During the Cold War, American actions — both hard and soft power — were steeped in information and data. Intelligence guided the stick — the growth of our nuclear arsenal and the space program — and information guided the carrot — U.S. engagement with the world; the way we explained our policies and values.
Today, our credibility is in jeopardy. We lack an information agency steering our soft power actions, and it shows.
Not long ago, presidents and principals received advice and information from the now-defunct USIA. ... But it was lost. In a post-Cold War, “end-of-history” moment of the late 1990s.
Not long ago, presidents and principals received advice and information from the now-defunct United States Information Agency (USIA). For example, during the Kennedy administration, ongoing polling of our key allies — the British, French, West German and Italian people — sought to understand perceptions of American strength. When polling demonstrated that these allies were losing confidence in America’s ability to provide leadership for the West, President Kennedy set off to Europe to “develop themes” such as “Western unity” and the “U.S. pledge to stand by its European allies,” as noted in a post-trip report. The USIA, responsible for the polling and the before and after assessment of the trip, was the information backbone of the strategy. At that time, soft power had a rudder.
But it was lost. In a post-Cold War, “end-of-history” moment of the late 1990s, the USIA was disbanded. So to be fair, the divorce of information and soft power predates President Trump. But his style demonstrates the ongoing need for an information agency.
His administration lacks experience and knowledge, and speaks off the cuff with little preparation. His inconsistent statements (on NATO, China and more) are growing in number. This leaves American soft power diminished in the face of some very real foreign policy challenges, from a menacing Russia to a frightening North Korea, and protracted conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa.
Can the rebirth of an information agency rein in the off-script and ill-informed foreign policy statements of the administration? Kennedy, one of our most likeable presidents, took advice from his USIA director, the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow, to build his public persona.
In a 1961 memo to President Kennedy after the creation of the Peace Corps, Director Murrow wrote: “The Russians are really squealing about the Peace Corps and appear to be in the process of mounting a major propaganda campaign against it. This is an undertaking where we have them on the hip … Recommendation: At your next news conference, you should say in answer to a question that you would be delighted to see Russians working alongside Americans and others in an effort to improve health, education and public services in emerging countries.”
Who is advising President Trump’s communications? And is this advice steeped in information? Trump urgently needs a Murrow.
The USIA director’s role was not to speak on behalf of Kennedy; that was the job of Press Secretary Pierre Salinger. Instead, Murrow provided counsel based on information. He recommended that the State Department pull the word “under-developed countries” from communications, favoring instead the term “developing countries” which played better in polls. Murrow’s primary job was managing our international broadcasters — Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, among others — in telling America’s story abroad.
Using data to help our leaders respond to events was the USIA’s call to action, as outlined in an agency report: “Research activities … attempt to take guesswork out of the business of speaking to people abroad … Communicating to the world requires that we know what people think and feel on issues with which this nation is concerned.”
Today, who takes this temperature? Are were relying on a search of Facebook feeds and viral videos to inform our diplomacy? Without data and information, responses are knee-jerk, uninformed tweets.
Clearly, the United States lacks an independent information agency. We lack data (targeted polls, reads on foreign news, demographic data, behavioral trends, etc.) guiding foreign policy communications. We lack preparation ahead of mounting disinformation campaigns. This is more relevant than ever, as Russia and the Assad regime export untruths.
But is there space to recreate an information agency when State Department and public diplomacy programs are on the budgetary chopping block? Maybe not. But even if we can’t fix it, we can acknowledge that it’s broken.
We lack data guiding foreign policy communications. We lack preparation ahead of mounting disinformation campaigns.
We may live in an information age, but that does not ensure that the right information is in the hands of our decision makers and the mouthpieces of our foreign policy. Kennedy himself was thankful for strategic information, writing to Murrow in September of 1963 that the USIA was an “integral and indispensable arm of our Government’s overseas operations.”
American soft power will remain rudderless until information guides our message, just as intelligence is the backbone of military strategy. Access to the right information, studied by an independent agency that answers to its own director and mission, enhances the value of American soft power.
Recognizing the error of abandoning the USIA in the 1990s, and the active misinformation guiding foreign policy today, is an important first step.
Editor's note: The documents quoted above can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.