Propaganda: The USIA’s New Line (6/98)

The headquarters of the US Information Agency (USIA) are just two blocks from the Mall in Washington, DC. But this government agency, which receives about $1 billion a year from US taxpayers, is no tourist attraction. In fact, a US citizen is better off going abroad to learn how it implements its motto: "telling America’s story to the world."

 A crucial part of the US foreign policy apparatus, USIA likes to call its particular branch of foreign affairs "public diplomacy," a euphemism for propaganda. The encyclopedia definition of the latter term is "instruments of psychological warfare aimed at influencing the actions of human beings in ways that are compatible with the national interest objectives of the purveying state." But USIA prefers the euphemism, because it doesn’t want the US public to think that its government actively engages in psychological warfare activities, and because, among the general public, "propaganda" is a pejorative catch-all for negative and offensive manipulation.

Nevertheless, I think it aptly describes the operations of the USIA. How else would you define what is essentially a public relations instrument of corporate propaganda which "sells" the US story abroad by integrating business interests with cultural objectives? And I offer this critique as one who experienced the corporate domination of the USIA firsthand. From 1992-94, I participated in a federal program for graduate students called the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program. As a result, I worked in USIA’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (the "E Bureau" in government-speak), whose purpose is to conduct cultural programs which increase mutual understanding between the people of the US and other countries. While there, I acted as the agency’s contact for the Fulbright program in Germany, Spain, and the former Yugoslavia. A Fulbright recipient myself, I very much believed in the ideals of educational exchange.

But Sen. Fulbright, who wrote in The Price of Empire that intercultural education could help people find in themselves "the ways and means of living together in peace," opposed the housing of his namesake program in the USIA. Not thrilled about the agency’s existence, he even supported a 1987 plan to dismantle it, making the Smithsonian Institution home for the Fulbright program and returning public affairs to the State Department. Instead, however, the USIA undertook a new post-Cold War propaganda emphasis on democracy and free markets under the Clinton administration. Educational exchange programs quickly became useful tools to promote the US economic model and global integration.

Influencing the Insiders

The primary targets of USIA propaganda are overseas elite clients from the upper class business and professional echelon who look to the US as the world’s leader. Often participating in sponsored visits like the International Visitor Program, they’re the 10 to 20 percent of the target population with relatively high education and influence potential. The agency prefers this group, despite some anti-US sentiments, because propaganda is thought to be most effective when used on powerful influence peddlers. As Noam Chomsky explains, "By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power."

USIA also uses various media, including overseas radio broadcasts like the Voice of America (VOA), and its

TV counterpart Worldnet, to further influence society’s insiders. What about the other 80 to 90 percent, whom journalist Walter Lippmann labeled the "bewildered herd"? They aren’t expected to pay much attention. Instead, they’re the target audience of the commercial mass media.

Throughout the Cold War, USIA used Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to reach Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Both received credit for helping win that war. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created Radio/TV Marti to undermine Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba and win support from anti-Castro Cubans in Florida. This was the first triumph of the Cuban American National Foundation, a brainchild of Richard Allen, Reagan’s first national security advisor. Allen envisioned an organization for anti-Communist exiles that would be for Cuba what the American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) was for Israel.

Today, USIA’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting is stacked with supporters of the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), whose controversial founder, the late Jorge Mas Canosa, chaired that office’s Advisory Board. Canosa used his bullying charisma and organization’s clout to secure millions for Radio/TV Marti, despite internal reports that TV Marti "achieves virtually no reception or impact within the greater Havana area due to heavy jamming."

The agency’s newest broadcasting arm is Radio Free Asia (RFA). Patterned after Radio Free Europe, RFA began broadcasting to China in September 1996, and now airs programs for North Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. The stated mission is to broadcast truthful information to countries where governments censor information and ban freedom of the press. Yet, congressional debate over the new venture was contentious. Opponents argued that the VOA was already broadcasting effectively to the same countries. RFA proponents then explained that its broadcasts would be entirely in the native language of targeted countries, and that the goal of its journalists and "information specialists" would be to destabilize government control. In other words, RFA would function primarily as a propaganda operation.

