Reflecting on waning American influence in his country as shown by a recent poll, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble sarcastically said: “Perhaps now more of those in power in the United States will ask themselves: Why is America’s soft power, even though it is the indispensable nation, not so great as to be understood by the dumb Germans?”
Actually, Americans in and out of power have for some time been asking themselves this question, as it applies to the entire world. It seems to puzzle us. Why have we lost our influence? Can’t the great communicators communicate anymore? Or is there something wrong with the message itself?
Cultural critic Martha Bayles has taken on this vexing topic in her new book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. I am primarily familiar with Bayles’ writing through her trenchant film criticism for the Claremont Review of Books. If you would like to see evidence of her skill, read her devastating critique of the recent film version of The Great Gatsby. She not only saved me a couple of hours, but provided an example of film criticism at its best.
Therefore, I looked forward to her treatment of this new subject matter, most particularly U.S. public diplomacy, since I have been involved with it for some years, including in some of the events described in this book. Having already experienced her powers of analysis in one area, I was not surprised that Bayles gets things just about right with this difficult topic. Two big things have changed, she explains. One is the character of American culture, and the other is our self-mutilation in our capacity to conduct public diplomacy.
In short, these two things combined to cause America to lose its influence abroad.
First of all, we need to remind ourselves that the United States was born out of a war of ideas. Our British opponents knew that the essence of the Revolutionary War was a struggle, as the commanding British general Sir Henry Clinton said, for “hearts and minds.” The American Founders knew how to articulate the reasons for which they fought, not only to their fellow citizens, but to those foreign powers without whose help the war would have been lost.
Since then, every major conflict in which the United States has been involved has been a confrontation over the truth or falsity of the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Most particularly in World War II and throughout the Cold War, the United States developed the means through which to communicate its reasons to the world. Under President Eisenhower, these means were gathered into the United States Information Agency (USIA), which had the responsibility of fighting our side in the war of ideas and telling America’s story to the world.
For the most part, USIA did this well. Some of the best parts of the book relate the successes racked up by experienced public and cultural diplomacy officers deployed around the world and through USIA’s broadcasting arm, the Voice of America. The stories of how the best officers operated in the field, some told in their own words, are illuminating. Some of the work involved explaining and promoting the U.S. policies du jour, but a good deal of it took place at a deeper, slower level of inculcating the principles of free government. Wars of ideas are not fought with 30-day plans or six-month plans, but with 20-year plans. USIA was the one institution within the U.S. government from which this could be done. (I was privileged to work there and at the Voice of America for a cumulative 13 years.) It worked. We won the Cold War.
Then came the self-disfigurement. As part of the peace dividend, USIA was eliminated. We lost a large part of our capacity to conduct public diplomacy. Bayles seems to think there was a conscious decision to let the entertainment industry take over “the job of communicating America’s policies, ideals, and culture to a distrustful world.” I don’t think so, at least not at first. It was more a matter of filling the vacuum created by those who, wrongly supposing history had ended with the other superpower’s collapse, cavalierly axed USIA.
During World War II, and for a good deal of the Cold War, America’s popular entertainment did not undermine official U.S. public diplomacy. More likely, it enhanced it by creating an attractive picture of America as a place of moral character, principle, freedom, and optimism. If you have a vacuum to fill, it’s not so bad if you’re pouring in Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Louis Armstrong, or Benny Goodman. However, in the last part of the 20th century, American culture became corrosive. Bayles spends a good part of the book persuasively detailing the toxic decline into violence, materialism, and sexual obsession. To the extent this was attractive to citizens of other countries, it eroded their cultures, too—much to the dismay of those who wished to maintain them.
By the time America was attacked on September 11, 2001, we had lost a lot of friends in the world who thought we were deliberately exporting our culture to undermine theirs. As Bayles relates, they also began to consider us moral degenerates as a result of those exports. I recall being keenly aware of this as I followed the overseas reaction to American behavior immediately after 9/11. It was one of surprise. “Look,” they seemed to say, “Americans, in their grief, are conducting themselves with dignity and resolve. Apparently, they are not all sex-obsessed, overweight, and lost in malls searching for ever-larger home entertainment centers.”
At that time, I was the director of the Voice of America, and I told the staff that this surprise reflected poorly on us as broadcasters who had the responsibility of conveying to the world the true character of the American people. If we had done our jobs correctly, they would not have been taken aback by the admirable American reaction they witnessed. In fact, I suggested, had not this false image been allowed to stand uncontested, even Osama bin Laden might have been given pause before rousing our ire. He was convinced that we would run. He simply got the direction wrong, and we were partly to blame for that by not vigorously counteracting corrosive popular media images with public diplomacy that gave the fuller story of who Americans are.
