A New Strategy to Use Technology to Promote American Values Abroad

President Biden’s ongoing trip to Europe, including meetings with the G-7 and NATO, has highlighted the many challenges facing the world’s leading democracies including the ongoing global democratic recession. The past year marked “the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” according to the non-profit Freedom House. Writing in the Washington Post before the trip, Biden described the challenges facing the world’s democracies: 

“This is a defining question of our time: Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world? Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries?” 

Asking these questions highlights the failure of the nation’s leading democracies to shape the global environment to promote democratic and liberal values over the past quarter century. As a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Vice President, Biden has a unique perspective on this history and now has the opportunity to reverse these troubling trends.

Rethinking American Capacity and Strategy to ‘Win Hearts and Minds”

One place for President Biden to start would be to rethink the nation’s current strategy for promoting democracy and American values abroad. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a sustained bipartisan strategy for winning hearts and minds around the world, an approach that ultimately succeeded in reversing the Soviet Union’s expansionist totalitarianism. But since the 1990s, the United States has reduced its capacity for conducting public diplomacy, most notably by abolishing the U.S. Information Agency. 

For a half century, USIA played a leading role in American efforts to “win hearts and minds” around the world. According to historian Wilson P. Dizard Jr, the agency “was the biggest information and cultural effort ever mounted by one society to influence the attitudes and actions of men and women beyond its borders.”  In its heyday, USIA reached 100 million people weekly who listened to the Voice of America radio network, published billions of publications, maintained a global network of 200 libraries, produced thousands of visual programs, and hosted cultural exhibits that attracted billions of visitors. But in 1998, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to restructure existing foreign relations agencies, which included abolishing USIA and folding its responsibilities into the State Department, where public diplomacy became a secondary priority. 

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, American leaders recognized the need to redouble efforts to “win hearts and minds” abroad. During the early 2000s, the United States developed new strategies and initiatives to refocus public diplomacy to counter new security challenges, including to support the global war on terrorism. 

But in 2021, it’s apparent that these efforts have not been successful. In fact, there is growing bipartisan recognition that Beijing has been more effective than the United States in using its instruments of national power to advance its interest and expand its authoritarianism. 

The risks of this strategic imbalance grow as the People’s Republic of China is committed to using technology to undermine human rights and democracy around the world. “China’s rise as a key player in the digital domain that uses its influence to promote digital authoritarianism presents fundamental security, privacy, and human rights concerns for the United States and the international community at large,” warned a 2020 staff Democratic staff report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. 

The United States currently spends about $2.2 billion annually on public diplomacy activities. This includes $700 million on education and cultural exchange programs and $800 million on the U.S. Agency for Global Media (which manages international broadcasting and related media projects), and nearly $400 million on State Department diplomatic programs. According to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, public diplomacy spending in the field was distributed across 179 countries with just $8 million spent in China. Beyond these public diplomacy activities, the United States invests substantial sums each year on humanitarian assistance, including $1.7 billion to fund USAID operations and more than $20 billion on foreign aid. 

But evidence suggests that recent American investments in public diplomacy and international aid have not succeeded in fostering greater support for the United States or democracy. For example, a 2020 Pew poll of 13 nations found support for the United States reaching new lows during the pandemic. A 2019 Pew poll of global public opinion revealed that the United States was viewed as a greater threat than China or Russia. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom In The World report, “[t]he proportion of Not Free countries is now the highest it has been in the past 15 years,” a period that has witnessed an ongoing “democratic recession” according to Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond. While many factors account for the erosion of support for the United States and democracy, American public diplomacy activities have been unable to halt these discouraging trends.

Using Digital Learning and Incentives to Teach Foreign Students About the United States 

Reversing the global decline in democracy, human rights, and individual freedom will require the United States to renew its focus on public diplomacy and pursue new strategies to promote American ideas and values. A new approach should leverage technology and harness the United States’ strongest soft power advantages, including its ability to attract students to its educational institutions and foreigners’ continued desire to move or travel to the United States.

