U.S. must reinvest in strategic communications to match China and Russia, new research volume finds

Produced for the inaugural Gates Forum and publicly launched at a follow-on event today, the research proposes bipartisan solutions for foreign policy challenges facing the U.S.

February 23, 2023
Sarina Patterson

Today, in partnership with William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and the Gates Global Policy Center, AidData is co-hosting a panel discussion event online and in Washington, DC to launch a new volume of research papers on Reputational Security: The Imperative to Reinvest in America's Strategic Communications Capabilities. “Strategic communications” encompasses the tools and means that countries use to promote preferred narratives about their role in the world and what they care about, as well as engage in dialogue with foreign leaders and publics. 

The volume of eight research papers, of which AidData contributed five, was produced as part of the inaugural Gates Forum last December, which convened high-level policymakers in U.S. foreign policy and national security at William & Mary. It tackles different facets of U.S. strategic communications to address how the U.S. might reimagine its approach to broadcasting and public diplomacy in an era of increasing great power competition. 

The research volume makes a rigorous assessment of lessons learned from America’s historical practice of international broadcasting and public diplomacy up to the present day, uncovering blindspots and opportunities for the U.S. moving forward in light of the strategic communications playbooks in use by China, Russia, and Japan. “By finding common interests and goals across the political spectrum, convening national leaders in these areas, and identifying concrete actions and solutions sets, we’re really seeking to reinvigorate how the U.S. dialogues with the world,” said Sam Custer, AidData’s Director of Policy Analysis and an author of several of the papers. 

One of the main challenges that the research addresses is a decline in the coherence and direction of U.S. strategic communications. The papers examine this question historically, tracing the evolution of America’s strategic communications from the Cold War, arguably its heyday, to the present. The Cold War animated policymakers and prioritized resources, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. strategic communications became haphazard. Pulled in many directions, it became a favorite line item for congressional and executive leaders to cut.

The U.S. retreat from strategic communications has not happened in a vacuum, however. Even as the U.S. has reduced the time, talent, and treasure it spends on strategic communications, other actors are expanding their own messaging efforts significantly. Several papers explore how the strategic communications tactics of Russia and China have become increasingly complex and multifaceted. They are intensively using international broadcasting; brokering content sharing partnerships with local media outlets; and leveraging tools like exchange programs and journalism training to build relationships and create sympathetic coverage.

“We see a major blind spot, which is that Africa and Latin America along with diaspora communities are growing areas of interest for Russia and China but have been low priorities for U.S. strategic communications,” said Custer. “For example, Xinhua or RT might sign an agreement with a local newspaper in Thailand or public radio station in Serbia that they can copy and distribute content with no attribution. What this means in practice is that target audiences are reading content in trusted, local newspapers that is in fact coming directly from the Chinese Communist Party or the Kremlin.”

By comparison, U.S. strategic communications are now spread thin across numerous U.S. government agencies—often with minimal coordination and limited clarity about how these efforts advance foreign policy and national security interests. “With this diffusion, it has often become an afterthought, reduced to talking points rather than a grand strategy that is measured in terms of how it is perceived and received,” said Custer.

As part of this stocktaking exercise, AidData’s research team discovered that there was no data source tracking financing for strategic communications over time, making it difficult to measure the resources that the U.S. is dedicating to this important area. Filling the gap, a team of AidData staff and student research assistants poured through copious reports to triangulate this information, creating a comprehensive dataset of hundreds of thousands of financing flows. What they found is that, although discretionary spending has increased over the last few decades, support for strategic communications has plummeted, with the U.S. only spending 3 cents out of every 100 federal dollars on how it talks about itself to the world.

In addition to a top-line synthesis of these and other research findings, presented by Custer, the panel event today features a robust discussion with experts in the broadcasting and public diplomacy field. Notable speakers include Dr. Vivian Walker from the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and Shawn Powers from the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy at the U.S. State Department. Thom Shanker from the Project for Media and National Security will moderate.

A key focus of the research volume and the accompanying event is on solution sets. Having defined the problem, AidData and external researchers mapped out solutions that address these pain points and are fit-for-purpose to close the gap between the U.S. and its competitors. They identified ways to restructure the government or change behaviors by revising strategies or improving the ways in which resourcing and budgeting is done.

“We asked: how much opportunity there is to crowd in private and civil society actors, how can we best align resources to results, and what is technically effective and politically feasible?” said Custer. “The solution is not just to put more money towards the problem—we need to retrofit our institutions and strategies to use funds more effectively and fix our monitoring and evaluation feedback loops to improve accountability on how resources are used and what they are used for. Otherwise, the U.S. runs the risk of communications being done for communications sake, rather than advancing particular strategic goals.”

One proposed solution centers on creating a better architecture for coordination around strategic communications, which has been a challenge for the United States. Custer notes that the Biden Administration’s 2022 national security strategy focuses squarely on American influence and engagement abroad—yet the strategy makes no mention of terms like communications, public diplomacy, or broadcasting. Congress could mandate the White House to produce and report back on what the priorities and goals of U.S. strategic communications are, in order to implement the US national security strategy. This could be paired with an enhanced coordination committee that would help write the strategy for U.S. strategic communications in the context of national security.

Sarina Patterson is AidData's Communications Manager.