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Winning the Global Battle of Ideas:A Critical Step in the War on Terrorism

Since the 9/11 Commission submitted its final report last summer, initial attention has focused on Commission proposals to strengthen our intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorist capabilities. All are critical areas of concern, but as we deliberate the report’s recommendations, we must not lose sight of one of the Commission’s most important insights—to succeed in the war against terrorism, we must engage and prevail in a global struggle of ideas. As the report states, “Our enemy is twofold: al-Qaeda, a stateless network of terrorists that struck on 9/11; and a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world, inspired in part by al-Qaeda, which has spawned terrorist groups and violence across the globe.” 

To defeat this radical ideology, we must place as much emphasis on our nation’s ability to communicate and persuade as we do on our military strength and intelligence capabilities. As we dismantle al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, we must also de-legitimize the use of terrorism and isolate those who espouse extremist ideologies. Yet shockingly, despite American dominance in the information technology revolution, today the United States (US) government is ill-equipped to communicate effectively with societies abroad. This was not always true. We maintained a formidable capacity during the Cold War to communicate American policies and ideas to foreign publics (the art of public diplomacy). As the first Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting in the 1970s and US Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 1980s, I witnessed the extraordinary ability of the US Information Agency (USIA), Voice of America and Radio Free Europe to reach out to entire populations on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Even the Communist leadership listened to Radio Free Europe to learn the truth about their countries’ economic performance. 

Ten years later, as Ambassador to NATO, I saw a well-executed communications strategy change attitudes in Europe towards the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles. Despite strong popular opposition, we turned the tide of public opinion with a communications strategy and vigorous diplomacy, supported by the White House and Congress, and executed through the extraordinary machinery of USIA.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we mistakenly disbanded USIA in 1999 and drastically reduced the resources for communicating America’s message abroad. Funding for public diplomacy declined 35-40 percent during the 1990s. In 2003, I served on the Congressionally mandated Advisory Group on US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, chaired by Ambassador Edward Djerejian. In its final report to Congress, the Advisory Group warned that our “unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy has…left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and safety. In this time of peril, public diplomacy is absurdly and dangerously underfunded.”

Our public diplomacy strategy must be recognized as equal in importance to our military and diplomatic strategies. President Eisenhower, the only five star general to become President, was a true grand strategist who understood, when he created USIA, that the battle of ideas was the ultimate contest. Last summer, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne in Iraq said, “You don’t defeat an insurgency solely with military forces. You win by getting the people to believe they have a stake in the success of the new Iraq.”

This decline of our public diplomacy assets contributed to the alarming worldwide rise in anti-Americanism, a trend that has undermined US credibility and increased popular support for our adversaries. Anti-Americanism is particularly strong in the Muslim world, where large segments of the population believe that the US-led war on terrorism is a war against Islam. According to recent polls, unfavorable views of America are held by nearly 100 percent of the population in Egypt, 94 percent in Saudi Arabia, and more than 60 percent in Turkey (a NATO ally) and Pakistan (a critical partner in the war against al- Qaeda). Throughout much of the Muslim world, we are clearly loosing the battle of ideas. 

First, we must reprise the central role that public diplomacy once had in our national security strategy. This means providing far greater resources, as well as sustained Presidential and Congressional support, to the State Department’s international information programs, our educational and cultural exchange programs, US-sponsored international broadcasting, and other mechanisms of outreach to populations abroad. Currently, the amount we spend on efforts to change minds and attitudes abroad is less than one-half of one percent of our defense budget. We must close the resource gap that handicaps our public diplomacy. 

Second, we must coordinate and synchronize US global communications initiatives across federal departments and agencies. The 9/11 Commission noted that the fragmentation of our nation’s 15 intelligence services created isolated stovepipes that failed to coordinate or share vital information, leaving us tragically vulnerable on 9/11. Similarly, the lack of coordination in our public diplomacy efforts leaves many of our most important global communications assets isolated, unaccountable and often providing contradictory messages. We currently have neither a grand strategy nor a coordinating mechanism to assure the effectiveness of our international communications or to ensure that the many government agencies involved in public diplomacy—including the Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security and others—speak persuasively with one voice. 

To address this deficiency, the President should designate an advisor to serve as his chief global communications strategist. This advisor would develop the overarching blueprint to guide US public diplomacy and help break down the stovepipes that impede our ability to communicate effectively abroad. The recently created White House Office of Global Communications performs the important task of coordinating daily tactical messages, but lacks the authority and institutional capacity to provide a grand strategy across the federal government. By contrast, the global communications advisor must have the President’s ear, as did the more outstanding USIA directors, and must be empowered to examine the overseas communications of federal agencies and advise on how to ensure synergies between them. 

