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The US needs a better strategic narrative or it will cede influence to China

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The writer recently retired as a US Rear Admiral in naval information warfare and was the former Commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence 

Over the past 30 years, America’s information instrument has been neglected. If Washington is truly committed to competing against China and Russia, then we must marshal greater information powers to compete effectively in the battle of strategic narratives and expose disinformation and malign actions of authoritarian governments.

The inconvenient truth is that Beijing has been running circles around us, flooding the global media with prompt, polished narratives. It promises connectivity, progress and prosperity through its Belt and Road Initiative and casts itself as a champion for globalisation. It aims to achieve global primacy through “discourse power”, gradually redefining the world order with concepts such as global security, development and civilisation initiatives, which are gaining traction in the UN and other international bodies. 

Beijing also incessantly throws shade on the US and the wider west. It assails western alliances such as Nato as anachronistic and accuses America of being the “black hand” behind the colour revolutions that leave countries in chaos, while alleged US attempts to exert hegemony are blamed for suffering in the Middle East. American military operations in the Pacific are portrayed as provocative and disruptive efforts to encircle and contain China. Beijing adeptly engages in psychological warfare with slogans such “the east is rising, the west is declining” — propaganda that resonates in much of the global south, earning China tremendous influence.

By comparison, US information operations are subdued. We have placed less emphasis on training information professionals to engage in information warfare at the speed and scale required to deal with our adversaries.

Our information teams tend to be small and scattered across government. We no longer have a central US Information Agency (USIA), as we did to counter Russian propaganda during the cold war. Its closest equivalents are the state department’s Global Engagement Center and the US Agency for Global Media, with only a fraction of the former USIA’s capacity.

We have created barriers to releasing information with approval processes that are often labyrinthine and dilatory. Our default mode for dissemination is more reactive than proactive.

When I was director of intelligence for the Indo-Pacific Command, for example, I watched as numerous requests to publicise Chinese malign activities were disapproved by Washington, including a recommendation to publicise Beijing’s use of high-altitude surveillance balloons over the sovereign airspaces of the US, our allies and Asian partners. This was many months before the shooting down of a Chinese balloon flying over the US last year. In the Department of Defense, information experts sometimes quip that it is easier to drop a bomb than get approval to launch a strategic “information fire”.

On top of all this, the National Security Council exerts excessively tight discipline on any China messaging, throttling initiatives and often frustrating subordinate departments and agencies from communicating in the domains for which they are responsible. Unfortunately, the White House fails to connect the dots for the American public on the comprehensive dangers Beijing poses to our security, prosperity and values.

The net result is that US strategic messaging is often weak, late or absent. The supreme irony is that Beijing has more empowered people in its police state to engage in lies and propaganda than America in an open democracy allows its people to deploy the truth. If we don’t figure out how to do a better job of rapidly sharing facts and describing reality to domestic and international audiences, then Chinese fiction, fabrications and falsehoods will continue to fill the information vacuum.

John Kirby’s elevation to White House national security communications adviser with a new mandate to improve co-ordination and synchronisation of US messaging efforts offers a window of opportunity to work on top-down fixes to our pervasive national information challenge. Kirby might start by appointing a distinguished Asia expert as a full-time spokesman to engage the media on the whole range of challenges posed by China.

Kirby, of all people, should know that we must figure out how to play better music or America will ultimately face an inexorable hollowing out of its place in the international order.

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