To promote understanding of American values, the United States could establish new international virtual learning programs to teach foreign students about the United States’ history, government, and values and to provide incentives for students to study these subjects. This kind of new virtual learning initiative would be consistent with a 2017 bipartisan law requiring a national strategy to promote basic education around the world, including to “promote United States values, especially respect for all persons and freedoms of religion, speech, and the press.”

The United States government and civil society institutions could create new digital learning offerings to teach and inform interested students about the United States, including its history and government, and democracy. Such programming would be consistent with the longstanding objectives of U.S. public diplomacy and international education exchange. These programs could help students understand the United States and how the nation’s laws and government reflect key values, including human rights, the rule of law, representative government, religious freedom, sexual tolerance, and gender equality. 

To encourage students to learn about the United States and democracy, the government and private sector institutions could establish incentives or requirements to encourage students to learn about the United States or complete digital classes about the United States and/or democracy. The U.S. government could offer benefits to international students who complete certain classes or demonstrate mastery. For example, more than one million students annually use student visas to come to the United States. The State Department could establish incentives, such as prioritizing the review of student visa applications or offering reduced fees.

A more aggressive approach would be to require applicants for student visas to demonstrate a basic understanding of the United States and its history before qualifying for a student visa. For example, the State Department could include a modified version of the citizenship test in its consular interviews with foreign students applying for student visas. (As background, during naturalization interviews, applicants seeking to become U.S. citizens are required to correctly answer 6 out of 10 important questions about U.S. government and history.) Consular officers could ask applicants for student visas basic questions about American government and history to encourage students to study before their interview. 

A Second Chance to Shape National Strategy for Promoting American Values 

For President Biden, his new administration has a historic opportunity to chart a new course for American efforts to “win hearts and minds” in the 21st century. For the former Delaware Senator, it’s a second chance to set American grand strategy and potentially address the ineffective reforms of the 1990s that degraded the federal government’s public diplomacy capacity. At a 1997 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider foreign affairs restructuring legislation, Senator Biden spoke candidly about the decisions that Congress was making at the time:

“This is a big, big deal. We are going to be judged, in my view, all of us, not just this committee, but everyone in Government — my kids, who are just starting their careers, when their children are writing their graduate theses about the development of American foreign policy in the 20th century, they are going to look at this period and say we either hit a home run or we struck out…

This is one of those rare instances in American diplomatic history where we are going to set the stage for what happens for the next 25 years. We do not get to do that very often. Usually, all we get to do is bend the curve a little bit, bend the curve of history slightly. Here we may be able to change the trajectory. We may not, but we have a chance, like we did in 1946, 1947, and 1948.”

Looking back nearly a quarter century later, it would be hard to argue that national leaders “hit a home run” in the 1990s when they restructured the federal government’s institutions responsible for promoting American values and interests abroad. A much stronger case can be made that they “struck out” to use the former Delaware Senator’s frank language. 

In 2021, President Biden has an opportunity to once again set the stage for what happens in American foreign policy for the next 25 years. And it’s possible that the 46th President will be open to reimagining the way that the United States works to win hearts and minds abroad. At a 2004 Committee hearing, then-Sen. Biden called for increasing federal spending on public diplomacy activities. He also recommended “an imaginative new program, either in-place, in-country, or here,” exposing foreign students to American ideas, “not to brainwash them but to give them an opportunity to understand where we are.” 

President Biden now has an opportunity to turn that vision into a reality by encouraging students around the world to participate in virtual learning courses about the United States and American values. Such an approach would not address all of the challenges facing American public diplomacy. But a long-term effort to educate students around the world about the United States and the nation’s values could promote greater understanding about and support for American values and democracy and, over time, help the current democratic recession.


Dan Lips is Vice President for National Security and Government Oversight with Lincoln Network and author of a new report, “A New Strategy for U.S. Public Diplomacy: Using Virtual Education and Incentives to Promote Understanding of American Values”.

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