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'Boom Box U.S.A.' - Gedmin in Foreign Affairs

In an article for Foreign Affairs, RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin looks at the role surrogate broadcasting can play in U.S. "soft power" strategies.


Boom Box U.S.A.
Surrogate Broadcasting as a Tool of U.S. Soft Power

Foreign Affairs

Jeffrey Gedmin
September 27, 2009

In the Obama administration, soft power is coming of age. Today, U.S. military officials and diplomats talk of a "political surge" to match the military surge in Afghanistan. Many in the Pentagon now say that R.B.s ("relationships built") are just as important as body counts of enemy dead in achieving victory. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for the greater application of soft power, including more money for development and reconstruction aid and strategic communications.

Any soft-power strategy should include a focus on surrogate broadcasting -- government-sponsored broadcasts that provide accurate and reliable news to countries where independent media do not exist. Surrogate broadcasting grew up during the Cold War, when the United States sought to penetrate the Iron Curtain with radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These broadcasts -- first clandestinely funded by the CIA and then openly by Congress -- were designed to provide the people of communist nations with the domestic news and information that their own governments denied them.

Today, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts to 20 countries, from Russia and the Caucasus to Central Asia and the Middle East. RFE/RL's broadcast region encompasses Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, and will soon include Pakistan. Its sister company, Radio Free Asia, reaches nine countries, including Burma, China, and North Korea. Traditional radio programming is augmented with content delivered online, by video, and on television. Although the technology has changed, the mission of surrogate broadcasting is still the same. It remains one of the most effective and cost-efficient programs the United States can support in order to promote democracy and advance U.S. national security interests.

Such efforts are especially valuable in countries where the United States faces a hostile and authoritarian government but a potentially friendly population, such as Iran. RFE/RL's Persian language station, known as Radio Farda, broadcasts news, talk shows, commentary, and music around the clock. The Iranian government jams radio signals, blocks Radio Farda's Web site, and harasses Farda journalists who work at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague (and their families back in Iran). The government has not permitted Farda to open a bureau inside Iran and has threatened those who feed information to the station with severe penalties, including prison time.

What does the current Iranian regime fear? In 2007, when a government fuel-rationing program led to social unrest, Radio Farda provided details and analysis otherwise unavailable in the country. In the wake of the contentious presidential elections this past June, Farda provided timely and reliable information about the Iranian opposition, disputes inside the government, and divisions among the clergy. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi addressed the nation through Farda, and the playwright and former Czech president Václav Havel spoke to Iranians of his experience fighting authoritarianism as a communist-era dissident.

Farda is not in the business of regime change; surrogate broadcasting is a long-term investment that considers local conditions and traditions, including religion and nationalism. Although stations such as Farda do not seek to dictate or impose, the undeniable principle behind surrogate broadcasting is that in Iran, as elsewhere, when informed citizens are free to choose, they invariably choose freedom over tyranny and prefer decent, accountable government to the arbitrary whims of authoritarian leaders.

Surrogate broadcasting can also play an important role in countries where a semidemocratic government -- friendly to the United States -- faces a difficult insurgency, such as Afghanistan. Support for the U.S.-led force is waning in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are one reason, but so is the Taliban's own information war. Insurgents use hate radio as well as text messaging, the Internet, videos, and leaflets in their own struggle for hearts and minds. They promote the view that the country is under threat from foreign occupiers and their opportunistic allies in Kabul.

RFE/RL's Afghan station, known locally as Radio Azadi, or Radio Liberty, offers a competing narrative. Despite the Taliban's considerable efforts, Radio Azadi remains the most popular station in the country. Its programming provides a platform for moderate elements of Afghan society -- even suicide bombers have called Azadi to defect from Taliban ranks.

But the United States should be doing more. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to the region, lamented recently that the world's greatest communicator, the United States, is being "out-communicated" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke has argued that surrogate broadcasting must be part of the American outreach to moderates. Indeed, with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, RFE/RL will soon expand its broadcasts to the strategically crucial Pakistan border regions.

Finally, surrogate broadcasting can be useful in countries with authoritarian governments that are neither allies nor adversaries and where public opinion toward the United States and democratic values is ambivalent at best. Russia is one such case.

After the Cold War ended, Russian President Boris Yeltsin invited RFE/RL to open a bureau in Moscow. In the 1990s, it appeared briefly that RFE/RL might outlive its usefulness in Russia. But such optimism proved ill-fated -- today, RFE/RL journalists face an increasingly difficult relationship with Russian authorities. RFE/RL has lost more than 20 of its 26 affiliate partner stations around the country in the last three years. The Kremlin has been pursuing its own well-funded information strategy that includes controlling mass media, especially television; imposing controls on independent NGOs through anticorruption and anti-extremism laws; manipulating the educational system; and distorting history and co-opting the arts, including cinema.

In such an environment, surrogate broadcasting can play an important role for Russian liberals. But enlarging this group is a daunting task. RFE/RL's local brand, Radio Svoboda, must contend not only with Kremlin hostility but also widespread apathy among ordinary Russians. Virulent nationalism continues to hold sway over large portions of the population, as does its related offshoot, anti-Americanism. Russian authorities have found fertile ground in public opinion for their narrative of grievance vis-à-vis the West and their claims of influence over neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia. Over time, however, Radio Svoboda may foster a more moderate political culture inside Russia that could manifest itself in less belligerent policies abroad.

There may be times when independent surrogate broadcasting is perceived to conflict with U.S. interests. During the period of détente in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger once contended that the robust anticommunist character of RFE programming to Poland "fell outside the boundaries of appropriate broadcasting." Similarly, in the 1960s, Washington moved to improve relations with Romania -- a relatively independent communist state within the Soviet bloc - even as the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu remained a notorious abuser of human rights. RFE reporters maintained a bright spotlight on Bucharest's transgressions, to the chagrin of some in the State Department and the White House.

Such cases are inevitable. But it is a tension that ultimately strengthens U.S. interests. Today, for example, the United States continues to build its economic relationship with China and seeks to cooperate with autocratic governments in Central Asia on energy and defense issues. Surrogate broadcasting reminds the governments of these countries of the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. It also helps to convey to their citizens that, just as in the Cold War, the United States cares about their fate and is ready to support those who are willing to struggle for greater freedom, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.