Foreign Policy Blogs

On the Importance of Messaging in Foreign Policy

On the Importance of Messaging in Foreign Policy

In his famous 19th century work Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “… a democracy is unable to regulate the details of an important undertaking, to persevere in a design, and to work out its execution in the persistence of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy, and it will not await their consequences with patience.”(261) Unfortunately, it was these traits, de Tocqueville argued, that lead nations towards successful foreign policies over the long term. For decades American foreign policy has fallen to each of these traps.

Inconsistent messaging and even more inconsistent policies have become a complication for the United States both at home and abroad. 

The American economy appears to be heading towards a downturn- months of rising prices, increasing interest rates, and supply shortages all make this point crystal clear for consumers. These challenges are not only apparent to everyday Americans- policy makers ranging from President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell have each recognized this issue through their public statements. However, despite the broad recognition that the economy appears on the brink of a downturn, leading policymakers offer different justifications for the tough times that appear ahead.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen infamously referred to inflation as “transitory” before being forced to walk back those comments. President Biden has suggested that economic challenges are, in large part, a consequence of Russian aggression in Ukraine. While Chairman Powell has pointed to a post-pandemic economy as a leading cause of economic turbulence. 

This communications debacle is evidence of the inconsistencies intrinsic to democratic government that de Tocqueville describes- more importantly, it leaves Americans pessimistic about our economic prospects, divided about who is to blame, and unsure of how to move forward.

In a similar way, officials from the State Department have regularly been called upon to clarify statements given directly by the President. This weak messaging both domestically and abroad creates an opportunity for America’s rivals to fill the void, and it is worth considering how they have chosen to do so.

Reviewing the content of Russia Today* (a state-controlled media company with headquarters in Moscow) offers insights about how leadership in the Kremlin wants its readers to understand the state of the American economy. A visitor to the site might expect to find articles arguing that Russia was defeating the United States in Ukraine, and that America’s economic uncertainty is a consequence of challenging Russian might. Instead, a visitor will find articles arguing that American economic uncertainty is a self-inflicted wound. Additionally, instead of articles highlighting the military prowess of the Russian army, they would find stories highlighting the resilience of the Russian economy despite American efforts to limit Russian exports.

Despite what might appear to be an obvious opportunity for nationalistic chest-thumping, an apparent plurality of Russia Today’s articles highlight examples of disfunuction in the U.S. lead NATO bloc. RT features disputes between American policy makers, stories of American media censorship, and polls suggesting that Americans have a grim outlook about their economic prospects. The United States is not the only nation targeted by these efforts- others in the EU and NATO have their institutions scrutinized as well.

This highlights something important about the way that the Kremlin leverages its role in Russian media. Rather than display examples of military victories, Russian media praises the resilience of the Russian people and the stability offered by leadership in Moscow. Instead of arguing that American economic uncertainty is a consequence of challenging Putin, RT presents the economic downturn as a self-inflicted wound. In truth, the publication goes out of its way to highlight how few Americans blame the autocrat for their economic woes. 

Russian state media does not work to persuade Russians that their lives are somehow better than the lives of people who live in democratic nations. Instead, these outlets make the nihilistic argument that all governments make promises they can’t keep, that all institutions are corrupt, and that the average American is just as far away from real political influence as the average Russian. The message is not competition, but a sense of shared hopelessness… and at least Putin offers stability in the chaos.

This one insight, however, reveals a second insight. The reality that the Kremlin has been hesitant to “take credit” for America’s stumbles highlights the potential that, one day, Putin might begin to accept that credit and Russian state-media might take on a more competitive tone. To date, the Kremlin has suggested that “Western” institutions have either failed or have been corrupted, and that this fundamental weakness has resulted in a floundering economy and a toxic political environment. Should Kremlin supported media outlets begin to frame American “vulnerability” as a consequence of the United States losing a direct contest with Russia, it might suggest that Putin is preparing for an even more egregious action that would require popular support (much less knowledge).

Poorly managed communications, finger pointing, and a sporadic U.S foreign policy vision has created a vacuum in messaging. Russia, along with other American rivals, have exploited this opportunity.

None of this speaks to the importance of clear and positive messaging in the Southern Hemisphere, where the United States is already bidding for influence against an expanding list of rivals. 

Addressing this problem means considering foreign policy choices more seriously, and more consistently both locally and in Washington D.C.. It means going out of our way to learn about the world’s most pressing problems, and it means using that knowledge to ensure that the leaders we elect guide the nation’s foreign policy with the long view in mind. 

The success of American foreign policy, far more than in autocratic regimes, is dependent on a citizenry that is informed and engaged. A more informed and engaged body of citizens would demand a higher quality of messaging from elected leaders both for internal consumption and international ears.

Ultimately, our ability to shore up these liabilities comes down to our ability to overcome the hazards that de Tocqueville predicts. It is our responsibility to be educated about key global issues, and to press representatives in Washington to prioritize long sighted foreign policy decision making. 

Only by learning to plan, persevere, and await the consequences patiently will American foreign policy be able to move forward in a wise and consistent direction. 

*Russia Today is a state-media company that is registered as a direct agent of the Russian government. Neither the Foreign Policy Association nor the author espouse the views that are expressed on that platform. 

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association