Recent leaks from the U.S. State Department suggest that Secretary Rex Tillerson is not interested in one of its traditional missions: promoting democracy across the world. But could it actually be a wise move to pause those efforts — especially at this undeniably awkward moment for the U.S.?
Josh Rogin at The Washington Post reports that State is looking to amend its mission statement, editing out the goal of “shaping” a “just and democratic world.” A Politico report reveals Tillerson’s reluctance to access a total of $79.8 million of available funding earmarked under President Barack Obama for counteracting Russian and Islamic State propaganda. There’s clearly a pattern there: Tillerson, who is intent on downsizing the department, appears to consider the negotiating part of its job more important than the soft power part. He has said as much, warning underlings that too much focus on promoting U.S. values “really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
Understandably, that rankles old-timers. They see it as a reflection of the Trump administration’s isolationism, its lack of firm principles, even a pro-Russian attitude (why else would Tillerson withhold money from an effort against Russian propaganda?). But it could be just a former businessman’s instinct against waste.
This year’s “Soft Power 30 Report,” produced by the London-based communications firm Portland, ranked the U.S. in third place among the world’s most influential nations — after France and the U.K. The report points to America’s unmatched advantages: Its role as the global center of higher education, its immensely popular cultural output, its strength in new technology. But it also explains why the U.S. allowed France to overtake it. “Clear threats to American soft power do exist,” the report said, “if its leadership continues with an ‘America First’ approach of promoting nationalistic rhetoric, devaluing international alliances, and prioritizing hard over soft power.” Under the Trump administration, the international image of the U.S. has suffered, polls by both Portland and the Pew Research Center show.
One of Portland’s recommendations is that Tillerson not weaken the public relations function of State because that would “diminish America’s ability to leverage its existing soft power assets.” But, given the president’s colorful history, his tendency to distort even well-known facts and his penchant for flip-flopping, does the Trump administration have the credibility to push a set of values to the outside world?
Even Obama, a far more traditional global role model, wasn’t particularly effective at projecting America’s soft power: hopes for more democracy in the Arab world turned out to be misplaced, populist parties rose in Europe, and Russia kicked out U.S.-backed organizations that worked with its civil society.
Arguably, the U.S. has always been better at projecting soft power through its private sector than through government channels. Hollywood, the music and tech industries, the lively and masterful media provide the shining examples everyone wants to imitate. Their success comes bundled with American values, such as a broader freedom of speech than in most other countries, openness to diversity, economic liberty, the constant quest for the next new thing. The energy pumping through the American cultural product is genuine: Anyone who has been to the U.S. has felt it in daily interactions. Can the government add much to this perception? I doubt it. But as part of such a product, even the Trump administration can contribute to promoting U.S. values: Look how relentlessly U.S. journalists pursue the president and his team. Such a fiery, eminently watchable confrontation is possible in very few nations.
I grew up in the Soviet Union, my eyes and ears filled daily with state propaganda. But, like others around me, I sought out American and European movies, music, books, clothes, magazines. None of what I wanted was government-produced, which made it all the more attractive. The Soviet machine sputtered because it lost credibility in competition with Western private initiative.
When it comes to counteracting Russian state propaganda today, the private sector still does a great job. RT, the TV channel that pushes the Kremlin point of view to U.S. audiences, doesn’t even have Nielsen ratings (and it would certainly pay for them if a lot of people watched it). That’s because private U.S. news outlets dominate. And if some of them sometimes choose to amplify RT’s messages, that’s because their audience wants them to, in order to feed its confirmation biases. What would the State Department do with the millions of dollars it’s been given to fight Russian propaganda? Would it be anything U.S. media and civil society groups are not doing better?
Last year, Michael Lumpkin, coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which is trying unsuccessfully to get the money from Tillerson, gave an example of the center’s efforts against Islamic State. “In East Africa we are establishing an online radio station in Kiswahili (or Swahili),” he wrote. “It airs youth-produced programming that pushes back against the rising volume of violent extremist propaganda in the region. In particular, the content is aimed at local youth living in neighborhoods where violent extremists are known to recruit.” But there are lots of other players in African community radio, from the Gates Foundation to the United Nations. They all have an advantage over the U.S. government: They are more neutral, and their funding sources cannot be used against them by the adversary.
Instead of spending $80 million fighting a propaganda war that authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups are trying to force on the U.S., America should simply let news organizations do their job. Tax breaks for expanding international reporting networks and starting foreign publications would work far better than direct investment in counterpropaganda, which is, essentially, state propaganda as well. An African journalist with experience stringing for a U.S. publication is worth a dozen state-funded PR projects: The website he will set up some day will do an honest, compelling job promoting democratic, humanist values.
The U.S. does best when it promotes those values spontaneously, by example. The only reason Russia and other authoritarian regimes have state-financed propaganda machines is because they cannot match that. I’d like to think Tillerson’s opposition to imitating them at a cost to U.S. taxpayers stems from an understanding of American soft power’s origins. Let him do deals — and let U.S. media and civil society judge those deals from a values standpoint. That’s how the U.S. system is supposed to work, and that’s what people the world over find attractive about it.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.