The Fatal Flaw in the American Decline Debate

The Buzz

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has intensified the debate over the proper objective of America’s grand strategy.  Should it continue “the preservation of a very happy status quo” (Joshua Rovner)?  Adopt a posture of “restraint” (Barry Posen)?  Attempt to “forge a sustainable path ahead for American internationalism” (Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine)?  Sustain “a liberal world order that [will] defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well” (Robert Kagan)? 

This debate is healthy and essential, even if reaches no resolution.  Less clear, however, is the prescriptive value of the question that often attends discussions of America’s role in the world: “Is the United States in decline?”

For starters, it is highly ambiguous.  When we say “United States,” are we addressing its government?  Its military power?  Its economic power?  Its overall power?  Its influence in international affairs?  Some of the above?  All of the above?  How should we measure each of them?  “Decline” is further problematic.  From what baseline are we assessing America’s trajectory?  Are we discussing absolute or relative decline?  What are the criteria for each?  When does relative decline become absolute?    

It is not only definitional and methodological questions, however, that arise.  One’s take on the decline question also depends, for example, on how one ranks the importance of different forms of power.  One who places priority on power-projection capability and command of the commons is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes that geoeconomic instruments of power are increasingly important.  One’s verdict also depends on the strategic objectives one believes the U.S. should be pursuing.  One who believes the U.S. should focus primarily on maintaining its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and baseline power resources is less likely to agree that the U.S. is in decline than someone who believes the U.S. should attempt to preserve a liberal international order indefinitely.  Last but not least, one’s conclusion also depends on one’s appraisal of the challenges faced by other major powers.  One who concludes that China’s internal difficulties place an upper bound on its ascent is less likely to agree with the assessment of U.S. decline than someone who assumes China will be able to address them over time.

The discussion above only scratches the surface; there are many other considerations that could inform one’s answer to the decline question.  Indeed, given how many permutations of variables and metrics one can use to tackle the decline question, it is possible for folks on opposite sides to debate one another without engaging each other’s arguments in much depth—a possibility that helps explain why the debate has grown stagnant.  While the specific evidence that declinists and anti-declinists cite has necessarily changed over time, their theses have not.  The declinists conclude that this time is different, lamenting that the hastiness of previous predictions has lulled those who disagree with them into complacency.  The anti-declinists point to America’s formidable residual strengths and longstanding regenerative capacity, treating their sparring partners much like the boy who cried wolf.  Befitting a debate of such endurance and complexity, each side has persuasive proponents.  Reading Gideon Rachman or Edward Luce will leave most fair-minded observers more concerned about America’s prospects than they were before; reading Joseph Nye or Josef Joffe will leave most more reassured.  There is little evidence to suggest that either camp is changing the other’s views.  It is more likely, in fact, that those views will calcify over time.

The decline debate is likely here to stay, in part because the fears it reflects seem to be integral to the American psyche.  As Cullen Murphy explained to James Fallows in early 2010, “If you go back and pick any decade in American history, you are guaranteed to find the exact same worries we have now….Poke a stick into it, and you will get a gushing fount of commentary on the same subjects as now, in the same angry and despairing tone….Fifty years from now, Americans will be as worried as they are today.”  While a perpetual fear of decline would seem to be a source of exhaustion, Americans have channeled it quite constructively in the postwar era; just consider the wave of American innovations that followed the launch of Sputnik.  Reflecting on the declinist debate a quarter century ago in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington reassured readers that the U.S. “is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline….the more Americans worry about the health of their society, the healthier they are”

Particularly since the global financial crisis, however, this concern has increasingly appeared to coincide with a mood of resignation.  According to a report this past December by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans think China is “the world’s leading economic power” (31% think the U.S. is).  According to another Pew report, this one released just last month, 49% think America’s “best years” are over (44% think they lie ahead).  Only 35% think “it’s best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs.”  The current wave of declinism reinforces—and is, in turn, amplified by—a familiar tendency in intellectual and political circles: adducing each new crisis abroad as evidence of U.S. impotence in international affairs. 

