AS 1994 dawns, telecommunications barriers are dropping. A global village of interactive TV outlets and huge, instantly available data banks is being created. Science is breaching national boundaries, challenging traditional concepts of sovereignty.
At the same time, the United States Congress will be debating the future of the nation's official overseas information services: the US Information Agency (USIA), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL), and Radio Marti. (A new outlet, Radio Free China, has been under consideration.)
Two principal arguments are put forward by those who recommend terminating the present agencies. First, official information services were organized in the US to meet the challenges of serious adversaries: Hitler in World War II and the Soviet Union in the cold war. Those adversaries have disappeared. Second, new US private-sector news organizations such as Cable News Network now circle the globe with information about the US. So, why augment their efforts with less effective publicly-financed official services?
In fact, the need for official US overseas organs may be more necessary than in a bipolar world - and the task of such organs more difficult.
The global information network being created, with the US as the hub, is commercial. Its primary objective will be profits through the provision of entertainment and business information. Much of the entertainment will consist of dramatic and sensational images of the US. Despite industry arguments that people abroad will see shows such as ``Dallas'' and ``Miami Vice'' as entertainment, many of them do not. Misleading images of America result.
The entertainment networks are paralleled by news dissemination, increasingly through the global reach of CNN. But from the official standpoint, these news sources, too, present an inadequate and at times distorted picture. They reach primarily the elites abroad - a significant audience, but by no means embracing all who may be important in decisionmaking. News organizations may carry official US statements and commentary, but often accompanied by contradictory information. This is not a new problem; US diplomacy has long had to exist with the alternative pictures painted by the Paris edition of The Herald Tribune and the foreign editions of news magazines.
In the discussion of the future of official services, opponents of RFE and RL in particular have suggested that growing democratization of major parts of the world would reduce the need for radios designed to send local news into regions subject to authoritarian censorship.
But democratization is, at best, incomplete in much of the former Soviet region; the demand for uncensored news persists - as it does in Cuba and, possibly, in China. At the same time, the US must wrestle with the dilemma that continuing its broadcasts may be seen as a hostile act and, as in the case of China, conflict with other US objectives.
Attitudes toward the US abroad depend in large part on image. If the American nation is perceived as anti-Islamic, unmindful of the needs of the developing world, immoral and disrespectful of other cultures, then its capacity to build friendships and significant support overseas will diminish. Official information services cannot create a positive image in the absence of policies and actions that gain approval.
But through the still-powerful medium of radio, interactive TV, educational exchanges, and information networks, USIA and official radio services can provide alternative views and the personnel and equipment capable of disseminating and explaining those views. To abandon that capability would be inconsistent with the American desire to continue to play a leading role in world affairs.
The new task will not be easier. A dramatic, global information highway will be expanding during 1994. In the interest of an effective understanding of US policies and actions, that highway must still have an official information lane.