Don’t let Putin close his new Iron Curtain

Associated Press – Patrick Semansky/Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

One of the most essential elements of any country’s statecraft abroad is public diplomacy, often described as people-to-people diplomacy. Public diplomacy, essentially soft power, includes a broad spectrum of media/information work and cultural/educational programs and exchanges. At one time, it included American Centers abroad that were open to the public and physically separate from U.S. embassies.

The bright and shining moment of U.S. public diplomacy was the 1950s and 1960s. It was actually a Cold War creation implemented by an independent U.S.-government organization known as the United States Information Agency (USIA) in coordination with broadcasting overseas from Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Essentially, USIA was created during the Cold War to “win hearts and minds” against the Soviet Union. In fact, USIA had a separate rapid-response unit dedicated to refuting Soviet lies and disinformation as they appeared in print media and broadcasts around the world.

The Biden administration is well aware that Russia has revived its global disinformation campaign, especially in the now-independent former Soviet Socialist Republics that Russian President Vladimir Putin claims is “Russia’s special sphere of influence.”

What happened? 

USIA existed until 1999 when then-Secretary of State Madelyn Albright apparently traded its independence for Sen. Jesse Helms’ (R-N.C.) vote to pass the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Soviet Union had fallen, and the United States, at that time, was perceived as the world’s one remaining superpower. Helms wanted USIA and other independent agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), done away with, or at least folded into the State Department where they could be more easily controlled, because he seemed to view them as liberal do-gooders. In that dust-up, USAID survived as an independent agency; USIA did not.

USIA was, in fact, partially responsible for its own demise, as witnessed in my time there. After the Church Commission of 1973 that investigated America’s role in the Vietnam War revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had used USIA positions for cover at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, a cultural shift occurred within USIA. The general sentiment emerged that the agency, if it were to maintain U.S. credibility, had to keep a firm distance from the State Department that had readily provided cover positions to the CIA. This ethos too often described the State Department as “dirty” and USIA as “clean.”

When USIA was put out of business in 1999 and folded into the State Department, a whole generation of highly experienced senior USIA diplomats resigned rather than join the State Department. I had begun my diplomatic career in USIA and was, in fact, delighted with the merger, because I had always been intensely interested in policy and policy-making. In my stary-eyed optimism, I believed that within a few years public diplomacy would become an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. It didn’t work that way, though, because many of the USIA officers who joined the State Department brought with them their USIA corporate culture. 

The aftermath of 9/11

Further, a major setback occurred as a result of the 9/11 attack on the United States. As part of the massive ramp-up of security for U.S. embassies and diplomatic personnel around the world, almost all the formerly stand-alone American Centers abroad that welcomed walk-in local citizens were closed down for good and reopened the U.S. embassies. But in the massive project of the early 2000s to build new, “more secure” U.S. embassies in many places around the world, those new embassies were often moved from easily accessible downtown locations to far suburbs behind high concrete walls topped with razor-wire with armed guards at the gate — not exactly welcoming for local citizens. Eventually, the State Department created American Corners, essentially stripped-down, bare-bones, mini-American Centers plugged into local universities but without American-citizen employees. It just wasn’t the same thing.

Double whammy: The COVID-19 pandemic and dominance of social media 

But then the world changed once again when COVID-19 severely limited the in-person meetings essential for public diplomacy, exacerbating something that had been happening even before the COVID-19 catastrophe, especially on the media and information side of public diplomacy. That change was the tsunami wave of social media. Every U.S. embassy in the world now has, at a minimum, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. And it has simply become too easy for public diplomacy diplomats to do the daily website postings and then feel that the job is done.

No, it isn’t. This kind of work, although essential, is just not the same thing as going out and building in-person relationships of trust with people of influence. It’s not sitting down with local journalists and carefully explaining in detail the U.S. view of what is going on behind the scenes in the bilateral relationship and, thus, effectively helping to shape the news story. A Twitter post cannot replace the subtlety and effectiveness of communication that occurs in a face-to-face meeting. Posting a policy point, a soundbite or photo of an event is not enough.

Counter Putin’s version

Putin has long described the independent nations of the former Soviet Union as Russia’s “special sphere of influence.” In recent U.S.-Russia negotiations over the long crisis in Ukraine, Putin has made clear that he wants an “exclusive sphere of influence.” While can’t reconstitute the former Soviet Union, his goal quite clearly is once again to draw shut a New Iron Curtain, with the West on one side and Russia on the other. 

For that reason alone, Washington needs to dramatically ramp up its soft power with a more effective and more visible public diplomacy. It’s time to dig the new American trenches in the current Russian disinformation war and get our public-diplomacy-officer troops into them.

It’s time for Congress to act and to fund properly a new U.S. public diplomacy.

Ambassador (ret.) Richard E. Hoagland is the chair of the Caspian Policy Center’s Security and Politics Program. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia at the Department of State. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan (2003 to 2006) and U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008 to 2011).

Tags International Iron Curtain Public Diplomacy Richard E. Hoagland Russia Soviet Union State Department Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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