Paradoxically, though, while this inclination stems from concern about declining U.S. influence, it also seems to reflect a belief in—or, at a minimum, a hope for—something approaching U.S. omnipotence: that is, the U.S. can generally prevent or reverse bad outcomes if it chooses to do so.  In truth, though the U.S. may remain the world’s most powerful and influential single actor, the policies it implements are only one of an infinite number of phenomena that shape the day’s events.  While it is natural to worry about U.S. influence abroad when fires seem to be burning all around, the intensity of alarm in certain quarters seems disproportionate in view of the past 70 years.  Every administration of the postwar era has struggled—not only to reconcile crisis management with strategic vision, but also to address the charge that it was hapless as momentous strategic developments multiplied abroad. 

Few would—or could—deny the magnitude of the foreign-policy challenges facing the U.S., whether the ascendancy of ISIS, the carnage in Syria, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine, China’s approach to solving its territorial disputes, or the latest North Korean provocation.  These challenges are more a reflection of the world’s complexity, however, than of the failure of U.S. foreign policy.  That policy should be graded less on the basis of how it responds to a given crisis than on the extent to which it shapes trends in the international system over time.  Even if one believes that U.S. credibility suffers when it responds “weakly” to a given crisis, adopting a “do something now” doctrine is not a prudent alternative: much like thrashing around in quick sand only makes one sink faster, operating one’s foreign policy in perpetual crisis-management mode can only culminate in exhaustion and confusion—thereby, ironically, compounding the very weakness that proponents of that doctrine seek to reverse (Tom Toles’s April 20th cartoon “As the World Turns” makes the point well). 

Foreign policy requires strategic vision because crises alone are insufficient to provide a coherent basis for approaching the world.  They often occur at unexpected times and in unexpected places, bearing little relationship to one another.  Even if they did provide such a foundation, U.S. foreign policy would not be strategic if it undertook to prioritize each crisis equally.  As Francis Fukuyama explained recently, strategy “is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others, and explaining why this is so.  The notion that there is no place unworthy of U.S. attention is not a strategy.”  One could go further: the existence of a crisis need not impel U.S. involvement.  The doctor’s mantra—“first, do no harm”—is also a sound principle in foreign policy.  The U.S. should concern itself primarily with those crises that affect its vital national interests or could do so if left unchecked.  When a crisis affects important (but not vital) or secondary interests, it should think carefully before deciding to get involved; it if it does, it should either work in close partnership with allies or play a backbencher role, ensuring that its efforts at crisis management do not detract from its strategic priorities.  

Fretting about decline does not contribute to making these distinctions; instead, it collapses the boundaries between them.  Here we get to the major problem with the decline debate: it offers little, if any, prescriptive guidance.  Whether or not the U.S. is in decline—however vaguely defined and imprecisely measured—it will have to contend with a range of crises across the globe, the emergence of more and more non-Western powers, and the shifting balance of power between states and nonstate actors.  It would be more productive to explore how the U.S. can position itself in this emerging operating environment than to invest in a stale debate whose participants do not appear to be making much impression on each other.  Ironically, one of the most compelling affirmations of this proposition comes from Paul Kennedy, perhaps the most influential declinist alive today: the “only serious threat to the real interests of the United States,” he explained over a quarter century ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, “can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.  Given the considerable array of strengths still possessed by the United States, it ought not in theory to be beyond the talents of successive administrations to arrange the diplomacy and strategy of this readjustment.”

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

TopicsDecline RegionsUnited States

Japan and Australia: Ready, Willing and Abe

The Buzz

Australia is developing the habit of balancing an address to the Parliament by an Asia-Pacific ally with a matching speech by China’s President.

The contentious words in that sentence are “balancing” and “ally,” even if the pattern is evident.

In October 2003, US President George W. Bush and China’s President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on consecutive days. Both were visiting Oz for the APEC summit in Sydney. Previously, only American presidents had addressed Parliament (Bush Senior, 1992; Bill Clinton, 1996).

Hu’s address could properly be described in a parliamentary monograph as “a moment of great ceremonial and symbolic significance,” representing “a high point in the Howard Government’s engagement with China.”

Tweaking those phrases, Shinzo Abe’s Canberra address tomorrow is a moment of symbolic significance, marking an economic high point and a security exclamation mark in the Abbott Government’s embrace of Japan. Abbott’s best mate in Asia is calling. Note this is the first Japanese PM to get to Canberra since 2002—perhaps that explains the need for a “new” special relationship.

