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Red Flag Manuscript: The U.S.’ Strategy of Influencing Public Opinion in the Post Cold War Era

[Editor’s Note: An article published in Red Flag Manuscript, a periodical of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, discussed the U.S. strategy on international public opinion. The author is with the International Strategic Research Institute of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School. "The United States’ central position on global public opinion has led the U.S. to place a high value on the role of public opinion. In different periods of history, the United States always had a clear strategy on international public opinion. The goal was to influence and control other countries through the power of its media and to maintain U.S. supremacy in the world." The complete article is translated below.] [1]

In today’s world, the United States, the country that has the most powerful media and boasts the greatest potential to disseminate information, is in an enviable position when it comes to shaping international public opinion. “Public opinion shaped inside the United States always becomes the global public viewpoint, which puts pressure on other countries.” (The Public Opinion War between Japan and the United States, by Seiichi Kondo, Translated to Chinese by Lisheng Liu, Xinhua Press, 2007 edition, p. 5) In some sense, this characteristic of how U.S. public opinion originates from its domestic public opinion, and proliferates and spreads, means it isn’t much different from the global public opinion because every move of U.S.’ domestic public opinion defines the nerves of global public opinion. Because the U.S. is so central in generating global public opinion, it really values the role of public opinion. In different periods of history, it has always had a clear strategy regarding international public opinion. Its goal is to use its power over the media to influence and control other countries and to maintain U.S. supremacy throughout the world.

During the Cold War, the U.S. touted the ideological concepts of “democracy, freedom, and human rights” to form alliances with Western Europe, Japan, and other countries. It also tried to win over public opinion in some developing countries so that they would install pro-Western political systems and political figures; and it tried to stop the communist ideology from expanding in those countries that were borderline. At the same time, it created discord and misunderstandings internally within the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. While maintaining a seemingly objective and neutral face, it pretended to be the “voice of the people” in those countries and drove a wedge between their governments and their people; it took advantage of certain historical issues and mistakes these countries made in internal affairs and diplomacy and vilified those communist countries, using the logic of “if it’s not black, it must be white;” and it vigorously promoted the superiority of the capitalist system. Of course, the ultimate victor in this war was the U.S.-led capitalist camp.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. became the world’s only superpower. No other country came close to challenging its hegemony. Today, U.S. development and hegemony are in a period of uncertainty and its international strategy, including its international public opinion strategy, is currently in a period of re-adjustment and re-establishment. In this new historical period, U.S. policymakers face the important task of establishing a global public opinion strategy. This strategy has already taken shape with a clear direction and content.

I. The Goal of the U.S. International Public Opinion Strategy

The ultimate goal of the U.S. global public opinion strategy has always been to maintain its dominant position in global discourse, to control who has a say, and to prevent other countries from threatening its dominant position. At different times, the concrete application of this strategic objective will be different; that is to say, the U.S. will adjust its strategy based on the source of the threats at different times and adjust its targets both offensively and defensively. This way, the strategy will be practical and functional. After the Cold War, for a period of time the U.S. pointed at China as the target of its public opinion strategy. It decided that China was challenging its hegemony. U.S. Former Ambassador to China Stapleton Roy said China was becoming the only country able to challenge the U.S. in its influential power and military strength. Therefore, after the Cold War, the U.S. continued to strengthen its use of public opinion in its siege against China and re-focused its forces of dissemination that it once used against the Soviet Union against China; it is trying to Westernize and divide China just as it once did the Soviet Union. Since the “9.11” incident in New York in 2001, the U.S. strategy has, to a great extent, hinged upon fighting terrorism. It has drawn a line in its public opinion strategy based on the “war on terrorism” and called upon the international community “unanimously to fight terrorism.” The targets of its public opinion attacks became those “rogue states” that the U.S. believed to have “harbored the terrorists.” In his 2001 State of the Union address, George W. Bush made it clear to other countries that one has to either stand on the side of the terrorists or on the side of the United States. [2] Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and several others immediately became the main targets of U.S. media. In 2003, the U.S. first used its media to attack Iraq and then used military forces to effect Iraq’s “regime change.” After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. continued to work on swaying public opinion; it wove a variety of charges and focused public opinion against Iran. In 2007, the U.S. even used “terrorism” as a pretext to ask other countries to include Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on their “terrorists’ list,” trying to smear Iran and totally isolate Iran in international public opinion. Of course, making these countries the target of its public opinion attack did not mean that the U.S. let up on its defensive public opinion campaign against China. It still believes that China is the next superpower to threaten its interests. With China’s rising economic strength and the fact that, in 2010, China, for the first time, passed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, the U.S. defensive mentality against China has become more and more obvious. It has not only strengthened its military in its western Pacific deployment, it has also shifted the emphasis of its security strategy to the Asia-Pacific region and increased the strength of its media in this region. Known as the U.S. government’s “mouthpiece” in recent years, Radio Free Asia has strengthened its airwave signal toward China, and the U.S. has further developed the Internet as a new strategic tool that the U.S. government plans to use to “peacefully transform” China.

