American News

The Uncertain Future of the Great Tradition of Propaganda

Donald Trump’s ambiguous handling of foreign policy may lead to the demise of a hallowed State Department tradition of disseminating “pro-democracy” propaganda.
Peter Isackson, US propaganda, US State Department pro-democracy policy, US support for democratic movements, US-funded radio, Cold War propaganda US, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, US Agency for Global Media, Open Technology Fund

© studiostoks / Shutterstock

October 09, 2020 08:39 EDT

The Guardian’s world affairs editor, Julian Borger, has lambasted the Trump administration for undermining a vestige of US foreign policy dating from the Cold War. In an extraordinarily sloppy article with the title “Trump cuts aid for pro-democracy groups in Belarus, Hong Kong and Iran,” Borger excoriates the Trump administration for its radical decision to block the funding of political organizations working to destabilize certain foreign governments. He accuses the White House of putting “at increased risk” this vital work of supporting subversive movements in nations considered insufficiently deferential to the US.

The victim Borger wants us to pity in the drama is the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a private non-profit technology company spawned by Radio Free Asia in 2012. In 2019, the OTF received a mandate for funding by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a global media agency of the US government. USAGM’s historic mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” In other words, though putatively independent, it is the US media propaganda arm, supervising Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio y Televisión Martí, Radio Free Asia and Alhurra, the historical pillars of what was once anti-Soviet, anti-communist propaganda.

Playing the Market No Longer Resembles a Game


Borger defines the OTF as “a small non-profit organization that develops technologies for evading cyber-surveillance and for circumventing internet and radio blackouts imposed by authoritarian regimes.” He avoids mentioning the fact, reported by Eli Lake for Bloomberg, that it was created at the initiative of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It reflected her “vision heavily influenced by the Internet activism that helped organize the green revolution in Iran in 2009 and other revolutions in the Arab world in 2010 and 2011.”

Borger presents OTF as a Silicon Valley-style innovative tech company seeking to do good in the world by providing “daily help to pro-democracy movements in installing and maintaining them, with the aim of staying at least one step ahead of the state.” These movements are, of course, agents of America’s expansive regime-change strategy that has effectively destabilized entire regions of the globe in the name of promoting democracy.

Borger supposes that his readers will uncritically endorse the idea that promoting democratic ideals in places where people can’t vote is the honorable thing to do. He consciously hides from view the easily observable consequences of such campaigns in the past. These include the enduring chaos that typically follows the overthrow of regimes judged hostile to the US. It usually leads to installing and then supporting iron-fisted authoritarian regimes. And in the worst cases, the havoc spawns uncontrollable migration crises affecting entire regions.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Pro-democracy movement:

Any political organization dependent on resources and propaganda originating in the United States and dedicated to opposing a regime considered hostile to the US, whether or not the organization and its leaders have a real interest in, or respect for, democratic processes.

Contextual Note

The various “pro-democracy movements” the US has supported in the past have used the proclaimed commitment to democracy to mask what is essentially their intent of bolstering US political influence and paving the way for American and multinational business interests to control key features of state economies.

The idea of democracy put forward by such movements has less to do with giving the people a voice than it does with imposing the “liberal” economic ideology that ensures social decisions will be delegated to the private sector. Instead of aiming at “the good of the people,” it puts in place policies focused on “the good of the economy,” which translates as the effective integration of a local economy into the global network of finance and trade.

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Another key feature of the transformations effectuated by pro-democracy movements lies in the fact that they tend to be amenable to tolerating, if not encouraging, US military presence on or within their borders. In terms of the economy itself, following a pattern established in the US, what this means is that democracy has literally come to mean little more than a system of government open to control by the highest bidders. Such systems justify their claim to being a democracy by installing a constitution and organizing elections.

The idea of democracy, even in the cultures of the developed nations of the West, has been reduced to a checklist with a single item: the holding of elections. The kinds of democratic regimes created by pro-democracy movements enable citizens to vote and even to organize political parties. But with an economy controlled essentially by external forces, any idea of independent rule quickly loses all meaning. Only those parties and those leaders that know how to comport with the major financial and industrial actors as well as comply with the requirements of an economy built around the dollar will have a chance of taking over the reins of government. And even that will be a game of appearances since the reins of the economy are in the hands of others.

Historical Note

Writing for the independent policy watchdog, Global Policy Forum, in 2008, Stephen Zunes described the observable patterns related to US support of pro-democracy movements in recent history. He emphasizes the largely negative effect that support has consistently produced across the globe, seriously tarnishing the nation’s image: “The United States has done for the cause of democracy what the Soviet Union did for the cause of socialism. Not only has the Bush administration given democracy a bad name in much of the world, but its high-profile and highly suspect ‘democracy promotion’ agenda has provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists.”

The Guardian’s Julian Borger has no time to waste on helping his readers understand the broad historical context. That is not the business of newspapers like The Guardian, who see themselves as the voice of the reasonable left, like The New York Times and The Washington Post in the US. They prefer stories crafted as an attack on their perceived enemies on the right, even at the cost of obscuring understanding of the issues they expose. Borger’s story is newsworthy simply because it appears to reveal another of Trump’s many failings.

No one can doubt that Trump has contributed singularly to compromising the international prestige and image of the United States. But as Zunes observed, the damage was already visible in 2008. President Barack Obama’s administration and Hillary Clinton’s State Department maintained and sometimes amplified the existing trend. But Obama became famous for deploying his charm and rhetorical skills to create a much-needed veneer of comforting hyperreality. It changed little other than temporarily obscuring the perception of the real intentions for those who weren’t paying attention. 

Borger doesn’t even bother to reveal to his readers the recent historical background of the conflict between OTF and USAGM, the details of which were compendiously reported by Axios on September 1. A paragraph labeled “Between the lines” provides the gist of the entire affair, based on “fresh evidence to support charges that the USAGM is trying to dismantle the OTF and other government-funded media agencies.”

Even Axios fails to take the further step of exploring the deeper implications of this conflict. It helpfully reveals the suspicion some have that “the agency is withholding OTF funds in order to shift them to [a] new agency.” Though many of Trump’s actions have been in total contradiction with his stated aims, he has always expressed his desire to move US foreign policy away from the aggressive trends of the past and reduce overseas commitments. This latest move appears to be part of an attempt to dismantle some elements of the neo-imperial infrastructure.

It would have been interesting to learn more about the “new agency” that USAGM intends to create: the Office of Internet Freedom. But neither article delves into that crucial question, though Axios at least mentions it and points to its importance. The journalistic result is that Axios provides some factual though inconclusive information on the story whereas Borger offers a what is little more than gossip and backbiting as part of a squabble, with the intention of confirming our impression that Trump is an irresponsible loser.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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