Abe will join Abbott for the signing of the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and for a defense cooperation agreement for sharing equipment and technology. The defense deal is a step towards a next-generation Australian submarine with a Japanese diesel-electric drive chain and an American weapons system. Abe and Abbott will be in equal agreement when Abe gives another version of his speech announcing Japan is back as a defense and security player.

This year’s balancing parliamentary address from China will come in November when Xi Jinping visits for the G20 summit. That word “balancing” is useful in denoting the equal honor offered to two important Asian partners, as a reference to the US rebalance, and to discussion of Asia’s balance of power and balancing against the rising power.

Referring to Japan as an “ally” is where the semantics compound. The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that John Howard and Shinzo Abe signed in 2007, expressed an important and growing security partnership. The pact does not amount to a formal alliance; it’s not a treaty to be invoked if ships clash and missiles fly. Yet, increasingly, Australia and Japan act as allies, from cyber to submarines to Asia’s future.

A great impetus for this ally-type behavior is that Japan and Australia are both allies of the same ally. In the trilateral relationship with the US, the Japan–Australia leg is the weakest, but it’s getting more exercise. Here’s the DFAT-speak version:

“Australia and Japan now have a strong and broad-ranging partnership. Australia and Japan have taken practical steps to address regional and global strategic challenges of mutual concern. The United States is both Australia’s and Japan’s most important strategic ally, and the three countries progress cooperation on strategic issues through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.”

In his Shangri-La speech on Japan’s role in Asia’s security future, Abe referred to Abbott’s visit to Tokyo in April and gave this alliance-lite description

“We clearly articulated to people both at home and abroad our intention to elevate the strategic partnership between Japan and Australia to a new special relationship.”

Shinzo Abe will give a speech to Parliament on Japan’s intentions towards Australia that will be stronger in tone and temper than that of any previous Japanese leader. The man who signed the 2007 pact is back to give it a boost. The speech will express Abe’s personality and his past as well as his vision of Japan’s future. 

The headline on this piece plays on the phrase ‘ready, willing and able.’ Ponder if Abe will be able. He’s showing willing in the reinterpretation of the Constitution for collective self-defense (warmly welcomed by Australia) and the rewrite of the Japan-America defense guidelines, the first big overhaul in nearly two decades. Will he be able to get Japan to embrace and entrench that new mindset? Invective from China and South Korea might aid Abe, but will Japan truly commit?

The answer will define Abe as either a passing political outlier who couldn’t break the Japanese mold or the model for future leaders. Some of Abe’s habits of mind—especially his understanding of history as expressed by his Yasukuni shrine compulsion—play to the outlier view, even if those same qualities of will and self-belief make him a potential mold-breaker. Abe’s greatest external asset in his push to remodel Japan’s military role isn’t the US—it’s China’s recent belligerence and the moments of madness from China’s protectorate, North Korea. 

Abe’s parliamentary address will be more than a measure of what sort of ally Japan wants to be for Australia. It’ll be a measure that can be set beside—or balanced against—the picture Xi Jinping paints when he takes the same stage in November.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article was first published by ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

America's Economy: Going "Part-Time"?

The Buzz

The recent employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed the US economy generated 288,000 jobs, the unemployment rate continued to decline, and the participation in the labor force held steady. By all appearances, it was a blockbuster month for jobs. But one level deeper into the report, it becomes a bit more complicated. Jobs were created, but the question of their quality lingers.

To say the least, the quality was poor. The job gains were solely part-time; 799,000 part-time jobs were taken. Worse still, 523,000 full-time jobs were lost. In fairness, most of these part-time jobs were not inherently bad. The majority of the June gains were in what is commonly referred to as “voluntary” part-time employment—people found part-time work who wanted it. The disconcerting element was the creation of part-time and the simultaneous destruction of full-time jobs.

Part-time jobs—with lower wages, less stability, and higher turnover—are less desirable than full-time ones for an economy. There are fewer fringe benefits associated with part-time work, and the jobs are generally considered to be of lower quality. Not to mention a lack of ability to negotiate for higher wages and lower amounts of job training. This leads to slower consumption growth than would normally be associated with similar levels of employment, a labor force that is likely to be much more volatile in future downturns, and workers with lower levels of on the job skills. A part-time economy simply does not have the economic robustness of a full-time one.

