No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency
More than once in the past decade or more, I guarantee that you have heard — or read — someone declare the United States would be better off today if the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) were still around and how without it, the United States was robbed of the ability to properly engage in information warfare today. Some of these discussions have been in Congress and at least one bill was introduced in recent years to try to recreate a limited USIA. However, laments about USIA are really a coded way of saying that we lack a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to execute information warfare today.
With insurgencies around the globe, disappearing borders, and economic and social unrest, our adversaries are increasingly adept at manipulating public opinion. Through overt and covert use of media, face to face interactions, and more, state and non-state actors are threatening Western freedoms and independence. Russian activities today support Moscow’s expansionism and mask failed domestic policies, using propaganda and subversion to disrupt a coherent response to Moscow’s adventurism and to undermine the fabric of democratic governance and society. China’s “Three Warfares” play the long game of lawfare and information warfare, successfully betting against a synchronized, holistic response. The Islamic State’s media machine exploits the seams between reality and fantasy to spin successes and failures to its advantage. This list can go on. What of al-Qaeda, for example? Venezuela? Cuba? Central African countries? The challenges to the United States in the realm of information are numerous and diverse. And succeeding against them is a natural challenge for the United States if it is to maintain its pursuit of peaceful, interconnected societies. However, the solution is not simply to rebuild USIA. People who advocate bringing back USIA do not know what that means in practice or what USIA even really did.
Nostalgia versus Reality
Modern invocations of the USIA are based on a romantic notion of a simpler time. Like any nostalgic remembrance, these visions ignore the messy details of reality. It is essential to recall not just why USIA was established, but when. While there are strong similarities between the present and early years of the Cold War, today is not yesterday. In the context of information operations, the biggest differences are not, surprisingly, the flows of information and people, but appreciation of the “threat” and what to do about it.
There is a stunning lack of strategic vision in America today. The range of foreign policy activities, beyond so-called “traditional diplomacy,” extend across military power and include everything from financial aid to information to exchanges of all kinds. These instruments are, however, seemingly applied without synchronization or thoughts about end states. The different bureaucracies often work together only on an ad hoc basis and rarely share collaborative requirements and communications with their respective oversight committees in the Congress.
It was a similar situation over 60 years ago. In 1945, days before the Japanese surrendered on deck of the USS Missouri, the role of the State Department in the global struggle for minds and wills dramatically expanded. The U.S. Information Service, including its news and information divisions, was moved into the State Department. Within a few weeks, legislation to expand and institutionalize exchanges of all kinds between nations was reintroduced with an added capability of shortwave radio broadcasting. And a few months later, a small, complementary bill was also soon introduced in the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, now named the Armed Services Committee, to support a narrow range of exchanges using foreign currency derived from sales of surplus military equipment abroad. The State Department was, as of August 31, 1945, the leading communicator of and point of engagement for U.S. foreign policy abroad through film, radio, speakers, books, exchanges of all kinds, and more.
In 1953, the new Eisenhower Administration decided to consolidate foreign policymaking and execution by streamlining leadership, authorities, and appropriations. While some argued against this separation, there were those, especially at the State Department, who supported it. The administration tried to move “separate and self-contained pieces” of the foreign policy process under a single leadership through two plans. A single roof would increase efficiency and efficacy through synchronization, reduce costs, and simplify interaction with Congress. Plan No. 7 established the Foreign Operations Administration (FOA) by consolidating various foreign affairs and aid activities under one organization. FOA was a hybrid of an independent agency that brought together Treasury, Defense, and State, largely under State’s direction. Plan No. 8 created the U.S. Information Agency. State supported the reorganizations because it could return to what it viewed as its “traditional” role in diplomacy. The reforms would also remove about 40 percent of the department’s personnel, which would reduce the administrative burden on the department.
The reorganization was part of a larger plan of Eisenhower to coherently marshal the powers of the federal government. This was a period where U.S. elites largely recognized the nature of the threat. Defeating it meant bringing harnessing all elements of national power. In addition to foreign operations, the mobilization of the home front became more important over time and included, among many lines of effort, enhanced educational standards across the board.
This was not the “diplomacy in public” we know today, but a full-spectrum “diplomacy with publics,” engaging people at all levels and with all means available. Two years later, Nelson Rockefeller recognized the struggle as “shifting more than ever from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion” as he participated in expanding America’s information warfare toolkit. At the same time, at the same conference, a young Henry Kissinger stressed the importance of the people when, he noted the “predominant aspect of the new diplomacy is its psychological dimension.”
USIA was therefore originally a highly coordinated model, as it owned and operated most of the U.S. government’s activities designed to inform and influence foreign audiences. This included exchanges of all kinds. USIA sponsored educational exchanges, libraries, book publishing, and speaker tours. It sponsored U.S. government and private sector experts to advise foreign governments in topics such as agriculture, forestry, and sanitation. The agency also produced and distributed its own movies, and helped helping private enterprise, including the media, reach foreign audiences. Finally, USIA directly operated various news services, including, but not limited to, the Voice of America radio operation. The agency was charged not only conveying the government’s perspective, but also with countering propaganda by disseminating the truth, developing local capacity and desire for all areas of democratic freedom, and increasing information freedom.
