In March 2000, President Bill Clinton suggested that the internet would help free China. Just five months earlier, the government’s public-diplomacy office, the U.S. Information Agency, had closed its doors—a post-Cold War money-saving measure. Both Clinton’s pronouncement and the shuttering of USIA were informed by a confident faith that free information results in free minds and free people. The internet’s unstoppable geysers of information, it was thought, would bust open any oppressive regime. In such a scenario, USIA must have seemed obsolete.
Two decades later, China has grown more autocratic, illiberalism is increasing, and much of the internet is fetid, malarial swampland that harms American democracy and creates opportunities for America’s adversaries.
It would be unfair to single out Clinton for his shortsightedness. In the 1990s and early 2000s, tech optimism—or, more accurately, a tech deterministic ideology—was the prevailing view. Only experience, ugly experience, could destroy the powerful consensus belief that the internet was simply a liberating force.
In light of the challenges facing liberal democracy today, and the recognition that the internet is hardly a benign force for good, the question of whether to revive USIA pops up pretty regularly, with scholars and journalists variously calling for bringing back USIA, not bringing it back, or creating some updated new USIA-like entity.
To think more clearly about this question, let’s look back at the history of USIA. The agency was created in 1953 to counter Soviet propaganda by telling the truth about the world and representing a better picture of America and American principles. It absorbed several extant government programs, including Voice of America (launched during the Second World War) and Radio Europe (launched in 1950), as well as various activities that had been performed by other departments and agencies. New programs were begun under USIA’s auspices, including Radio Liberty (directed at the USSR, launched in 1953), Radio Martí (directed at Cuba, begun in 1983), and a number of cultural and educational exchanges.
USIA was a political punching bag, knocked about by Congress and presidential administrations alike. Following a 1978 reorganization, it operated for a few years under a different name before becoming USIA again. Finally, it was dismantled in 1999, with its non-broadcasting responsibilities largely handed off to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and its broadcasting responsibilities to the new, independent Board of Broadcasting Governors (later renamed the U.S. Agency for Global Media, USAGM).
In one sense, the two decades since the closure of USIA have been a boon: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the other USAGM subsidiaries have benefited immensely from their independence. The ability to say truthfully that they are not mouthpieces of the U.S. government makes them more appealing to foreign populations.
But at the same time, the arrangement has significantly weakened the U.S. government’s ability to communicate its message and its ideas. There is no longer a single government entity tasked with USIA’s multifarious responsibilities. The distinct but overlapping terms “public diplomacy,” “public information,” “information warfare,” and “counterpropaganda” describe the kinds of work USIA did. Because USIA was, in large part, a dedicated P.R. shop, it could get out America’s message in ways that straightforward journalists cannot. And it was often sophisticated and savvy in ways that the State Department and the CIA and other agencies don’t seem to be, in part because it had fewer restrictions in employing foreign nationals.
The protests in Cuba this month—the biggest uprising in the history of the island’s Communist regime—are a stirring reminder of why USIA should not have been eliminated. The protests owe a great debt to social media, a fairly recent arrival in Cuba due to internet censorship. In response to the demonstrations, the Cuban government shut down the internet altogether—a tactic they may have learned from the regime in Iran, which entirely shut down the internet in the country for ten days while it violently crushed a protest movement. (Netblocks, a business that monitors internet usage around the world, frequently reports on how autocracies become more restrictive amid protests or when implementing unpopular new policies.)
USAGM’s Radio Televisión Martí does important work from its headquarters in Miami, but the Cuban government jams both its satellite and over-the-air broadcasts. (During the current crisis, the Cuban government is even jamming ham radio.) Especially at a time of regime instability, as this month’s protests have created, the United States should find ways to ensure Martí’s programming, and for that matter other foreign broadcasts, can reach the intended audience.
The same applies beyond Cuba as well. The United States needs an information warfare strategy, one that counters foreign disinformation campaigns, explains the view from America to people around the world, and tells the truth. President Biden says he wants to rally the world’s democracies against autocracies. Uncensored internet and media are essential parts of this worthy and noble struggle.
A relaunched USIA would necessarily be different from the old one. The USAGM ought to remain intact and separate, retaining the various journalistic subsidiaries that were part of the old USIA. The new USIA would be smaller and more nimble than its predecessor. It would have more of a tech focus, too. In addition to countering foreign disinformation campaigns, the new USIA ought to focus on finding ways to bypass autocratic censorship and increase access to unrestricted internet and broadcast media—including finding ways to keep social media tools and communication apps available in repressed countries, so that political oppositions can use them to organize, and so that the people can find out what is going on in their countries.
The internet has made public diplomacy, information warfare, and counterpropaganda both more difficult and more needful. It is time to undo our mistake. It is time to bring back USIA.