When Words Are Better Than Weapons

WHEN Lech Walesa, after the events of 1989, was asked whether Radio Free Europe had played a role in the rebirth of freedom in Poland, he snorted: "Would there be earth without the sun?"On the day Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel took office as his country's new president, he went to the offices of the Voice of America to say "thank you" for what the American radio had done to help bring liberty to his country. When embattled Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was cut off from Soviet radio and television during the August coup attempt in Moscow, he faxed his rallying speech to the Voice of America in Washington and asked its officials to broadcast it back to Russia by shortwave. When Mikhail Gorbachev, cut off in the Crimea during the same coup attempt, wanted to know what was going on, he tuned in Radio Liberty and the Voice of America (VOA) on a little shortwave radio. Vignettes like these underline the significant role that the United States government radios (Radio Free Europe to Eastern Europe, Radio Liberty to the Soviet Union, the Voice of America worldwide) have played in fostering freedom. They have done it by providing a full and free flow of information to the people of totalitarian lands - thus proving that information is a powerful force for change. With communism discredited and vanquished throughout much of the world, is the work of the radios done? Is it time to cut back on them and save the American taxpayers some money? A presidential task force set up to consider the future of the radios thinks not. After six months of hearings, and travels, and investigation, it has advised the president that there is still much for America's international radio broadcasters to do. The world situation remains fluid - for testimony of that see the unraveling shape of the former Soviet Union. The world can be dangerous - witness the Gulf war as a reminder of how regional conflicts can explode into international ones. Liberty is still elusive for millions in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America. Democracy has yet to be consolidated in Eastern Europe. The US still needs the capacity to speak clearly to both friends and foes around the world. So the president's task force, although mindful of severe economic problems at home, concluded: "This is no time to abandon or degrade America's great international broadcasting endeavor." This, said, the task force, "is a time of delicacy and drama that must summon, from the West, patience and perseverance." It may also, in the long run, be good economics; it is cheaper to persuade with words than contest with weapons. I was the chairman of this task force but its 10 other members came from disparate backgrounds with quite varying politics. There were sturdy Republicans and forceful Democrats who had served in senior White House positions. There were diplomats, journalists, lawyers. These were strong-minded individuals who did not agree on everything, and whose dissenting views were clearly chronicled. But on one thing they did agree, namely the contribution US government international broadcasting has made, and the need for it to continue in one form or another. As an independent media takes hold in Eastern Europe, and if present constructive trends continue, the need for American taxpayer-supported broadcasting to such areas will fade away. In the 21st century, VOA will likely be left as the single US government international broadcaster. Shortwave broadcasting will eventually be overtaken by new technologies and VOA must prepare for that. But such developments are not yet here. For both the present and the future, the American government radios retain as critical a role in the furtherance of freedom, as do American aircraft carriers and tanks in its defense.

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