Freedom is Off the Air


The United States’ rudderless public diplomacy has allowed authoritarian regimes to operate unchecked internationally and at home, putting free societies at risk and human rights in peril.

In March, a report in Foreign Policy highlighted a number of abductions ostensibly ordered by Beijing in order to repatriate Chinese citizens who were accused of questionable crimes at home.

These abductions are alleged to have occurred in Australia and potentially in other Western nations. Some have even targeted dual citizens who were also nationals of the countries from which they were abducted. That China would take such a risk as to do this indicates that its leaders know they will face no consequences.

The Voice of America and its sister networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors can be some of the most prophylactic tools that America has to inhibit these sorts of actions by authoritarian regimes. They can help strengthen foreign opposition, give a voice to the silenced, and promote the rules-based international order. But these networks suffer from chronic underfunding, untimely cuts in services, institutional malaise, and a lack of will to consistently defend its most intrepid rank-and-file reporters and their families from harassment. The later problem is only just now being addressed head-on by the Department of State.

To use China as an increasingly egregious example of uninhibited abuse, there is already ample evidence for the world to question its development and political motives, but few are willing to amplify these stories and present an alternative way forward. Overseas, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” often brings with it political destabilization in its host countries while also placing these nations in debt to the point at which they may cede control of projects – typically critical pieces of infrastructure – to China.

Within its own borders, and free of critical press, China has accelerated its campaign of harassment, monitoring, and extrajudicial detention of Uighurs, human rights lawyers, reporters, and others based on specious threats, including the continued house arrest since 2010 of Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. China’s social credit system prejudices millions from travel and services without due process.

For those on China’s periphery or who flirt with this authoritarianism, the apparent silence of America on these subjects is tantamount to tacit assent. If the U.S., free, rich and powerful, doesn’t care to make an argument, why should it expect people in a far more tenuous predicament to do so?

And for those living within China’s borders, they deserve to hear a voice that presents the facts and also puts forth an alternative ideology that values individual human rights and the rule of law. America’s international media takes a passive approach to its mission; however, the original VOA charter provides that it shall “present a balanced and comprehensive projection [emphasis added] of significant American thought and institutions.”

Even if the propagation of moral relativism throughout the West makes it an uncomfortable proposition for some to take a stand for these ideals, it is not xenophobic to argue against an oppressor-state on behalf of the oppressed.

Maintaining and increasing VOA service in key languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Uighur, and Tibetan is essential to making these arguments. Digital services need to be modernized, including the origination of new technologies to help traverse firewalls and reach today’s digital information consumers. Traditional shortwave radio broadcasts should be maintained and expanded, as this most simplistic form of reception is easy to receive, and the receivers are easy to conceal.

The VOA should also consider third-party partnerships with satellite firms that can provide an end-run around government censorship from miles above. Finally, it is time for President Trump to nominate for Senate approval a new CEO to lead the BBG – one who understands that freedom is not the natural order of things, and that it must be aggressively maintained.

Let us all stand for the proposition that if a nation firewalls its citizens, it loses the moral authority to dictate what happens outside of its borders. And if that firewall is used to further internal human rights abuses, then that government has lost all moral authority within its borders as well. As time passes, America’s indifference to this creeping authoritarianism will cost money, alliances, and lives. It’s time to do what is necessary to inform, educate, and inspire the world’s most susceptible populations.

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Step One: Close the Gaps


International engagement doesn’t betray the President’s base

Since the end of the Cold War, the analysis of whether a policy is “good” or “bad” has centered on whether that policy has a quantifiable economic benefit. America spends less time today thinking about crises of ideology than it once did, and so our foreign policy becomes rooted in hard-dollar analyses. But that doesn’t mean that the American public has abdicated the beliefs that it once so strongly espoused on the international stage.

The indicators of an American ideological vacuum now seem disturbingly regular. In China, we see an acceleration in information control, and the exertion of pressure on Hong Kong, including the government’s decision to appeal the sentencing of three pro-democracy activists (who were later re-sentenced and jailed). In the past several days, we’ve also learned that China’s television regulator has stepped up the pressure against broadcasters to produce more pro-Party programming, and North Korean engineering students study subjects applicable to weapons programs at Chinese universities, some on scholarship from China.

In our own hemisphere, we see missed opportunities in Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere that have led to generations lost to the pursuit of communism and socialism. And today, we risk opportunities by using free-trade agreements like the South Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUS) as negotiating leverage, playing to the fears of Americans purportedly harmed by such agreements.

It’s of course true that economic issues, including free trade, played a pivotal role in the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the Trump voter who has seen his or her manufacturing job lost to lower-priced foreign imports is still likely to trend ideologically conservative, be religious, and be a profound believer in an idea presently in pause – that America, despite any flaws of past or present, remains the single best source for good in the world.

Placing KORUS discussions on hold does not mean reneging on a campaign promise to these voters. Standing with an ideological ally, notwithstanding economic concerns, validates those voters’ non-economic values about what it means to be American and adhere to a promise. Even more so, placing aside trade issues and standing firm with South Korea makes it clear to aggressor nations that America and its allies are bound by more than just dollars. Tens of thousands of Americans have already given their lives alongside Koreans in pursuit of freedom, and hundreds of thousands of Americans on the Korean peninsula, both civilian and military, demonstrate the ongoing bond between the two nations that runs deeper than trade.

Furthermore, these actions would show that America’s tolerance for ideologies antithetical to its own is not limitless. America has never predicated access to its market on strict adherence to its interests in all matters, but publicly and definitively setting aside the present trade spat would show that non-economic actions have inherent value to America as well. Conversely, non-economic actions taken contrary to American interests could have profound effects with respect to how America views the total value of the relationship.

The US has been limited in its application of sanctions to Chinese banks and has made concessions to China to gain its direct involvement with North Korea; China understandably is limited to certain options as well, in the face of a potential refugee crisis should the North Korean state collapse. However, America’s concessions have a limit, so it is a legitimate question to ask at what point China’s actions both domestically and with respect to the Korean peninsula make it less a matter of their benign indifference to American interests, but rather, short-sighted actions trying to maintain an untenable status quo.

The world has heard from many sources that in this Korean crisis, there are only bad options. Not all options may be bad, but none of the options are easy. They require political will and long-term resolve to be achieved, and in Newtonian parlance, one can’t expect that decades of focused action by North Korea can be resolved by anything other than stronger focused action in the opposite direction over time.

Then, the easiest decision to make, and the predicate to any option, is to close the gaps between America, South Korea, and its other regional allies including Japan, to present a united and strong ideological front to the world that transcends trade, and adheres to commitments that America began making to the region seven decades ago. This would be a decision that the president’s base would understand, would foreclose other nations’ ability to hedge their positions on the issue, and would pay both economic and non-economic dividends in the years to come.

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