The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion

The myth of the United States Information Agency as America’s defense against political warfare lives on. Just last month, the Director of National Intelligence repeated calls for a muscular USIA. Others have declared that the absence of USIA has left us vulnerable.

In November 2015, I wrote that these and similar invocations of USIA are coded laments that “we lack a strategy, an organizing principle, and empowered individuals to execute information warfare today.” These calls also ignore the role our actions have in influencing the minds and wills of others. Informational activities — whether public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communication, or psychological operations — is not “pixie dust” that will magically transform a mind when actions contradict the words. This is not merely an issue of values versus interests, though that is a factor. No, whatever psychological or information instrument we employ cannot compensate for absent or ill-conceived policies and plans.

Last month, in The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion, I expanded the look back into the environment which gave rise to USIA. But USIA was a public affairs bullhorn and never charged or prepared, structured, or properly equipped, including training, to deal with the realities of political warfare, defensive or offensive, despite the mythology. It’s notable that examples given to support arguments that USIA was responsive to the Soviet Union’s nonmilitary aggression are not from the “cold war” period marked by political and ideological conflict waged before borders the walls went up. Instead, they come from the “Cold War” bipolar order marked my military confrontation between two superpowers and proxy battlefields.

As I wrote in The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion, the Congress essentially re-established a USIA with regards to its coordinating function. It’s named the Global Engagement Center. The other components, the elements of great substance and impact, exist in the State Department. The Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), for example, continues to languish under a lack of direction, poor support, and self-marginalization as successive unit leaders chased resume-building initiatives rather than national security requirements or supporting inter- and intra-department needs.

We need to focus on the people, organizations, and tools we have before wasting more money on new toys. Money cannot buy a solution. There needs to be leadership, a purpose, training, accountability (as well as tolerance for experimentation and failure), and an overall a strategy. What does success or “victory” look like? Knowing what we are attempting to achieve, followed by how we can achieve the goal or goals, helps define the methods and never is the solution a bigger bullhorn.

I closed the latest article with a quote from 1963 that fits today as much as it did then: “Someday this nation will recognize that global non-military conflict must be pursued with the same intensity and preparation as global military conflicts.”

Read the whole article here: The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion.

2 thoughts on “The Past, Present, and Future of the War for Public Opinion

  1. Matthew,

    While I agree that effective public diplomacy requires leadership, purpose, training, accountability, and strategic focus, I must respectfully disagree with your characterization of the current state of affairs in the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP). In fact, IIP has transformed itself into one of the most innovative bureaus in the Department and now offers products, programs, platforms, tools, and expertise that enhance and focus our public diplomacy efforts around the world. I urge you to come see for yourself!

    Jonathan Henick
    Acting Coordinator, IIP

    1. Jonathan,
      Thank you for taking the time read the article and for the comment.

      My short response is that innovation does not equal relevance. IIP may indeed be innovative. The last IIP Coordinator was an innovator. His predecessor also strived for innovation, though in a different way. The Coordinator before those two was not as innovative. That covers the past ten years and throughout the value of IIP to the department, let alone to R, and to the interagency has been lost and in many ways forgotten.

      I’d be happy to come by the next time I’m in DC to see the latest with IIP.


      (this comment has been updated)

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