The War of Ideas: Advocating for a Stronger US Information Warfare Capability

The U.S. should establish and adequately resource a 21st century equivalent to the USIA. Above is USIA’s 20th Review of Operations from January 1st to June 30th, 1963.

By: Benjamin Carsman, Columnist 

The United States’ enduring challenge countering terrorist propaganda and more recent threats from nation state information operations have highlighted the need for a more robust information warfare capability on the part of the US government. Recent events such as the Russian operation to interfere in American democracy and influence the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Election have highlighted the prevalence of Information Warfare (IW) in our current era of great power competition. Furthermore, IW has long been a neglected aspect of our counterterrorism strategy. Throughout the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the United States government’s efforts to counter both the strategic narratives of radical Islamist groups and the proliferation of terrorist propaganda through public diplomacy and information operations have been woefully inadequate.[i] This American response is symptomatic of a larger problem: post-Cold War US IW efforts have generally been poorly organized and resourced, and have not effectively contributed to US national security. Given the informational threat from nation state rivals and sub-state actors, the United States must begin taking IW more seriously.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has struggled to contextualize its global counterterrorism (CT) campaign in order to determine how best to employ its Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic tools to achieve its strategic objectives. As a result, it has relied primarily upon tactical means, such as drone strikes and the widespread deployment of Special Operations Forces, to the detriment of forging a broader political and information warfare strategy against radical Islamist groups.[ii] While U.S. Cyber Command has achieved some operational success in the information domain since 2016 by working to deny ISIS access to online communications through Joint Task Force ARES,[iii] more broadly the U.S. continues to struggle with how to engage in the war of ideas with radical Islamist groups as evidenced by the enduring challenges in successfully implementing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives.[iv]

Furthermore, it is now widely understood that the United States has entered into what will likely be an extended period of strategic competition with Russia and China,[v] both of which identify IW as an important aspect of such competition. Russia’s Defense Doctrine of 2010 states that one of the features of contemporary conflict is, “The prior implementation of measures of information warfare in order to achieve political objectives without the utilization of military force and, subsequently, in the interest of shaping a favorable response from the world community to the manifestation of military force.”[vi] This emphasis on IW was further showcased in the 2013 Gerasimov Doctrine,[vii] which was then operationalized against Ukraine in 2014 and the United States in 2016. These developments suggest that IW is a central tool in the modern Russian national security apparatus; given the current state of US-Russian relations, the United States must be prepared to counter it.

China, meanwhile, reportedly asserts that IW can enable strategic victory and even preclude the need for military action, if used early and effectively.[viii] Though more subtle, Chinese IW presents no less a threat to US interests than those conducted by Russia.[ix] Recent revelations of the extent of Chinese efforts to exert influence over US universities,[x] businesses,[xi] and politics[xii] have shed light on the extent and sophistication of these efforts.

Additionally, IW is not solely the domain of terrorist groups and great power rivals; Iran, for example, has been observed engaging in information operations amplifying pro-Iranian narratives through social media networks targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.[xiii] Given the ubiquity of this type of activity in the realm of international relations today, the current inadequacy of US efforts to compete in the daily battles over information, narratives, and strategic communications is unacceptable.

In response to these challenges, the Obama administration established the Global Engagement Center within the State Department’s Office of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in 2016.[xiv] This center is nominally responsible for “leading the U.S. government’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries.”[xv] Unfortunately, however, it has been plagued by inadequate resourcing. Recent reports allege that despite Congress allocating $120 million in 2016, the State Department had not spent any of the apportioned funds as of this past March.[xvi] Additionally, although another $40 million was dedicated to the center by the Department of Defense this year, it has since been reduced to $20 million—which, as of September, is yet to be delivered.[xvii] This anemic response is out of touch with the current state of affairs, and it is high time the U.S. adopts a more serious approach to IW.

One common refrain often heard in relation to such assertions is that the United States Information Agency (USIA) should be resurrected. Established by the Eisenhower administration in 1953 to consolidate all of US foreign information activities, the USIA administered and coordinated these efforts throughout the Cold War. Such programs included sponsoring cultural and educational exchanges, distributing written publications worldwide, and engaging in public diplomacy through a variety of broadcasting services.[xviii] While the USIA was abolished in 1999 and most of its functions were absorbed into the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,[xix] there is a cogent argument for bringing back the USIA given recent challenges to adequately support and implement similar policies today.

