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Can the US Regain Its Voice Overseas? - 2003-07-28

At 21-years of age, US Sergeant Chuck Hagel volunteered to fight against the communist forces of North Vietnam. In April 1968, a land mine hurled searing bits of shrapnel into his face and chest. During his recovery, he vowed he would influence the future of US foreign policy in a way to guard against the horrors he had endured in the Vietnam War.

Thirty-five years later, Chuck Hagel is now a high-ranking member of the influential US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. At a recent conference at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington research organization, Senator Hagel emphasized the importance of public diplomacy. “It may be today, and for the future of our security and stability in the world, important that we focus on public diplomacy more than ever before. Raw power alone won't do it. If the people of Iraq or Afghanistan are against you - we learned a little something about that in Vietnam - you can 500,000 troops or more but it won't carry the day.”

Senator Hagel says public diplomacy is particularly important during wartime when fear often breeds rumors that can rapidly spread. International broadcasting - a major component of public diplomacy - is often an effective way to counter such talk with accurate information.

Michael Gloukhov, a reservist with US Naval intelligence, agrees broadcasting plays a critical role during war. During the NATO strikes against Serbia in 1999, a radar-seeking missile from a US warplane strayed into Bulgaria - a future NATO member - and struck a house near the capital Sofia. Mr. Gloukhov says “that was immediately used by a hostile press stating that NATO is attacking us.” The missile was designed only to strike radar systems. Mr. Gloukhov says whenever an enemy activates its radar, the US plane detects the signal and sends a missile. Sometimes the radar is turned off intentionally after the missile is released. In this case, it deactivates in the air and falls to the earth, doing much less damage than if it had blown up.

Mr. Gloukhov says the Voice of America broadcast this information immediately after the missile fell in Sofia. “When you explain the function of the missiles and why they went stray and why it did not explode because it did not hit a radar, that gives a very rational explanation. But if this explanation is not given, then it is open to interpretation and hostile forces will turn it against the United States any way they wish.”

The dangerous situation in Iraq today is fertile ground for similar rumors to spread and breed resentment. In the initial months after the war ended, many frustrated Iraqis said they couldn't understand why the world's superpower was unable to restore electricity. Many areas - especially in and around Baghdad - had only a few hours of power each day.

Rumors spread that US forces were intentionally keeping Iraqis in darkness and misery. The reality was far different: the lack of security prevented electricians from repairing Iraq's electricity pylons. Yet without adequate international broadcasting, analysts say this information does not reach local populations.

Some analysts say the vital task of international broadcasting is not part of the US military mission. The Pentagon is simply not designed to carry out diplomacy, says William Maurer, a former public diplomacy director. He believes the fight against international terrorism has put too much focus on the Pentagon and US national security. “September eleventh and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have thrust the Defense Department into the forefront of our foreign policy,” he says. “But I would argue that the Defense Department does not do public diplomacy because their focus is not on a foreign audience, but primarily on an American audience. The State Department focuses on foreign officials and public diplomacy officers focus on a foreign audience. The Defense Department - in its public statements, films and public relations - is focused on an American audience and they are not all that concerned about foreign reaction.”

Public diplomacy is often called people-to-people diplomacy. It includes cultural and academic exchanges, promotion of information on American democracy and values and broadcast of global news and US policies in native languages.

Alan Heil, a former Deputy Director of the Voice of America, says that international broadcasting is most effective when it combines accurate news and analysis with a complete range of cultural and economic features. As US international broadcasting brought honest news to East Europeans during the Cold War, it can do the same today in other parts of the world that lack a free and fair press. “As Librarian of Congress James Billington once put it, ‘democracy is a fire in the minds of man. That fire feeds on constant communication back and forth, a sharing of information, ideas, skills and experience.’ There Democracy is a fire in the minds of man. That fire feeds on constant communication back and forth, a sharing of information, ideas, skills and experience. There is the possibility today, that US international broadcasters, simply by sharing the facts with their listeners, can help breathe substance into faint new embers of reform in some totalitarian governments around the world.”

The most recent VOA television initiative is a daily news program broadcast in Persian called News and Views. Seth Cropsey is director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, the office that oversees US international broadcasting services. He says programs like News and Views are reaching foreign audiences through not only radio, but also various media channels. “Now we have multiple channels and no government is in a position to block our message if we use a variety of channels including the Internet, e-mail and satellite. By overloading the system every time, we magnify the problem of those that fear the unimpeded flow of information.”

Analysts say new initiatives like News and Views are too few. Many public diplomacy programs - including popular exchange programs that bring world leaders to view American democracy in action - have been sharply cut in the last decade.

Mark Helmke, a senior staff member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, says funding for public diplomacy remains painfully small. “While America's military has gone through a major overhaul and significant new funding since the collapse of the Soviet Union, our State Department and therefore our public diplomacy efforts, have suffered from neglect. Today, for every one dollar the United States spends on the military, we spend only seven cents on the State Department.”

However, US legislators are pondering new diplomatic efforts - including a public diplomacy plan for the Arab and Muslim world. Mark Helmke says there is no time to lose. “We have to start changing very quickly. The United States has a military rivaled to none. We will also have to have a diplomatic corps and a public diplomatic corps that is unrivaled to none throughout the world.”

Analysts say public diplomacy and international broadcasting alone may not be able to turn the tide of anti-Americanism, but they remain vital in delivering America's message to the world.