Beyond Containment

For decades, the messianic mission of the USIA was to counter Soviet propaganda and win the battle for people’s minds. Since winning that psychological war, however, the agency has adopted new foreign policy objectives – commercial engagement and expanded markets overseas.

The new campaign actually began in the mid-80s with the funding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Center for International Enterprise (CIPE). These followed Reagan’s Project Democracy and Project Truth, which claimed to spread the ideals of democracy at the height of US military aid to Latin America. In a 1982 address to the British parliament, Reagan called for a new war of ideas and values, the first sign of a shift from a policy of containment to advocacy of democracy and free markets. Some congressional oversight committee members were skeptical, especially upon hearing that CIA Director William Casey was helping to plan the initiative. The academic community also weighed in. "If the United States wants to propagate democracy," said Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman, "it should do it by example." Hampshire College President Adele Simmons called the tone of the project culturally imperialistic.

Since the passage of NAFTA in 1993, USIA has embraced trade and economics as its primary mission. At the start of the Clinton administration, national security advisor Anthony Lake announced the new rationale: "Throughout the Cold War, we contained a global threat to market democracies. Now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us. The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement, the enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies."

This Clinton Doctrine places US competitiveness and integration of the world economy at the heart of foreign policy. In the post-Soviet environment, that message has become the USIA’s raison d’�tre. As then-Senator Howell Heflin asserted in a 1996 editorial, the agency’s programs not only serve US national interests, but also "provide direct economic benefits and foster a climate where American business can develop overseas markets."

A Mini-Commerce Department

If there ever was a White Paper on the intersection of diplomacy with US business interests, it appeared in News and Views, a publication of the USIA’s American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812. In the May 1994 issue, distributed to USIA employees worldwide, the E Bureau’s Rhonda Boris announced a restructuring of the agency’s mission. The conversion of 150 bi-national centers and 132 USIA American Centers overseas would "activate the link between US public diplomacy and trade promotion and support the new US foreign policy of penetrating the Department of Commerce-designated ÔBig Emerging Markets’." USIA was developing a "new synergy between public diplomacy and trade promotion in the information age," which has the potential to "become the growth industry for USIA."

Along with hundreds of supporting VOA editorials, this article verified that henceforth, first and foremost, the agency would act to promote US business interests overseas. Of course, USIA’s emergence as a mini-Commerce Department makes for duplication of government services in a post-big government era of downsizing. But USIA aims to further synergize the public/private partnership between corporate US and foreign affairs. The agency’s Strategic Plan for 1997-2003 includes national security, democracy, law enforcement, and economic prosperity as vital goals. This leads to functions such as promoting NATO expansion (expected to create a boom market for US arms manufacturers), anti-crime and anti-terrorism information programs in cooperation with the Department of Justice and FBI, collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Administration on public affairs programming, and protection of intellectual property rights.

USIA uses "national security" and "democracy" interchangeably with "free enterprise" and "the free market." Economic prosperity means you have to "expand exports, open markets, assist American business, and foster sustainable economic growth." In this context, "democracy" isn’t a political system in which citizens participate in the management of their own affairs. Instead, it means a system in which transnational business interests and their government allies make decisions that ensure private profit and massive public subsidies. Economic prosperity is narrowly defined as that condition in which corporations can function free of regulation, while relying on government intervention in the form of tax breaks and corporate welfare.

Under the new mandate, international exchange and public diplomacy are tools to promote free trade, US competitiveness, and US-led democracy building. That’s the new hard sell of the US’ storyteller.