An information agency that is independent of other bureaucracies would allow for more direct resourcing and the ability to more robustly advocate for the importance of informational means within the interagency. It would also allow for the development of more cohesive and well-coordinated information operations and public diplomacy strategies across the US government, and the development of a greater number of government employees and service members with experience in these fields. Ideally, such an agency would draw from personnel across the State Department, the Intelligence Community—especially the NSA and CIA’s Directorate for Digital Innovation—and the Department of Defense, thus serving as a fusion center for IW. This could incorporate intelligence analysis, including social media analysis; the development of counter-narratives and communications strategies; and the coordination of policy, public diplomacy initiatives, and information operations across the US government, among other activities.

Some have argued that resurrecting the USIA is unnecessary, and that what the US needs is a comprehensive IW strategy with improved strategic and operational integration.[xx] However, without an independently-resourced agency capable of advocating for IW and coordinating strategy, other operational priorities and funding issues will likely continue to impede IW initiatives. It is therefore imperative that the U.S. establish and adequately resource a 21st century equivalent to the USIA. If not, the U.S. risks continued impotence in the face of informational challenges from terrorist groups and nation state adversaries alike.












[i] Awadallah, Alia, Hardin Lang, and Kristy Densmore, “Losing the War of Ideas: Countering Violent Extremism in the Age of Trump,” Center for American Progress, October 17, 2017, accessed November 01, 2018,

[ii] Cohen, Eliot A, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, 141, New York: Basic Books, 2018.

[iii] “Joint Task Force ARES and Operation GLOWING SYMPHONY: Cyber Command’s Internet War Against ISIL,” National Security Archive, August 13, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018.

[iv] Glazzard, Andrew, and Eric Rosand, “Is It All Over for CVE?” Lawfare, June 13, 2017, Accessed November 01, 2018.

[v] United States of America, Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, 2, January 19, 2018, accessed October 28, 2018,

[vi] Blank, Stephen J. “Information Warfare a La Russe.” In Cyberspace: Malevolent Actors, Criminal Opportunities, and Strategic Competition, 212. Carlisle Barracks, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2016.

[vii] Gerasimov, Valery, trans. by Robert Coalson. “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight.” Military Review, January 2016, 23-29. January 2016. Accessed March 12, 2018.

[viii] Mulvenon, James C. and Richard H. Yang, The People’s Liberation Army in the Information Age, 183, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1999, RAND, 183

[ix] Rogin, Josh, “China’s Foreign Influence Operations Are Causing Alarm in Washington,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2017, accessed November 01, 2018,

[x] Peterson, Rachelle, “American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse,” Foreign Policy, May 09, 2017, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xi] Campbell, Alexia Fernandez, “Google’s Censored Search Engine for China Is Sparking a Moral Crisis Within the Company,” Vox, September 25, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xii] Doshi, Rush, and Robert D. Williams, “Is China Interfering in American Politics?” Brookings. October 02, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xiii] FireEye Intelligence, “Suspected Iranian Influence Operation Leverages Network of Inauthentic News Sites & Social Media Targeting Audiences in U.S., UK, Latin America, Middle East,” FireEye, August 21, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xiv] “Global Engagement Center,” U.S. Department of State, accessed November 01, 2018.

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Harris, Gardiner, “State Dept. Was Granted $120 Million to Fight Russian Meddling. It Has Spent $0,” The New York Times, March 04, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xvii]            Samuels, Brett, “State Department Unit Created to Fight Foreign Election Interference Still Waiting on Funding: Report,” The Hill, September 03, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018,

[xviii] “Records of the United States Information Agency (RG 306),” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed November 04, 2018,

[xix] “Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,” U.S. Department of State, accessed November 04, 2018,

[xx] “No, We Do Not Need to Revive the U.S. Information Agency,” War on the Rocks, November 12, 2015, accessed November 04, 2018,


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