The global communications advisor should be supported by a board of experts drawn from the private sector, including communications and media specialists, scholars on Islamic and other cultures, former ambassadors, and executives with substantial overseas experience. The advantage of enlisting private sector expertise was vividly illustrated during the Djerejian Advisory Group’s trip to Cairo, during which the Group met with two focus groups, one assembled by the Embassy in Cairo and the other put together by Procter & Gamble. Not surprisingly, the Procter & Gamble focus group was far superior, largely because P&G personnel in Egypt are closer to the people on the street who buy their products. 

Condoleezza Rice’s move to the State Department affords an excellent opportunity to develop such a strategically focused global communications architecture. As the President’s most trusted advisor, Secretary Rice has the clout to strengthen the role of her Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, who could fill the role of chief global communications strategist. A strengthened Under Secretary who is close to Secretary Rice and supported by a board of professionals from the private sector would be ideally suited to formulate and guide US global communications strategy. One option for providing the Under Secretary with a strong advisory board is to transform the current US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy into a team of outstanding experts as described above. 

Neither the Under Secretary nor the Advisory Board would exercise direct authority over federal agencies outside the State Department. Rather, responsibility for ensuring implementation of global communications policy across government would remain with the National Security Council (NSC). To strengthen the NSC’s oversight powers, the NSC’s policy coordinating committee for strategic communications should be reactivated and co-chaired by the Under Secretary for Pubic Affairs and Public Diplomacy. Such a policy coordinating committee was formed during President Bush’s first term, but has remained essentially inactive. 

Third, as part of a broader strategy, we should establish an independent grant-making entity—perhaps called the Foundation for International Understanding (FIU)—to more fully enlist the creativity of the private sector and the growing influence of international media. Much of the world’s exposure to America, and much of America’s exposure to other cultures, comes from popular media, including Hollywood movies, satellite television, video games, radio and the Internet. Despite the excellent work of some outstanding producers and media outlets, the international media market is often dominated by violent, salacious and misleading programming that presents demeaning stereotypes and exaggerates negative aspects of America and other societies. Some extremist groups have become particularly adept at exploiting the growing reach of the Internet, which provides them with an inexpensive means of spreading disinformation and glorifying their activities.

The proposed FIU would counter distortions common in the popular media by supporting the production and international distribution of high-quality television, radio and other media programming that accurately illustrates the culture and values of America and other societies.

Based on a concept originally developed by the Council on Foreign Relations’ task force on public diplomacy, led by Peter Peterson, the FIU would not produce or broadcast this programming. Rather, it would use its grant resources to mobilize pre-existing capabilities from the large pool of talented producers, artists, writers, distributors and broadcasters around the world. In doing so, the FIU would enable larger audiences around the world to view and hear on their local stations the best that Hollywood and American producers have to offer. 

Furthermore, by funding co-productions between American and overseas producers and by focusing on interactive programming that connects Americans and audiences abroad, the FIU would encourage cross-border collaboration and open dialogue between Americans and overseas counterparts, free of the often distorting filter of the international media. The FIU also would facilitate more effective use of the Internet and emerging technologies to correct popular misperceptions and to counter propaganda and dis-information from extremist groups. 

The FIU will be founded as a private nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. A portion of its revenue will be derived from public funding, which will be used to mobilize larger financial resources from corporate sponsors, private foundations, individual contributors and other sources. America’s public broadcasting sector, which currently derives just 15 percent of its revenue from public funding, provides an excellent example of how federal funds can be used to mobilize far larger resources from private sources to attracting outstanding talent.

Strengthening our global communications alone will not overcome differences over US policies or America’s role in the world. But as the 9/11 Commission affirms, “To Muslim parents, terrorists like [Osama] bin Laden have nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death. America and its friends have a crucial advantage—we can offer these parents a vision that might give their children a better future.” Revitalizing our global communications to get this message out should be a national security priority and a principal instrument in the war against terrorism. Fanatics dedicated to acts of mass murder are beyond the reach of reason and moral persuasion, but millions of uncommitted spectators in the Muslim world and elsewhere are central to this struggle. It is among these individuals that the battle of ideas will be won or lost.

During the Cold War, we understood the importance of public diplomacy as an indispensable tool for winning the worldwide struggle against a totalitarian ideology. Today, we are engaged in a new struggle of ideas, this time in an infinitely more complex and competitive communications environment, with diverse media and new technologies creating new methods of reaching and influencing populations around the world. More than ever, we need a grand strategy that synergizes communications assets across the federal government and utilizes the creativity and expertise of America’s private sector, which leads the global communications revolution. A broader strategic approach for engaging and communicating with populations abroad is essential to communicate the true intentions, aspirations and values of America.

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