by Hans N. Tuch
Currently there is no institutional functional or operational relationship between the Department of State and the Voice of America, a relationship that served the successful conduct of U.S. public diplomacy for many years—from the early 1950s to the late 1990s when the U.S. Information Agency (the then host of the Voice of America) was abolished and most of its functions integrated in the Department of State. The Voice of America became a part of the independent Corporation of International Broadcasting.
Reestablishment of this relationship, I am convinced, is an imperative in the successful pursuit of our immediate and long-term foreign policy interests throughout the world.
In the late 1950s the Voice of America (VOA) was the only effective public diplomacy instrument available to the U.S. government to penetrate the Soviet iron curtain with news and information from the free world. As the American embassy’s information and cultural affairs officer in Moscow I had practically no other tool with which to conduct public diplomacy. VOA did not only provide international uncensored credible news to a captive audience, it broadcast social, economic, cultural information and American music to a deprived Soviet public.
In more immediate terms, VOA turned out to be the only available medium to provide information to the Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev publics about the first visit of the New York Philharmonic in August 1957. We in the Moscow embassy depended on VOA to broadcast where and when the orchestra was performing; how to get tickets; what were their programs; who were their conductors and soloists. No Soviet publication, radio, television or other source of Information had publicized the presence of the NY Philharmonic in their midst.
The Moscow PAO was in practically daily touch with VOA Washington (only via cable in those days) to consult about broadcast programs, policy guidance, technical problems, jamming—I.e. an indispensable relationship.
In an even broader perspective the Voice of America was an indispensable element in the world-wide conduct of U.S. public diplomacy. When, for instance, the Soviet Union violated the nuclear test ban treaty in 1962, Ed Murrow, the then-director of the U.S. Information Agency, ordered the massing of all VOA transmitters to blast the Soviet Union for endangering the world.
Today VOA continues to be one of the world’s premiere radio/TV broadcasters—and Internet providers—with an audience of some 250 million people throughout the world. And in some significant countries in Asia and Africa—Burma, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Botswana among them—the VOA language services constitute—or rather should constitute—significant public diplomacy assets. It appears, however, that the previous vital operational and policy relationship between VOA and State—at the embassy level and in Washington—no loner exists.
The Voice of America Charter (PL 94-350) obligates VOA “to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.” It obliges VOA to look to the Department of State for policy guidance.
At the same time, the Department—its Deputy Secretary for Public Diplomacy—must look to VOA to accept and advance public diplomacy as a major element in the conduct of foreign relations and depend on VOA for its public diplomacy responsibilities.
In practical terms, this coordination process would require PAO/IOs assigned to a country where VOA constitutes a public diplomacy resource to spend some time with the respective VOA language service, to become acquainted with its operations and, in turn, allowing the chief of the service to learn how the PAO/IO can assist him/her from their unique vantage point in the field, and how the language service can provide the necessary support to the PAO in his/her public diplomacy responsibilities.
The Department desk officer for a country in which VOA plays a major public diplomacy resource must have a functional relationship with the head of the pertinent VOA language service for coordination between VOA and the embassy.
VOA’s policy office at the same time must reestablish its relationship with the Department’s Bureau of Public Diplomacy for mutual support and coordination.
All this may represent a new world for the present generation managing public diplomacy and working in the Department (The Bureau of Public Diplomacy) and at the Voice of America (i.e. the Broadcasting Board of Governors). But it is in fact a look back to a practice that worked reasonably well for the U.S. government’s practice of public diplomacy and, importantly, had the supervisory and financial support in both houses of Congress.
I repeat, reestablishing a working relationship between the Department and VOA is an imperative for the successful conduct of U.S. public diplomacy throughout the world.