Putting Markets First

In 1992, candidate Clinton ran with the theme of "putting people first." He challenged the Cold War legacy of Reagan and Bush and spoke of an opportunity to shift focus from national security, containment, and foreign affairs to domestic programs like health care and education that would benefit all. Less than a year later, however, President Clinton had a new campaign: putting markets first. As chief international affairs correspondent for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman explained: "America’s victory in the cold war was a victory for a set of political and economic principles: democracy and the free market. The free market is the wave of the future – a future for which America is both the gatekeeper and model." The first success of this new policy was the passage of NAFTA and the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which included a "Bill of Economic Rights" for corporations.

USIA is scheduled to be incorporated into a "reinvented" State Department by October 1999. USIA’s information programs will be integrated with State’s public affairs operation, a new bureau will handle cultural and exchange issues, and a new assistant secretary of public diplomacy will ease the transition. The move suggests business-as-usual. As outlined by Nancy Soderberg, foreign policy advisor to the National Security Council, "economic prosperity" remains one of the main priorities as the administration develops "a new global trading system with America at its hub."

For USIA, the new strategy emphasizes public-private partnership – government doublespeak for private domination and public acquiescence in budget-cutting times. It means a full partnership between trade/economic and information/cultural policy. As pressure increases to measure performance, a "good" USIA program becomes one that meets the corporate bottom line: Does it expand US markets, promote competitiveness, or link US businesses with overseas counterparts? Mutual understanding is a straw man; in reality, the US – coached by business – informs and influences while other countries listen.

Current policymaking reduces the role of citizens to mere spectators. USIA’s model of democracy and the free market is the superpower version of economic globalization. In this version, capital flows freely, but the movement of people, particularly the world’s poor, is strictly monitored and controlled. Such a commercial package speaks first and foremost for government "partners," the corporations bankrolling and benefiting from the US political process. But this packaged story, ready for shipment to clients around the world, is incomplete and undemocratic. Where do workers and communities fit in? How do private citizens help build dialogue across cultures?

Grassroots Globalism

There is strong evidence that the USIA is an ineffective, obsolete agency that should be dismantled. It has no legitimate post-Cold War function and primarily serves the interest of US trade and economic sectors by touting the superiority of US commercial values and economic policies to elite foreign audiences. Likewise, by overplaying foreign economic concerns, it neglects its second mandate – mutual understanding.

But arguing for abolition puts one in unusual company. The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that the USIA is a cold war relic that can’t compete with the US commercial culture sector in opening up markets. Thus, it supports the proposed merger as a way to streamline US foreign policy, so that more of the "business" of international relations can be handled by private industry. It appears that the days of government-sponsored information, culture, and exchange programs are numbered, a development that could provide an opening for a democratic alternative that challenges the market democracy supported by foreign policy.

In A Nation of Salesmen, Earl Shorris describes the US in the late 20th century as completely dominated by selling and a market-driven version of democracy. An alternative – political democracy – "is a relation among human beings who control themselves. Market democracy is a competition in which people try to control each other. The people who do the controlling are called salesmen. They are rewarded according to their ability to use information to influence people to do one thing instead of another, an act they celebrate as the workings of the free market." These forms "are not interchangeable, and one is a misnomer, for the control of one human being by another, no matter how subtle the means, is no democracy."

Personally, I favor political democracy and a foreign policy driven by informed citizens. USIA’s function is to "sell" one, essentially corporate, version of the country to the influential markets of the world. But countless citizens, working with their counterparts abroad, are using their united vision to promote another – a global civic society which promotes the birth of a one-world community (not market) where diverse cultures can work together to combat poverty, oppression, pollution, and violence. In contrast to USIA’s boardroom-style model, many of these activists favor more freedom of movement for people and greater regulation of capital. Such a grassroots globalism isn’t driven by classical economics and devotion to unlimited growth. Instead, it takes into account people’s values, their cultural and natural environments, and local economies where traditional non-market values like reciprocity, mutual aid, and self-reliance build community bonds. v

Nancy Snow is a regular TF contributor. This article is abridged from Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the World, a new Open Media Pamphlet published by Seven Stories Press.