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Superpower diplomacy in era of instant communication

By Geoffrey GodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 1980



Washington

Instant communication -- and particularly television -- is having almost as challenging an effect on the formulation of long-term, consistent diplomacy as is the proliferation of nuclear power in a multipolar world.

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It is one of the ironies of the nuclear age that the superpowers, who have more awesome force at their disposal than was ever dreamed of half a century ago , are inhibited in the use of that power by the knowledge of its global destructive potential, once released. This paradox is publicly recognized and agonized over. The SALT treaties and negotiations are a manifestation of it.

When it comes to the challenge of instant communication, those involved here in long-range diplomatic planning are well aware of it. But at the popular level, where there is an awareness, if not a full understanding, of the nuclear factor, much less thought is given to the inhibiting or complicating effect of instant communication in the formulation of consistent foreign policy.

Already during the current US presidential election campaign, much has been said and written about the enhanced role and influence of television in shaping the selection of candidates in both the primary and the general election processes. But less attention has been paid hitherto to the influence of the media, and particularly television, on foreign policy decisions, not simply in election years and not just in the United States.

It goes far beyond incumbent presidents or secretaries of state in the US using the media for short-term advantage: Lyndon Johnson raising the hope of peace in Vietnam on the eve of Hubert Humphrey's date with Richard Nixon in the presidential polling booths in 1968; Henry Kissinger skillfully using the media during his shuttle diplomacy; Gerald Ford making the most on television of the Mayaguez incident; and Jimmy Carter's whole handling of the Tehran hostage crisis -- not least his television appearance on the morning of the Wisconsin primary earlier this year.

It goes far beyond the effect of the average American family's having piped into its home at suppertime day after day stark and grim pictures of the Vietnam war or of the threatening scenes outside the US Embassy in Tehran after the seizure of the American hostages there.

It goes right to the heart of the foreign-policy decision-making process in a democracy -- a crucial issue indeed when that democracy is the US, the most powerful nation on earth and in all human history.

In the Soviet Union -- the authoritarian society from which, in the global power struggle, the prime challenge to the US comes -- the regime by its very nature is able to censor what is fed to its own people on home television. Within the past few weeks, the Soviet authorities prevented both the US and French ambassadors in Moscow from making their traditional television broadcasts to the Soviet people on their respective national holidays because the ambassadors' texts contained references to Afghanistan. Further, the Soviet authorities have deliberately and consistently prevented Soviet television audiences from seeing anything of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet incursion. Afghanistan is not in Soviet homes as Vietnam once was in American homes.

Yet even with the local power of censorship, the Soviet authorities cannot completely insulate the Soviet public from the instant communication of Voice of America or BBC World Service radio broadcasts. And Soviet policymakers are finding themselves obliged to take into account the effect outside the Soviet Union through the medium of television of their actions (and of the actions of others) on public opinion -- particularly in the US and Europe.

In one sense, television results in a democratization of the whole area of foreign policy. Television viewers in their homes are becoming a party to what is happening in the remotest corners of the world, and as a result the average man and woman are becoming foreign policy "experts."

At this state in the process, an elitist or traditionalist may say with some justification that it is yet another case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. The impressions carried away by the television viewer may be distorted and out of context because they are limited to what the lens can capture. Further, the standard format in a television news presentation usually offers only a couple of minutes for the presentation of a most complex subject. This makes for oversimplification, for reducing most things to black and white when most often they are in various shades of gray. Pressures on print journalism force it in the same direction.

Yet whatever the limitations, the net effect can be -- particularly in a democracy -- a wave of public emotion which is a national leader cannot disregard. Sometimes the emotion is heightened when ethnic politics are involved -- in the US on such issues as South Africa, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus and offshore right in the Aegean Sea. Blacks, Jewish-Americans, and Greek-Americans all constitute influential voting blocs in the US and can make themselves heard and felt in both the Congress and the White House. The State Department cannot isolate itself from the effects.

The result is that a government may be obliged for domestic political purposes -- and not only in an election year -- to take short-term actions which it knows may be inconsistent with the long-term interest of the nation in the foreign policy area. The consequnt zigzags may be baffling to other governments. The clinical fact is that instant communication may be as much the cause for the apparent inconsistencies as is the character of any particular individual (such as President Carter) who has his hand on the lever of power.