In short, after the “9.11” incident, the U.S. strategic goal in shaping international public opinion became more clear. First, it wants to create an international public opinion climate that is favorable to the U.S. global anti-terrorism campaign; it can then attack Iran, North Korea, and other so-called “rogue states” that “support terrorists.” Second, it has become more concerned about the rise of China and it has became more defensive; it has adapted those methods it used against the Soviet Union to now deal with China, the country that, potentially, could “challenge the U.S.”

II. The Main Entities in the United States that Carry Out Its Global Public Opinion Strategy

Two entities clearly carry out the United States’ public opinion strategy. One is the U.S. government and the other is its media. The U.S. government, as the representative of the monopolistic capitalist class, in essence protects America’s capitalists’ interests and ideology. The media, on the other hand, is “the main representative of U.S. ideology.” (Yang Weifen: Infiltration and Interaction – The Relationship between Radio/Television and International Relations, Beijing Broadcasting Institute Press, 2000 Edition, p. 56-57) The media is part of the upper class in U.S. society. For funding, it depends on the monopoly consortium. Thus, the fundamental interests of the U.S. mainstream media and the U.S. government are the same: they both serve the U.S. monopoly capitalists. In maintaining a dominant position over international public opinion, the U.S. government and U.S. media have always worked together towards a common goal. However, on the strategic chessboard of international public opinion, they play different roles, have a different status, and achieve different effects. Generally speaking, the U.S. government is the decision-maker and designs the layout of the U.S. global public opinion strategy; it plans and is in charge of making certain public opinion decisions and directing certain media conspiracies. In contrast, the U.S. media, in general, are direct subordinates of the U.S. government: they obey the government’s commands, and they are the front line in launching U.S. public opinion attacks. American scholar Schiller once brilliantly pointed out the U.S. government’s relationship to the U.S. media: “The federal government is not only closely involved in the process of cultural invasion, it also entrusts the Department of Defense (not the United States Information Agency) with direct or indirect control of it. ‘Direct’ means that the Department of Defense (the Pentagon) coordinates the development of the nation’s broadcasting policy and allocates the frequency; ‘indirect’ means the major broadcast affiliates (such as the National Broadcasting Company or RCA-NBC, under the Radio Corporation of America) are all parties to a large number of military defense contracts. The reason the U.S. media are so invincible is completely due to the government-established military and foreign policy. The media have become frontline soldiers for military and diplomatic work. The two complement each other and facilitate each other.” (Guan Shijie: International Media Communication, Beijing University Press, 2004 edition, p. 227) Under certain circumstances and on certain issues, it should be recognized that the roles of the U.S. media and the U.S. government will change. The U.S. government usually plays the “bad cop,” and the U.S. media, the “good cop.” The U.S. media will often embarrass their boss. For example, in 2009, the U.S. media, embracing the principle of “freedom of the press,” reported on the U.S. military’s “abuse of prisoners,” triggering a global public outcry. However, this shift of roles did not mean that the U.S. media and the government opposed each other. Instead, from time to time, the U.S. media will “rescue the government through twisted means,” protecting the global interests of their boss, the U.S. monopolistic bourgeoisie. This type of exposure did not substantially hurt U.S. interests. To some extent, it even helped to improve its image of supporting freedom and democracy around the world.

III. How the U.S. Strategy of Global Public Opinion Is Carried Out

The United States is a country founded on the “principle of freedom,” of which “freedom of the press” is a very important element. Jefferson, the third President of the United States, once gave a classic statement on the importance of “freedom of the press:” “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” During World War II, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt elaborated on the “four freedoms” foreign policy, he stressed “freedom of speech.” It can be said that a very important principle of the U.S. international strategy is “freedom.”