Commercial media will never do this job because it does not pay. That is why a government agency tasked with this work is necessary. But USIA was gone, and the Voice of America and the other government radios were adrift under the part-time supervision of members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The magnitude of our deficiencies soon became apparent in the two wars we were fighting. Didn’t friends and adversaries alike need to understand why we fight?
Bayles is harsh in her assessment of the strategic communications efforts undertaken by the Department of Defense to fill the public diplomacy void. I was involved in some of those efforts, and I can tell her that they were acts of desperation. Moreover, no one was more keenly aware of the price that would be paid—in their own blood—for faulty “hearts and minds” efforts than members of the U.S. military. I worked in the Pentagon and in the Middle East on some of these efforts, and they were excruciatingly hard to execute for the simple reason that the Defense Department was not designed to conduct public diplomacy. Things I could have done at USIA that would have taken six weeks took me more than two years to accomplish.
It was also at this time that the Broadcasting Board of Governors decided to eliminate VOA’s Arabic service and its substantive content, and replace it with Radio Sawa—a 24-hour mélange of American and Arabic pop music, with two short newsbreaks in the hour. What could possibly have guided this decision? Here is where Bayles’ impression that a conscious decision was made to replace public diplomacy with American popular culture is right on the mark. Not only the chairman of the BBG but, on a separate occasion, the director of its Middle East committee, informed me that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.” Quite apart from the absurdity of this assertion, they never explained what wall they were intending to bring down in the Middle East.
The advent of Radio Sawa was met with incomprehension from serious Arab intellectuals. One of them, the most prominent journalist in Jordan, told me that Radio Sawa “is fun, but it’s irrelevant.” It was particularly irrelevant during wartime, but it did cement in the minds of Arabs who were worried about the corrosive effects of American pop culture on their families and societies that the United States was intent on using its pop culture as a weapon against them. The Middle East was desperate to hear from the United States the reasons for these wars. Instead, we played music. As Bayles points out, “The world was starved for solid information about what was happening.”
Again, I am familiar with this from personal experience. I asked one member of the German Bundestag if the American Embassy or any agent of the U.S. government had ever given him our rationale for the war in Iraq. He responded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Germany for an annual defense conference was the only time he heard any U.S. official say anything about the subject. When I met with a Danish parliamentarian who was chairman of their equivalent of the foreign affairs committee, I asked if the U.S. Embassy in his country had ever provided him with any information on the subject of the war. He replied, “No, they only come to me to get information, not to give it.” As a supporter of the war, he was stunned when I showed him photos of some of the two dozen Soviet fighter aircraft that had been uncovered in the sand, including a MiG-25 Foxbat. He was eager to use them.
Bayles’ prescriptions for recovering our powers of public diplomacy are generally sensible. She deplores the dumbing down of what we have on offer and the abandonment of foreign elites as the primary audience for our efforts. “Leveling up” the content of cultural diplomacy, she believes, is crucial for resuming the effort to reach opinion leaders. Most of her recommendations for reforming government broadcasting have already been put forward in a reform bill that has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Because Through a Screen Darkly covers a great deal of territory in its 250 pages, it cannot deal in depth with many of the important issues it raises. Any book that tried to do so would be mammoth. This is more of a critical survey, but nonetheless a helpful one. Only occasionally does Bayles misstep by accepting press reports that were not, in fact, accurate. There is no space to go into it here, but her criticisms of the Office of Strategic Influence, led by Brigadier General Pete Warden, are misplaced. I was intimately familiar with the excellent work of this office, which was unfortunately sabotaged by the Pentagon’s public affairs shop—a place where ideas went to die. Also, Bayles exhibits a somewhat naïve appraisal of the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. Yes, surveys show high levels of support for “democratic ideals,” but those evaporate as soon as the bedrock principle of democratic constitutional rule—the equality of all persons—is introduced.
One last item. Bayles spends time excoriating private American preachers who have gone to Africa to preach against sodomy. She ought to be more worried about the effects of the official U.S. endorsement of homosexuality that is exported through our embassies. For a sample, see the El Mundo story here, with the Gay Pride flag flying over the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. It is a perfect example of the official embrace of our popular culture that will alienate untold numbers of people in foreign countries. Is this really how we should represent ourselves abroad? Anyone struggling to answer this question will appreciate Martha Bayles’ book.