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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is losing ground internationally because it fails to tell its story, to speak truth to authoritarian power.

International Storytelling Essential Part of Global Competition

We normally think of strategic communications as crisis response, marketing or internal communications. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks the United States should engage in global strategic communications.

“We have seriously neglected telling our story to the world, telling the truth to populations of countries ruled by authoritarian governments and exposing disinformation spread by those same governments,” Gates says, noting strategic communications “were fundamental to winning the Cold War”.

International storytelling is an essential part of global competition, Gates contends in an op-ed published in The Washington Post. “Strategic communications and engagement with foreign publics and leaders are essential to shaping the global political environment in ways that support and advance American national interests,” he says. “In this crucial arena of the competition, however, Russia and China are running rings around us.”

After losing the Cold War, Russia has resorted to propaganda and disinformation to undermine the West. Gates says the Russian communications strategy is as “spoilers”. After the Cold War, the United States dismantled most of its instruments for international storytelling.

China, Gates claims, “has taken a far more comprehensive approach. “It has built an extraordinary global strategic communications and foreign influence operation, committing huge sums of money to building a modern media apparatus aimed at domestic and world audiences. China’s Xinhua News Agency has nearly 180 bureaus globally (and there is not a single country on the planet that is not reached by one or more Chinese radio, television or online outlets).”

U.S. Global Communications is Pathetic
Contemporary U.S. strategic communications is lackluster and rudderless, according to Gates.  The State Department undersecretary with strategic communications responsibility has been mostly vacant during the President Trump and President Biden tenures, Gates says. “U.S. strategic communications and public diplomacy are fragmented among 14 agencies and 48 commissions.”

The fragmentation and laissez-faire attitude in the U.S. government that Gates describes toward strategic communications parallels what communications specialists often discover in troubled organizations. They are floundering or bouncing between crises with no inkling how to escape, let alone get on a more positive track. They have overlooked the power of storytelling.

Gates considers storytelling as an instrument of power as significant as military might, intelligence-gathering and economic dominance. Re-establishing the U.S. Information Agency is too old-school. Instead, Gates recommends Biden and the State Department develop a “global engagement plan for strategic communications to explicitly advance  U.S. national security interests.” That’s the job for strategic communications expertise.

Like all strategic communications plans, the first step is to identify target audiences. Gates suggests, “The plan should include a road map for engagement with foreign publics and leaders focused especially on sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.”

We have seriously neglected telling our story to the world, telling the truth to populations of countries ruled by authoritarian governments and exposing disinformation spread by those same governments.

Engagement, Not just Words Is Needed
Words alone won’t do the job, as Gates recommends leveraging the U.S. cultural imprint.  “Underpinning the plan should be a significant expansion of people-to-people exchange programs that send American musicians, sports figures and artists abroad and bring foreign college students to the United States, with government support for private efforts in these areas.”

Pushing a message won’t be enough, Gates says. The United States also needs to counter Chinese and Russian “false narratives”. “We should also allocate additional resources to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, the organization responsible for unmasking and discrediting foreign disinformation.”

Like any strategic communications exercise, someone needs to make it happen. Gates encourages the Senate to confirm Elizabeth Allen, who has experience in communications and global public affairs, as undersecretary of public diplomacy so there is someone in charge of developing and executing a strategic communication plan. He also urged Biden to appoint a senior National Security official to ensure “communications are an integral part of every NSC decision-making process.”

International Faith in U.S. Has Dwindled
Left unsaid in the Gates op-ed is the need for clarity and solidarity in the message the United States sends out to a global audience. At the moment, the United States has more than one foreign policy. Biden and most Democrats back a Western coalition of nations in actively opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Right-wing Republicans believe the United States has no business helping to defend Ukraine. Former President Trump continues to say he could stop the war in 24-hour hours with a few phone calls.

Domestic events in the United States, including an attack on the U.S. Capitol, an endless string of mass shootings and unrelenting culture wars, convey a sense of instability, even a sign that democracy in the United States might be teetering. Many international leaders view the U.S, political system as broken, perhaps beyond repair. They also see China rising as a global superpower and don’t want to be forced to pick one side over another.

For strategic communicators, those are signs that a strategic plan must include crisis response. We can’t assume that if America says something, everyone in the world will believe it. An immediate objective of the strategic plan is to rebuild trust with credible messages and supportive actions that reflect the traditional ideals of the United States

Like most strategic communication challenges, this one is time-sensitive. There is already a hot war in Ukraine, civil wars in Africa, unrest in Latin America and increasing tension with China, including over Taiwan. There is also an approaching presidential election that seems destined to create more division and put U.S. policy stability at risk.

Gates says the best communication weapon the United States can wield is the truth, another value that is under attack. “In short,” he claims. “the country that invented public relations is being out-communicated around the world by an authoritarian Russia and increasingly totalitarian China.”

“Our approach must be different from theirs.,” Gates says. “Our advantage over the Soviet Union in strategic communications during the Cold War was that the USIA and our radio broadcasters such as Voice of America simply told the truth. We must continue to do so. However, in those days we had eager audiences in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The global audience today is more skeptical, so we must develop new approaches to effectively deliver our message.”

Getting Policy Leaders on Same Page
Effective strategic communication plans require everyone in an organization to be on the same page. That will be a huge task for U.S. communicators in an age of deep domestic division over, among other things, the role the United States should play in the global community. Strategic planning processes can assist in finding common ground and  common purpose.

Gates’ background as an intelligence analyst, Secretary of Defense and university president may not seem like the background of someone who can identify a hole in U.S. national security that requires strategic communicators to patch. More CEOs should follow his example and undertake strategic communication planning in their organization.