In its global strategy regarding public opinion, the U.S. pursues the principle of the “free flow of information,” which is the cornerstone of U.S. foreign public discourse. Officially stepping onto the global stage after World War II, the United States broke the U.K.’s public opinion hegemony in the name of the “free flow of information. After the Cold War, in the name of “freedom of the press,” it defeated the Soviet Union, which held sway over public opinion in socialist countries, and established itself as having real world hegemony in public discourse. Therefore, after the Cold War, in order to maintain its own status, the United States would not give up these principles, but continued to implement them in every corner of the world. However, a careful analysis will show that there is a prerequisite to these principles. The U.S. principles of “freedom of information” and “freedom of the press” are built upon the U.S. hegemony over political and economic dissemination, and built upon the huge advantages that the U.S. has over other countries. Its fundamental goal is not to protect other countries’ “freedom of information,” but to protect its own freedom to collect news and information globally, its own freedom to control the communication channels, and its own freedom to spread U.S. culture, ideology, and concepts to the rest of the world. Therefore, the “freedom of information” and “freedom of the press” built upon the U.S. hegemony in communication are the freedoms enjoyed by the U.S. side only. For the developing nations, “freedom of information” and “freedom of the press” without real strength as a base can only result in destruction and the violation of their own national sovereignty. This is the major reason why, since the Cold War period, the U.S. has strongly opposed the developing countries establishing a new order of news communication. A U.S. Senator Godwin once got to the heart of the matter with one remark: “When a country like that highly relies on information and communication, one of the best attacks is to limit its access to information and communication. If the U.S. were to allow a new order of international communications, the U.S. would suffer a severe blow. Maybe it would be impossible (for the U.S.) to obtain news about other countries; maybe U.S. movies, television programs, advertisements, and news simply would not sell; at the same time, computers, man-made satellites, and devices for transmitting information might run into heavy duties or other countries might impose a ban against their importation.”

IV. The Tactics the U.S. Uses to Mold Global Public Opinion

The U.S. has adopted two major tactics to implement its strategy to influence global public opinion: the first is the hard approach, relying on the “heavy artillery” of verbal attacks to establish public opinion; the second is the soft approach, using media to sway the audience. The U.S. will use either or both approaches, depending on the target country. For countries such as Iran and North Korea, the U.S. will more likely use tough tactics. In this regard, the U.S. has accumulated considerable experience.

Ming Anxiang, a scholar on the subject of mass communication, has proffered the “six-steps to winning.” (Ming Anxiang: Globalization of Mass Media and the Rise of China, Social Sciences Academic Press, 2008 edition, p. 124-125) The first step is to “cook up charges.” Politicians, military industries, and media in a hegemonic regime, motivated by envy or the desire to contain or stifle potential enemies and competitors, often fabricate exaggerated and trumped-up accusations and charges. They thus set the target up for international criticism. The second step is to “whip up public opinion.” Aiming at the preset target of their criticism, the gigantic media machinery of a media superpower is set in motion. This includes the daily newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, TV networks, the Internet, movies, advertising, and electronic games. Every possible resource is exploited. In terms of tactics, they either rely on hearsay, bluff and bluster, and saying black is white, or they make up something from nothing. Peppering the target with fictitious trumped-up charges, they vigorously whip up public opinion. For a period of time, they impose massive pressure upon their opponents in the international community. The third step is to “pre-set a defendant.” Because the weight of public opinion that the gigantic media machinery of a media superpower cooked up is now against it, the country that is the subject of fabricated charges and is being criticized is usually forced to defend itself. Once this happens, the trumped-up charges become real, the false becomes true, and white becomes black. The fourth step is “kidnapping public opinion.” What’s more insidious, in the “big fudge” launched by the media of a superpower is that, once a country defends itself against the fabricated charges and further regulates its own behavior according to the accuser’s requirement, the ultimate purpose of the hegemonic regime, especially its political group, military industry, and media bloc, has been served. Thus the country subjected to fabricated charges and virulent criticism becomes the victim of the “kidnapping of public opinion.” The fifth step is “a turtle in a jar.” This is the penultimate goal of the international “big fudge” of the hegemonic regime, especially its political group, military industry, and media bloc: the country that is the victim of fabricated charges and virulent criticism cannot explain, even with a hundred mouths, but while sitting in a defensive position, it will give up its own national interests according to the will of the U.S. The sixth step is to “harvest the gains.” The ultimate goal of the hegemonic power is twofold: to contain or even eliminate the competition for minimal cost while reaping any excess gain.

In dealing with a country like China, the U.S. public opinion strategy is to use both hard and soft means at the same time. Using tough tactics, the U.S. politicians and media from time to time cook up various charges to discredit China. For example, in recent years, the U.S. mainstream media have successively concocted the “China threat theory,” the “China collapse theory,” the “China economic threat theory,” the “China military threat theory,” the “China environmental threat theory,” the “China exporting inflation theory,” and more. Recently, regarding the global financial crisis and China’s position on the South China Sea, the U.S. media again dished out its theories of “China being the key culprit in the financial crisis,” and “China being assertive.” After the U.S. media’s planning and dissemination, these opinions were widely spread in the West and in some developing countries, seriously undermining China’s international image and interfering with China’s normal interactions with other countries. Alternatively, the U.S. government and media have, in recent years, successively offered the “China responsibility theory,” the “G2 theory,” and the “Responsible stakeholder theory.” These theories are an attempt, using soft means, to employ public opinion to bring China around and gradually change and Westernize China. By making China a usable “partner” in its global strategy, the U.S. places more responsibility on China’s shoulders than China is able to handle.

