In retrospect, the battle lines of the Cold War — the West, NATO and democracy on one side; the East, the Warsaw Pact and dictatorship on the other — seem obvious and inevitable. The outcome — the collapse of the U.S.S.R. — feels now as if it were preordained. But at many moments in the half-century that the Cold War lasted, the battle lines were far from clear and the ultimate outcome very much in doubt.
Certainly in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when communist parties were still strong, it was far from clear that Europe would end up in the same ideological camp as the United States. The 1970s were another low point: In the aftermath of Vietnam, U.S. allies around the world questioned American leadership, demonstrated at American embassies and called for the closure of U.S. bases.
The Soviet Union sought to exploit those moments of weakness. Starting in the 1940s, the U.S.S.R. cultivated a network of pro-Soviet newspapers and journalists around the world, using them both to repeat the fictions that the Soviet Union told its own people and to pass on conspiracy theories about the United States. The most famous — the allegation that “the CIA created AIDS” — was started in a Soviet-linked Indian newspaper and was repeated by a team of East German scientists. It eventually gained currency in more than two dozen countries around the world.
Back then, it took two years for “the CIA created AIDS” to spread; nowadays, conspiracy theories can be passed along by networks of bots and trolls in seconds. But even then, the nature of propaganda had to be defined, explained and framed before it could be countered. Someone in power had to decide, in other words, that disinformation was a problem and had to hire people to think about the solution.
Eventually, they did — and not just in the United States. In the 1940s, the British government created a covert research group, the Information Research Department, that put together material on the realities of Soviet life and quietly passed it on to politicians and journalists across Europe. In the 1980s, the U.S. government set up the Active Measures Working Group, a small interagency team that kept track of constantly changing Soviet narratives and came up with responses. Eventually the United States would threaten the U.S.S.R. with sanctions unless it stopped pushing the “CIA created AIDS” mythology. There were ups and downs, successes and failures. But in the end Soviet propaganda failed to win hearts and minds, in part because the United States and its allies pushed back.
Why does this history matter? Because we are living at a similarly fraught moment, in a time when international alliances are in flux. America’s reputation abroad has plunged in many countries. Conspiracy theories have never been easier to create and pass on, both abroad and at home. A part of the U.S. population right now believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “Christian” leader fighting against the Islamic State in Syria. In fact his government represses religion and is not particularly interested in the battle against the Islamic State at all.
Yet at the moment, there is no systematic U.S. or Western response to Russian, Chinese or Islamic State disinformation. Attempts to keep track of it are uneven. There is no group or agency inside the U.S. government dedicated solely to this task. And, thanks to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it looks like there won’t be anytime soon.
Despite a congressional decision allocating $80 million for this purpose, Tillerson has refused to spend the money. This is most certainly not, as Tillerson’s aide R.C. Hammond has claimed, because there is no plan to spend the money: Officials at State have told me that discussions on the issue are well advanced. Nor is it because State doesn’t have the capacity to spend it, or because the department has too many bureaucrats. From the beginning, the plan was always to create a small internal group to spend a large chunk of the money outside the department and outside the government, for example supporting Russian-language media, which can debunk myths told in the Russian media far better than outsiders could.
The real reason is because we don’t have a president like Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan or, frankly, even Jimmy Carter in the White House. We don’t have a president, and therefore we don’t have a secretary of state, who wants to stop conspiracy theories, promote democracy, bolster alliances and defend America’s reputation abroad. Instead of a president who identifies foreign disinformation as a problem that needs a solution, we have a president who thinks it serves his interests. If this were the Cold War, in other words, we would be poised to lose.