be incorporated into their counterpart regional media organizations, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or Radio Free Asia. (It is redundant to have VOA Russia and Radio Liberty Russia.) VOA Latin America and VOA Africa should be reconstituted as independent entities.

The rest of VOA should be reformed (with more TikTok, less TV) to more effectively explain U.S. foreign policy abroad — an assignment that should also be more tightly intertwined with the executive branch. U.S. presidents need a better communications infrastructure to explain their decisions to societies — not just governments — around the world. Reconstituting a United States Information Agency, which served U.S. interests so well during the Cold War, could offer a starting point — though the 21st century version would need much greater nimbleness and flexibility.

Fourth, Secretary of State Antony Blinken must elevate public diplomacy within the State Department. As I saw firsthand when I served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, diplomats spend too much time writing cables to desk officers in Washington instead of engaging with local communities — in part because they are rewarded for clever cables, not college talks or smart tweets. Lots of new ideas for achieving this goal are catalogued in a new report from the Atlantic Council, “Upgrading U.S. public diplomacy: A new approach for the age of memes and disinformation.” Since this cultural shift will take years, Blinken should start the process now.

Fifth, the administration and Congress should massively expand funding for all educational and cultural exchange programs. Nothing changes the minds of foreigners faster about the United States than extended time spent in the United States. (We also need greater expertise about the world; sending more Americans to study abroad helps to provide that knowledge.)

Of course, the United States should not get back into the Cold War propaganda business. We do not want to mimic the disinformation elements of Russia’s RT or China’s CGTN. But if we want to compete in the battle of ideas against populist demagogues and aggressive authoritarians, we must do a better job of explaining our actions and our ideas.

That should include more effective support for independent media, an indirect method for supporting liberal democracy, as well as greater strategic communications assets for the federal government to better explain our foreign policies. The time for incremental reform of public diplomacy has passed. The time for radical reform is now.