V. Institutions That Assure U.S. Implementation of Its Strategy on Global Public Opinion

The U.S. global public opinion strategy has one important characteristic. That is to establish a series of institutional arrangements to coordinate the relationship between the U.S. government and media and other countries in order to ensure cooperation between the government and the media, so that, through the media’s dissemination of the news, other countries accept and understand the U.S. government’s policy intentions, values, and ideology. Therefore, as part of the U.S. public opinion strategy, it is key that the institutional arrangement ensures that the media follow the will of the U.S. government. In this regard, the U.S. government has already formed an effective mechanism to constrain news reporting.

One example is the “news censorship system.” In 1983, U.S. troops invaded Grenada. The Reagan administration, using national security as the excuse, placed restrictions on correspondents who conducted interviews on the battlefield. The military had to approve of and arrange for all war correspondents and censor their reports. It was a disguised form of (news) censorship.

Another example is the “press pool system.” During the invasion of Panama in the 1989 and 1991 Gulf Wars, the U.S. government introduced “joint interviews,” “pooled reporting,” “press corps,” or “media reporting teams.” This was called “news source sharing,” which selectively allowed (but actually rigorously restricted) the news reporters to approach the soldiers and battlefields, while others who were not present could only have access to the shared information. At the same time, the government dispatched media public relations officials to “protect” reporters, prevent them from entering “sensitive areas,” and insure that they did interviews in the “secure zones.” The government also set up a temporary high level news censorship agency in the U.S. and on the battlefield to strictly censor the news. As a result, the reporters had to, to a large extent, rely on the government or the military’s press briefings as the official information source. In the first Gulf War, the government also prohibited photographers from shooting pictures of procedures involving the coffins of the killed U.S. soldiers who were returned to the U.S. Afterwards, this became a routine restriction on the content of reports. During the Kosovo War, the U.S.-led NATO stepped up regulations on press releases. The U.S. media’s coverage (propaganda) of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia was absolutely in sync with NATO’s official release.

Another example is the “embedded news reporter.” In the 2003 Iraq War, about 600 reporters from around the world became the “embedded” reporters for the U.S. military. The Pentagon went to great lengths to develop “wartime interview regulations,” listing 28 items the reporters were prohibited from covering, including the effect of the enemy’s electronic warfare and pictures of wounded and sick U.S. troops. No doubt this forced the global media to work within the bounds of the U.S. strategy. A sample study of reports by ABS, CBS, NBC, CNN, and FOX showed that about 2/3 of the TV reports that the “embedded” news reporters sent back were live coverage, with 80% of the stories being favorable to the U.S. military, without ever interviewing the soldiers and other personnel. In the U.S., there is a very small chance that U.S. media such as CNN, FOX, or MTV will broadcast anti-war messages. One can say that, through control of the media and correspondents, the government has managed to seize control of information dissemination. In recent foreign wars, these new news regulations effectively controlled the media and thus were able to control public opinion at home and abroad.

Another important weapon in the arsenal of the U.S. strategy to control global public opinion was the establishment of the Office of Global Communication (OGC). This has helped to solidify the U.S. position as the world’s superpower. On January 21, 2003, in addition to the original press office and spokesperson system, the U.S. created an Office of Global Communication, ostensibly because “the President understood the importance of disseminating information about the U.S. to the world.” In fact, this office had been in the making ever since the “9.11” incident. Its goal is not only to better promote a positive image of the U.S. to the world by preventing misinformation and conflict, gaining support from more allies, and more effectively providing information to the global audience, but also “to study new methodologies to directly influence the Muslim audience.” As a matter of fact, the first report this office submitted after it was established was “An Apparatus of Lies: Saddam’s Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003,” which was very successful in the U.S. war against Iraq. In the Iraq war, the office also, in a timely manner, incited a media war in which the White House unified and coordinated … various government agencies and the military, defined the U.S. military invasion of Iraq as “a war of liberation,” and ensured that the government and the military could provide timely responses to the ” 24-hour global news broadcasts” that questioned and criticized the war. Clearly, one of the purposes in setting up a communications office was to control the media; the other was to mobilize public opinion about wars in foreign countries in order to ensure U.S. dominance of international public opinion.

(The author works at the International Strategic Research Institute of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School)

[1] Qiushi, “title to be edited,” June 28, 2011.
[2] At the time for the 2001 State of the Union Address, 9.11 had not even taken place.