A single month of strong part-time employment creation and abysmal full-time employment would be interesting though not troubling. But this is by no means a outlying statistic. In June, the BLS released its May employment report showing that employment levels rose above their pre-crisis peak for the first time, and this was lauded as a seminal moment of the recovery. But this is deceiving. Full-time employment remains 3.7 million below its December 2007 peak after generating 7.6 million since the 2009 bottom. This means that to get back to the peak, the US must generate nearly 50 percent more full-time jobs than it already has during the recovery. The celebration was premature to say the least.

This struggle betrays some of the deeper scars left in the labor market. The Great Recession created more involuntary part-time jobs than at any other point in the post-war period. These jobs are involuntary in that people wanted full-time work but could not find it. Currently at almost 7.5 million, the number of involuntary part-time employees is 1.7 million below its all-time peak and around 2.5 million above recent long-term levels. Typically labor markets would convert these to full-time jobs as the economy improved. But since the end of the recession involuntary part-time employment has receded only slowly.

These involuntary part-time jobs are the 2.5 million or more “ghost” full-time jobs the economy will need to create just to bring the involuntary part-time employment numbers down to more normal levels. Interestingly, these involuntary part-time workers are already counted as “employed”, and finding full-time employment changes nothing. Instead, they will simply shift from involuntary to full-time, and it will have no effect on the unemployment rate. Also, because the commonly reported “jobs number” comes from a survey of businesses that does not separate part-time and full-time, the shift will not positively effect on the jobs number reported. Furthermore, it will make it much more difficult to reduce the unemployment rate even with an improving economy. This shift will have an effect on measures of underemployment, the figures that measure slack in the labor market, but that is all.

For many reasons, the unemployment rate is difficult to place in a historical context. Is it the current 6.1 unemployment rate comparable to previous periods? Probably not. The unemployment rate shields the part-timer effect. In calculating it, a job is a job; there are no delineations between part-time and full-time. Without understanding the underlying dynamics of the how the US got to its current unemployment rate, it would be easy mischaracterize the current employment situation as vibrant.

There is no question that the employment situation has improved since the recession, and being employed part-time is better than being unemployed. But there are “good” jobs, and there are “bad” jobs—good jobs that people take voluntarily, and bad jobs people accept involuntarily. For the moment, the US has far too many bad jobs and is creating too few good ones. The deeper into the statistics one goes, the less there is to be excited about yet in this recovery. Maybe a celebration will be in order when the economy regains its lost full-time jobs. For now, however, quality is lacking.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

What to Expect from Modi's India

The Buzz

India's May 2014 election received far less attention from the U.S. media than it deserved.  The landslide victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP is significant for both India and the Indo-Pacific region. Notwithstanding important achievements - like the Indo-US nuclear deal - the previous Congress-led coalition government of Manmohan Singh, seemed to the electorate like a decade of missed opportunities and drift.  Internationally, many of India's friends and partners often found it too cautious.  In contrast, Modi will have an increased focus on Asia, leveraging Indian diplomacy to increase Asian investment in India.

Internal Focus

Modi's priorities are internal and focus on returning to high growth.  In recent years, the economy has grown just 5-6 percent annually instead of the 8-9 percent of a decade ago.  The view in Delhi is that India needs 7-8 percent growth rates.  Voters were concerned about issues like high commodity prices, job creation, corruption, and inadequate infrastructure. To achieve this growth, Modi seeks to develop infrastructure, build transit corridors, and increase the effectiveness of the Indian bureaucracy.  

Internal security will be a priority for the government, as seen by the selection of veteran counter-terrorism intelligence chief, Ajit Doval, as National Security Advisor.  In its election manifesto, the BJP stressed that it will have a "zero tolerance" policy toward terrorism, indicating that in the event of another terrorist attack, this government will take action unlike the passive response of Singh's government to the 2008 Mumbai attacks.  Beyond responding to the domestic call for a more hawkish stance, this emphasis on domestic security is necessary for growth. It will prove difficult to attract needed investment if foreign investors feel India is unstable.  In the 2000s, India was one of the countries most often struck by terrorist attacks, just after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Southern Asia

During his inauguration ceremony, Modi took the unprecedented step of inviting the heads of government from South Asia, including controversial guests like Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, Mahindra Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, and Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay.  His first foreign visit was to Bhutan.  Modi wants to be seen as the "leader of South Asia" to increase his status and expand regional economic ties.  This will prove difficult: South Asia is one of the world's least economically integrated regions and the regional organization, SAARC, one of the most ineffective.  In addition, China has invested heavily in both infrastructure development and military assistance to several of these states (in particular Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) so Modi will be playing catch up to balance Chinese influence in the region.


