The Other Air Force: U.S. Efforts to Reshape Middle Eastern Media Since 9/11. Matt Sienkiewicz. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
In his classic book Soft Power, Joseph Nye observed that soft power is operationalized through messaging. A state might be respected or admired, but to wield this influence it must communicate what it wants. Nye called the processes by which this happens “public diplomacy,” a category of communication that includes government-funded broadcasts abroad, press releases to foreign media outlets, and face-to-face meetings with foreign elites. For Nye, maximizing the effectiveness of soft power requires investing in the means of public diplomacy in order to project messages as effectively as possible, an idea deeply rooted in the Cold War heyday of American public diplomacy efforts such as Voice of America.
In his new book The Other Air Force: U.S. Efforts to Reshape Middle Eastern Media Since 9/11, Boston College communications professor Matt Sienkiewicz offers a different way of thinking about how soft power actually functions, and one that might be better suited to our present, peculiar moment in history. Sienkiewicz’s subject is American interventions in Middle Eastern media landscapes since 9/11, and his book is rooted in closely researched case studies of media organizations in Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories. He finds that, at least when it comes to engaging local media in the Middle East, message has been replaced by form as the most basic unit of soft power.
Sienkiewicz begins with the post-9/11 decline of message-delivering public diplomacy organizations like Voice of America Arabic (VOAA) in the face of competition from satellite channels and the internet media outlets. VOAA struggled to connect to a younger generation and was shut down in early 2002 due to low ratings. Content controlled by the U.S. government simply wasn’t of interest to young Middle Easterners when they had so many other media options to choose from. Message discipline and an American sensibility went from being key tenets of a public diplomacy policy to being lodestones, weighing down American attempts to garner and utilize soft power.
VOAA’s demise and changes in the media environment that drove it sent policymakers at USAID and elsewhere back to the drawing board. Sienkiewicz finds that the most successful projects they came up with had three things in common: the projects were local, rather than regional, in scale; the content was generated and controlled at the local level; and the form of the project—its organizational structure and approach to the media landscape—was that of an American media company, competing for advertising revenue to become self-sustaining. The first two characteristics are perhaps obvious—local projects are better positioned to compete with regional satellite broadcasters for less money, and locally generated content is more likely to resonate with local audiences—but the emphasis on form is crucial. By encouraging media development in the image of America’s media landscape, American aid built organizational and market structures that were likely to be willing and effective distributors of American messaging.
The Afghan radio station Arman FM offers an instructive example. USAID offered seed money to Arman to become one of the first private radio stations in post-Taliban Afghanistan, under the caveat that further support would not be forthcoming and Arman would have to rely on advertising revenue to survive. The station calibrated its content to local tastes by playing folk and pop music and soon found a substantial audience. Competitors sprung up, each with their own take on popular media in Kabul. None of the stations calibrated their content to the demands of American public diplomacy but, as Sienkiewicz found, USAID was happy with their return on investment. “Arman eradicated the sense of centrality that state radio once enjoyed in the Afghan mediasphere [and]...to the eyes of [USAID officials],” Sienkiewicz writes, “the new Afghan mediasphere featured just the sort of competition needed to foster economic and discursive conditions amicable to an embrace of liberal western values.” In other words, creating demand for American-style institutional forms in Afghanistan has a soft power value all its own.
That said, Sienkiewicz leaves much of the idea of forms as soft power unexplored. We get no sense of how, for example, we can best measure the effects of reproducing American forms abroad, or why, if formal mimicry is beneficial to American interests at the local level, global jihadi organizations gain such advantages from adopting digital forms that originate in America. As a framework for thinking about the future of soft power, however, Sienkiewicz’s book offers great value at a crucial time.
...a basic truth: protecting American institutions is itself an important element of cultivating soft power.
America is on the precipice of a credibility crisis in public diplomacy. The world has little faith in our most important messenger—Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey found the proportion of people confident in Donald Trump’s judgment on world affairs range from a high of 22% in China to a low of 3% in Greece—and the proliferation of social media use at all levels of government makes the kind of deliberate message management envisioned by Nye more difficult to execute than ever. Sienkiewicz’s ideas about the soft power value of reproducing American forms while ceding actual content creation to local producers serve as both a basis for policy innovation and a warning. Forms, he suggests, can build cross-border connections that messaging alone cannot, and can perhaps even do so in the face of poor messaging. Recreating American forms abroad, however, ceases to be beneficial if those forms are fragile or corruptible at home. Implicit in Sienkiewicz’s argument is a basic truth: protecting American institutions is itself an important element of cultivating soft power. Ultimately, Sienkiewicz’s ability to pack both granular history and broad theory into a concise package makes his book a rare treat among academic titles. The Other Air Force isn’t written with strategists in mind, but anyone with an interest in the future of soft power would do well to read it all the same.
Sam Ratner is a Masters candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where he studies international security policy.
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Header Image: Voice of America, VOA, was created during World War II within the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information, O.W.I. During the war, the name “Voice of America” was not yet commonly used. WWII documents refer to the O.W.I.'s Overseas Branch when discussing VOA radio broadcasts for foreign audiences. (Cold War Radio Museum)