Ways to burnish America's image abroad

A new report joins other voices calling for more dialogue with other nations as well as an image czar.

The White House - and America in general - may get an overseas image czar as one result of fresh findings that foreign opinion of the US has slumped to dangerous lows.

For more than a year, a string of private and government reports and independent polls has found that the battle to sway the world's hearts and minds to a favorable view of the US - especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds - is falling further behind.

Alarmed by its flagging image overseas, the United States pumped up its public- relations spending after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks to more than $1 billion a year. But now a bipartisan advisory panel is warning that the issue reaches beyond a Madison Avenue image problem to a serious national security threat.

The panel is calling for a "new strategic dimension" in what is called "public diplomacy" that treats the problem with warlike urgency. It's a war that will require more resources, more focused attention from the White House, and everything from many more fluent speakers of key foreign languages in the foreign service to more points of contact for skeptical foreigners to meet and talk with Americans.

"If America does not define itself" to the world, says the panel's chairman, former Ambassador Edward Djerejian, "the extremists will do it for us."

But it is also a war that Americans with experience in cities from Amman and Riyadh to Jakarta and Istanbul report the US is losing - and quickly.

"We had a sense a year and a half ago that Arabs and Muslims liked our values, liked our products and people, but hated our policies," says John Zogby, a specialist in opinion research who was a member of the panel. "Now, many of us fear, with some degree of empirical evidence, that they don't even like us any more."

Motivations for improvement

Why the world's hearts and minds even matter can be seen concretely in the US effort to persuade other countries to contribute money and troops for postwar Iraq. The more unpopular the US is, experts note, the more difficult it is for leaders to buck their constituents and lend the US a hand. More broadly, they add, a poor US image globally makes achieving international policy goals and pursuing key national interests more difficult.

"We have a great story to tell, and it is in our interest not only to tell it but to spread out values. But the problem is we have left the field," says Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, whose congressional subcommittee ordered the report. Mr. Wolf, who has traveled to Arab countries and seen firsthand "the damage done when our ideas aren't even present," says he plans to pursue the report's recommendations - including the naming of a special counselor to the president on public diplomacy.

The panel, which was created by Congress in June to study the problem of America's sinking image, finds that unpopular US policy goes a long way toward explaining increasingly anti-American foreign publics. Key unpopular policies include what is perceived as a one-sided stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war and occupation in Iraq, and US support for unpopular Arab regimes.

But the panel also concludes that it is not just unpopular policies, but a failure to explain those policies and demonstrate an interest in dialogue about them with the rest of the world, that is hurting America's cause just as much.

At the State Department, which is the lead agency for public-diplomacy efforts, officials welcome the call for more resources for a job that has been heavily curtailed since the end of the cold war. They say what is being proposed is basically a modernized version of what the US used to have around the world, when the former US Information Agency had libraries and PR campaigns, and budgets for academic exchanges were larger.

Ironically, America's public-diplomacy effort was cut back even as the information age exploded and mass communications, through cable and satellite programming often hostile to the US, became everyone's domain.

At heart, differences over policy

But some officials say the hearts-and-minds battle will continue to be an uphill fight - principally because US policy remains widely unpopular. What can help, however, experts say, is a sustained effort to explain the values and motivation behind those policies - and to listen more to foreigners as to why they are unpopular.

"Our policy is the issue, but no one wants to acknowledge that," says one official who asked not to be named. "Basically the policymakers don't care much about the impact on foreign opinion of those polices." Still, the official says more of the kinds of efforts the panel recommends - more public debates, and making sure the US point of view is represented in more foreign-news broadcasts - are important.

For example, Mr. Djerejian, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, says the panel was dismayed to view a tape of a recent Arab satellite TV program entitled "The Americanization of Islam" that claimed the US was determined to change a religion followed by 1.5 billion Muslims to its liking. The claims were made with no opposing point of view.

One experienced foreign-service officer notes that the number of officers with specific training in public diplomacy has fallen sharply since the cold war. Fluent speakers of languages spoken in Arab and Muslim countries have also declined.

"We have to face the fact that we haven't been as engaged as we were," the officer says, "and that disengagement is taking its toll." He echoes the view that unpopular policies make the effort difficult, but adds that a long-term effort to explain the American perspective - and to appear interested in listening to others - can still win points.

Others cite another key problem in the age of instant global information: what may be meant for domestic consumption now reaches quickly around the world - and isn't always well received.

"It's distressing when hundreds of hours of goodwill from our officials appearing on Al Jazeera, trying to put out a favorable view of America, can be undone by 10 minutes of chauvinistic and offensive commentary" on US media or by US officials at home, says Charles Freeman, a former ambassador with experience in the Middle East.

"Public diplomacy is important because people appreciate the effort, but it has to be honest and can't be seen in terms of how to spin unpopular policies," Ambassador Freeman says. "Spin won't do it."

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