The most delicate relationship that the new government will have to manage is with China.  Although bilateral trade has grown 30 percent annually in recent years, the trade imbalance (favoring China) is a source of irritation.  China is India's largest trading partner, but India is only China's 10th largest.  Modi's government would like to increase India's access to the Chinese market for its IT and pharmaceutical industries, and increase Chinese capital and capital goods investment in Indian infrastructure.  The recent visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi focused on economic issues, in particular getting increased Chinese investment in India's industrial parks and railways.  Beyond economics, there have been murmurs of India becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which is unlikely). 

Potential spoilers remain, however, such as the border dispute (last April there was another confrontation), Chinese support for Pakistan, and other issues.  Modi's government has indicated to China that while improved economic ties are important, India will remain firm against Chinese assertiveness.  Among these signals are: inclusion in the government of several figures known for their harder stance on China (VK Singh, Kiren Rijiju, etc.), Modi's invitation of the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile to his inauguration, and plans to develop infrastructure in border areas in Arunachal Pradesh (parts of which are claimed by China as "South Tibet").  When campaigning in Arunachal Pradesh, Modi criticized China's "expansionist mindset."


Modi will also look to resuscitate India's "Look East Policy" (LEP) of economic and security engagement with Southeast Asia.  The Singh government delayed initiatives for increased trade because of domestic politics.  Since one of Modi's priorities is to develop Arunachal Pradesh and other northeastern states, the LEP seeks to bring trade and investment to one of India's least developed areas.  For decades, Delhi has lost great sums of money and suffered many casualties in attempting to prop up these states in the face of violent insurgencies, minimal infrastructure, and poor economies.  Promoting economic ties between Northeast and Southeast Asia is part of a long-term strategy for developing (and bringing peace) to this region of India. 

India has also sought to engage Southeast Asia through military exercises (like the Milan exercises it hosts), and involvement in soft security issues like humanitarian assistance and disaster response.  It has positioned itself as a benign regional power in contrast with China's more assertive posture.  As India becomes more interconnected with Southeast Asia, it risks upsetting Chinese sensibilities, however.  In particular, India's cooperation with longtime friend, Vietnam, both in terms of oil exploration in the South China Sea and defense cooperation could be a spoiler for Sino-Indian relations in the future.


Much has been made of similarities and close ties between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (Abe is supposedly one of only three people Modi follows on Twitter).  Abe was the guest of honor in January's Republic Day parade (a traditional method of signaling Indian priorities for the coming year) and Modi's second international visit will be to Japan (it is speculated that the delayed Indo-Japan nuclear deal will be finalized during the visit). And while Japanese funds were used to finance Delhi's metro system and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, India needs Chinese as well as Japanese investment.

The burgeoning trilateral security cooperation between India, Japan, and the U.S. will continue and likely strengthen under Modi.  India and Japan regularly have joint military exercises and high-level defense dialogues.  It was announced that Japan will participate in the Indo-US Malabar exercises in the future.  Moreover, an Indo-Japanese arms relationship seems to be developing with Japan's new openness to arms sales and India's new policy on 100 percent FDI in the arms industry.  As the world's largest arms buyer, India is an attractive market (the Japanese US-2 amphibious aircraft is high on India's list).


Modi has been careful to send positive signals that he is ready to do business with the U.S.  There were several reasons why the new government could have started with a cooler U.S. relationship.  First, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 sectarian riots and the US had refused to give him a tourist visa since 2005, making Modi the only person ever denied a visa under an obscure law denying visas to people linked to "severe violations of religious freedom."  Second, last winter, law enforcement officials in New York arrested an Indian diplomat on charges of visa fraud.  What should have been a minor incident became a major diplomatic spat between the two nations.  Yet, even before the election, Modi sent signals that relations between the countries could not be adversely affected by individuals and his government is ready to rebuild Indo-U.S. relations.  The visit by Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal in June, plans for Modi's state visit to the U.S. in September, the upcoming Yudh Abyas exercises in India, and prospective arms sales (likely to include helicopters and artillery) indicate movement in a positive direction.

