RHODES, Greece, October 6, 2014 — Last weekend, the paradisiac island of Rhodes, Greece played host to the most recent debates on the budding information war between Russia and the United States. Bringing together more than 100 young “global leaders” for a series of conferences on topics from international environmental cooperation to social entrepreneurship, the 2014 Rhodes Youth Forum saw conversations inevitably drifting to the new Cold War that seems to be emerging between East and West.
Some of the most thought provoking remarks came from honorable guest Vladimir Yakunin, founder of the World Public Forum (WPF) “Dialogue of Civilizations” and CEO of Russian Railways. Having recently found himself in the crosshairs of the U.S. State Department, which resulted in his U.S. assets being frozen, Yakunin’s remarks on this resurgence of tension between Russia and the United States were especially pertinent.
“Americans managed to change the attitude towards American values and American power all over the world”, Yakunin stated during a Q&A session. “I remember the period when it was in the best to present yourself as a Democrat to create or present some anti-American slogan in Europe or … Latin America, but they invested a lot of money to reshuffle this.”
The United States has traditionally invested enormous funds in supporting its soft power abroad, particularly in the former territory of the USSR. Radio Free Europe, a broadcasting organization formed in the aftermath of the Second World War to inform the public in countries “where the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed”, was financed directly by the CIA until 1972. Millions of taxpayer dollars were pumped into this government-funded news source throughout the Cold War years to spread the American values of economic and political liberalism in the native languages of those living behind the Iron Curtain. A 1967 State Department memorandum declared Radio Free Europe to be “the oldest, largest, most costly, and probably most successful covert action project aimed at the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe”.
A more indirect form of U.S. soft power has been the country’s immensely influential music, TV shows and movies. Rock and roll was arguably just as influential in the collapse of the Soviet Union as some more obviously political factors. According to data from the French Institute of Public Opinion, 57 percent of the French population polled in 1945 believed the Soviet Union contributed most to the Allies’ victory in World War II. In 2004, 58 percent believed that the United States contributed the most. It is likely that films like Saving Private Ryan have a lot to do with this.
Coverage of Russia in the United States press over the last few months has been one-sided. America’s most prestigious newspapers, from The New York Times to The Washington Post, have not hesitated to heap blame on Russia for any act of violence that has taken place in Ukraine while opposing voices like NYU and Princeton professor Stephen Cohen, were dismissed as “Putin’s useful idiots”.
Meanwhile, in Russia, public opinion could not be more different. As RuNet watcher Kevin Rothrock points out in a recent article, “President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are at a five-year-high, Moscow’s land grab in Crimea enjoys wide support, and most Russians (63 percent, in fact) are confident in the state-run media’s objectivity.”
Such a marked divide between the two countries’ views of the Ukrainian crisis shows two things. First, neither side has the full picture. Second, there is a clear lack of communication between people of different viewpoints in the world. The paradox of the Internet is that, while we theoretically have access to a greater amount of information than ever before, online media also allows us to close ourselves into partisan echo chambers. As Herbert Simon warned us, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
There is a real need for genuine intercultural dialogue, even if it isn’t always easy to build. Events like the Rhodes Youth Forum are a promising start.