Cabinet rivalries and other personalities dealt FOA a quick death. While its sibling at birth was forgotten, USIA lived on. However, within a decade, the model was coming apart. The struggle for minds and wills of the 1940s and 1950s, against non-state actors (communists, subversives, ignorant publics), gave way to competition over narratives with other states (the Soviet Union, Vietnam). In the 1960s and beyond. USIA’s transition was complicated by battles in Washington over its relevance and parity with State and its Foreign Service. The term “public diplomacy” arose purposefully in this period to demarcate the important role of USIA as something related to but different from “diplomacy.” In 1969, Kissinger, now the National Security Advisor, removed USIA from the National Security Council. USIA would attend only by invitation, effectively ending its role in policymaking and advising. Public opinion mattered to some, but to others, information activities were irrelevant or distasteful.
USIA inherited the so-called Second Mandate from State. An original and primary role of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, established in 1944, was to “provide American citizens with more information concerning their country’s foreign policy.” But from the start, Senator J. William Fulbright opposed the information activities and he did not consider communism or the Soviet Union a threat to America.
In 1953, when discussing the possible establishment of USIA, Fulbright remarked that he hoped USIA, as an information agency, would be shuttered within 3 years, or “maybe 10.” In 1972, he tried to abolish USIA, VOA, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, urging that it was time for them to “take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” While he failed, he successfully changed the basic authorizing legislation to prevent domestic awareness of USIA and its products. In 1985, Senator Edward Zorinsky closed the “loopholes” of Fulbright’s amendment, leading a federal court to later rule that USIA was exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. The net result was a limited domestic awareness of the purpose and impact of USIA, and what was known was tainted as propaganda.
Originally focused on the broader “struggle for minds and wills” against communism and non-state actors in fluid environments, USIA was firmly entrenched in combating a state by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In 1999, the “peace dividend” needed more money, and either USAID or USIA was going to help fund it. While USAID’s chief fought for his agency, USIA’s did not. But why was USIA even on the chopping block? Partly because of the incomplete, or tainted, knowledge of its role (primary credit goes to Fulbright), but also partly because USIA’s narrative, its raison d’être, had failed to adapt to the new normal, which would have been a lot like its early years.
Abolishing USIA was messy. Parts went to State, mostly under the purpose-built office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, but not all. And the broadcasting portion was spun off into a separate federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. A 2000 report on the status of the so-called merger captured part of the culture clash. While accounting at USIA served the mission and the field, at State, former USIA employees saw “accounting is an end itself.”
The Way Forward
The solution today is not reaggregation of information activities but improved integration. That was, after all, the purpose of creating USIA and FOA: better integration of all elements of foreign policy and a leaner operating structure. Overall, the broad reorganization was to make sure public opinion was considered in foreign policy.
But today, the amorphous label “public diplomacy” complicates reorganization. As a term, it was coined to draw a contrast with “diplomacy.” But like the terms “new media” and “old media,” it has little positive value today. There is little in the way of “diplomacy” that is not public, especially when both influence and disruption are highly accessible to individuals and groups. And yet, “public diplomacy” is treated as something separate and often viewed as unique to a certain part of the State Department.
If we truly want to recreate USIA, the public affairs officers and their sections at our Embassies and Consulates would go to the new agency. The libraries and America’s Corners and all the similar programs would be moved, and likely moved out from behind fortress walls where some are invite-only, if they are accessible at all. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would also leave State. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs would be abolished, though the Bureau of Public Affairs would remain in the department. The Broadcasting Board of Governors would be merged with this new entity as well. Perhaps most important of all, the Defense Department would defer to this new agency in its public communications, as would USAID and other agencies. Obviously such a reorganization is not going to happen.
We must remember that USIA operated in a simpler time of limited information flows and limited government communications. It virtually owned access to many foreign media markets, markets where the only “competition” was local government propaganda or silence.
Perhaps State could revamp itself. It is worth noting here that the title “public affairs officer” used by State and the United States Information Service were created in 1917 by the foreign section of the Committee for Public Information because State refused to do “public diplomacy” abroad. Nelson Rockefeller’s Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs was established prior to Pearl Harbor as a USIA-like organization focused on Latin America because State refused to respond to FDR’s requests and engage the public. In 1953, State was all too eager to dump the responsibilities of engaging foreign publics directly in the interest of “streamlining.” And in 1999 through today, we see how poorly State integrates, funds, and prioritizes “public diplomacy” into its operations. Even the title of the public diplomacy chief is discordant: “Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.”
The lesson here is that each successful change followed a clearly defined and articulated requirement to fulfill a strategic purpose. Consolidation, or dis-aggregation, is not a strategy and it will not conjure up a strategy. In today’s noisy communications environment, we need coordination that comes not from a supremely empowered individual or central organization, but comes from a clear mission and purpose. USIA is held out as a symbol of our success to organize for information warfare, but it really was part of a larger effort. And ultimately, it came to reflect the segregation of “public diplomacy” from “diplomacy” that remains today. Today is not yesterday, so let’s stop looking at a mid-twentieth century solution for a 21st century problem.
Matt Armstrong is an author and lecturer on public diplomacy and international media. He is almost done writing his book on how the White House, State Department, Congress, and the media fought, struggled, and ultimately collaborated in 1917-1948 to establish U.S. “public diplomacy” and to export the First Amendment. He blogs sometimes at mountainrunner.us. The views expressed here are his own, so don’t blame anyone else.