The naming of baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. as a State Department "envoy" to promote greater understanding of the United States abroad suggests US public diplomacy needs a pinch hitter. Today, when the civilized world is under assault from religious extremists and terrorists, effectively communicating US policy is essential. Unfortunately, we are striking out.
Helping overseas audiences understand US foreign policy is an important mission of the Voice of America. Since 1942, VOA has been the "official" voice of the United States, broadcasting news and information in 45 languages to more than 115 million listeners worldwide. VOA's stock in trade has been telling the world the truth about America.
Most Americans have never heard VOA, as the law prohibits it from broadcasting to domestic audiences. As a news organization, it strives to maintain journalistic integrity against the perception that it is a "propaganda" arm of the US government. But VOA's purpose goes beyond delivering the news with impartiality and objectivity. VOA's legislative charter requires it to "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively." To do this, VOA should use its editorials to articulate and explain US foreign-policy decisions.
For nearly 40 years I have listened to America's official "voice" on shortwave radio. VOA editorials are also accessible on the VOA website. Unfortunately, they are mostly vapid, uninspiring news reports posing as editorial opinions "reflecting the views of the United States government." They fail to articulate the rationale and context that would help others understand US policies.
For example, a recent editorial cites Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and quotes a former Indonesian president as saying, "Although I am a good friend of Ahmadinejad, I have to say he is wrong." Is this news or the view of the US government? Why didn't the editorial explain why such beliefs – held by a world leader who is viscerally anti-Israel, supports terrorism, and seeks nuclear weapons – are dangerous and deserving of international condemnation?
The editorial notes that participants at a Holocaust conference "issued a statement urging religious leaders of all faiths to 'mobilize their communities to not only respect, but also defend the rights of others to live and worship differently.' " This is a factual statement without linkage to American policy. Why not use the editorial to explain that religious intolerance is counter to American values, breeds hatred and war, and that US foreign-policy decisions are grounded in respect for all religions? Would this not reflect "the views of the United States government"?
Colorless VOA editorials are commonplace. One cites an assistant secretary of State as saying the US "will not fully normalize relations with North Korea until there is 'full denuclearization' on the Korean peninsula." What this means or why the US insists upon it are questions that a foreigner seeking clarity about US policy might be forgiven for asking, but which the editorial does not address. Another VOA editorial on US policy toward Nigeria is nothing more than a news report quoting a State Department official's testimony before Congress.
VOA is no stranger to controversy – the latest involves a short-sighted cutback in worldwide broadcasts. However, the message is just as important as the messenger. And VOA's message is muffled, as if the US itself were merely a spectator in the global war of beliefs. Simply quoting American officials without providing a more robust context for their comments is insufficient to explain US foreign policy to global audiences. It is a detached, achromatic approach that risks conveying neutrality. But the US cannot afford to be neutral for the sake of appearing impartial. What is needed is a more forceful, clear, and compelling articulation of US policy.
VOA's editorial approach appears to be influenced by fear – fear that it may say something provocative, fear that it may seem heavy-handed, fear that its journalistic integrity and credibility may suffer, fear that it may be seen as a propaganda outlet for an administration that is increasingly disliked by the audiences it targets. In this regard, VOA is hurting its own cause, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors – the oversight body responsible for America's international broadcasts – should make fixing the banality of VOA's editorial content a top priority.
Reporting the news objectively and broadcasting diverse views are important elements of VOA's charter. But VOA has a broader mandate. It has a responsibility to the American taxpayer to communicate the views of the US government intelligently and persuasively.
Even a superstar like Cal Ripken needs help to put America's public diplomacy back on a winning track. It is time for VOA to step up its game.
David J. Trachtenberg is a former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy at the US Department of Defense.