THE debate over Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), America's Munich-based stations for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, has reached a decisive point. No longer is there serious discussion of switching the stations off and transferring their remnants to the Voice of America (VOA). There is now broad recognition that the development of independent, professional journalism in those countries is incomplete. As surrogate domestic radio stations, the two services continue to be important sour ces of accurate news for those countries.
President Clinton is committed to two things: creating a more effective international broadcasting system, and saving money in the process. How to square the circle? Currently, a high-level interagency group is meeting at Mr. Clinton's request to solve this puzzle. Congressional hearings are also scheduled.
The main vehicle for achieving the president's objectives is putting all US government international broadcasters under one umbrella organization. This does not mean ceasing surrogate broadcasts, especially to the former USSR and Asia. Surrogate broadcasting to Eastern Europe, however, is not seen as quite so critical beyond 1995; it probably will be abandoned or greatly reduced, depending on the situation in specific countries.
Hungary and Poland won't be forgotten. But by locating the surrogate broadcasters with the VOA under the same umbrella institution, managers will be able to tailor programming to meet the needs of specific countries. They also will be able to more effectively alter the list of countries they broadcast to, depending on world developments.
Almost all players in this debate, even those from RFE/RL, now support a merger. Two contentious issues remain: where to locate the organizations institutionally, and their funding levels. RFE/RL argues that surrogate broadcasting must keep its distance from the US government for credibility's sake. Others counter that to justify taxpayer support, all federal broadcasters should be accountable to the government and have some policy connection.
THE key to proper and effective operation lies in legislation and charters. Specifically, we need a bill that: 1) establishes the VOA as the vehicle to represent the US, its ideals, and policies to foreign publics; and 2) that buffers the surrogate stations, including Radio Free Asia, from unwarranted pressures from government agencies. Under this type of strong legislation, such an organization could be housed anywhere. If the broadcasters are put under the US Information Agency, however, their funds mu st be earmarked to ensure financial stability, and the law must ensure the surrogate branches' independence.
The other problem is money. The administration has proposed a limit for federal international broadcasting of about $300 million after fiscal year 1995, half the level of current spending. In order to do a credible job of programming, the services need $400 million. This would represent a cut of one-third from the current funding level, a significant savings by itself, and would include Radio Free Asia, an important addition.
Other savings can be gained by moving significant parts of RFE/RL either east or to the US, where the cost of doing business is much less than in Germany. We may also want to reduce the number of languages we broadcast in. The respected RFE/RL Research Institute could be spun off immediately to an American university or institute and operate for one-third to one-half of its current $20 million budget.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski has recently written, ideas will motivate politics and define global developments in the 21st century, largely due to the spread of technology. Public diplomacy is uniquely situated to address this new challenge. The Clinton team has learned how to use new technologies to circumvent the traditional media and to speak more directly and persuasively to the American people. We should apply those lessons to our efforts to influence events in the global arena.