In sum, there is a case to be made for cautious optimism.  Modi will be more decisive, and less risk averse than the previous government.  Modi intends to leverage diplomacy to encourage investment from China and Japan, and deepen economic ties with the U.S.  India will retain its traditional stance of "strategic autonomy," however, and remain inward looking initially.  While Modi won a clear mandate, he is under great pressure to deliver quickly on issues like economic growth, corruption, high commodity prices, and infrastructure.  Modi's government will give priority to economic growth and domestic politics to meet the electorate's high expectations.  There was a sense that the Singh government had invested too heavily in foreign affairs at the expense of domestic reforms.  Modi's government will seek to avoid a similar fate.  So while India will actively seek economic ties, it will retain its traditional hesitation to get too enmeshed into Asian security dynamics.  The difficult part will be courting all major players in the region for investment, and maintaining good relations if a crisis erupts and India is forced to pick a side.

Patrick Bratton is the director of Diplomacy and Military Studies Program and associate professor of Political Science at Hawaii Pacific University. This article was originally published by CSIS: PACNET here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsForeign Policy RegionsIndia

Wanted: A Real War Of Ideas With Russia

The Buzz
Don’t look now, but Moscow is winning the media war.
Since the start of the crisis over Ukraine some four months ago, Russia has waged a massive, sustained media campaign to shape global perceptions about events taking place on the ground there. This offensive—carried out en masse via state-run outlets like Russia Today and through an onslaught of print, radio and television reports—has included everything from blatant mischaracterizations of Ukraine’s political parties to outright fabrications about the extent of the pro-Russian sentiment that exists in the south and east of the country.
The effort is unprecedented in scope. According to Russian political commentator Igor Eidman, it amounts to the “biggest information special operation” in modern history. And, up until now, it has gone on largely uncontested. The United States and Europe, divided over how best to respond to the Ukraine crisis specifically, and Russian policy more generally, have marshaled little by way of a strategic response.
Without a countervailing message, Russia’s outreach has resonated. At home, having spun his government’s incursion into Ukraine as a strategic victory, Russian president Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of unprecedented popularity. A new survey recently released by the Moscow-based Levada Center has found that Putin enjoys an 82 percent approval rating among Russians between the ages of 40 and 54—and an even higher one among those citizens who are too young to remember the days of the Soviet Union. Abroad, meanwhile, more than a few foreign publics have accepted the idea that Crimea’s annexation was more or less legitimate, and that further Russian action in Ukraine—while undesirable—might not be so unwarranted after all.
Belatedly, American public diplomacy is attempting to push back on this narrative. The various organs of U.S. international broadcasting (chief among them Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America) have done so by ramping up their coverage of events in the “post-Soviet space.” They have also launched initiatives like “Crimea Realities,” a new website dedicated to countering disinformation about conditions in Russia’s newest region. But much more needs to be done.
Most glaringly, U.S. outreach requires resources in order to properly compete with that of Russia. Currently, the Voice of America’s Russia Service is funded to the paltry tune of just $13 million annually—a mere fraction of the $300 million a year that Russia Today alone is estimated to spend on its particular brand of “news.” At this level, U.S. public diplomacy toward the Russian-speaking world lacks anything resembling the scope and reach needed to counter the Kremlin.
The funds to do so, moreover, are readily available, tucked away in various corners of the U.S. government (such as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s now-defunct U.S.-Russia Investment Fund). They simply require attention from Congress in order to be repurposed and harnessed for public diplomacy purposes.  
Even more vitally, U.S. broadcasting needs sustained attention from the White House. In its first term, the Obama administration made the idea of a “reset” of relations with Russia a centerpiece of its foreign policy agenda. That approach had fallen on hard times even before the recent events in Ukraine. In their wake, it has been utterly discredited. The White House has been at pains to articulate anything resembling a coherent policy toward Russia since. And because it has not, the official media response to Putin’s Russia has remained largely rudderless.
A new approach is sorely needed. Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine represents nothing less than a challenge to the established political and legal order in Europe. As such, it requires a robust, unified reply from Western powers. And by necessity, countering Russian propaganda will need to be an essential component of any such effort. If we are to have a hope of resolving the current crisis without further adventurism on Moscow’s part, Russian citizens need to understand the potential political and economic costs involved for them—and foreign publics must grasp the implications of the current crisis for long-term European security and unity.
It is long past time for the United States to begin telling them those things in earnest.
Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
Image: Wikicommons. 
TopicsMedia RegionsRussia