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US effort to rehab image falls short

Global wariness of America persists, despite US efforts to mend fences with allies.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2006


In Europe for two days, President Bush will lay out a full agenda on Iran, aid to Iraq, and farm subsidies in world trade. But he'll also confront a European public that has such a poor view of America that in some countries, the United States is seen as the biggest threat to global stability today – surpassing Iran.

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Views like this have figured in Helle Maasbol's family. For the three years she has lived in the US, she's not been able to entice her mom back home in Denmark to pay a visit.

"Her image of the States was going downhill for a while, but it was the war in Iraq that was the real blow," says the wife of a World Bank economist and mother of two girls – all of whom are now moving back to Europe. "I told her often about the wonderful people we've met in America, but she said she wouldn't come as long as the president was George Bush."

Indeed, the US image abroad has continued to deteriorate, despite a concerted effort by the Bush administration to turn things around by mending fences with key allies, taking concrete steps to make diplomacy work, and expanding public-diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and other regions.

At the beginning of his second term, Mr. Bush set out to improve America's relations with the world by extending a more diplomatic hand to international partners, taking more multilateral positions on security concerns like Iran, and naming trusted aide Karen Hughes to help fix the US image abroad. But recent surveys show that public opinion about America continues to fall in countries as diverse as Spain, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia. And the repercussions of the decline are not just touchy-feely image issues, experts say.

Low public esteem for the US makes it more difficult for governments to unabashedly side with the US on international issues, while less attraction to America can mean a smaller slice of the global tourism pie for the US.

"We lose out on jobs when foreigners don't travel here as much. We lose out on billions of dollars in spending, but we also lose the goodwill we know comes from people getting to know Americans," says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA).

Noting that he discussed that impact recently with Ms. Hughes, Mr. Dow says, "I asked her, 'What would it be worth to you to have 8 million people going home to say, "You know, they're not so bad." ' You have to figure that into the diplomacy equation."

Eight million is the number of additional visitors the US would greet if it increased its share of the international travel pie by just 1 percent. In 2002, the US reaped 9 percent of international travel, but today the number is down to 6 percent. Each percentage drop represents 150,000 jobs and $15 billion in spending, according to the TIA.

Of course, anti-Americanism is not the only explanation for falling numbers of foreign visitors – any more than disdain for the Stars and Stripes was invented by Bush. Many experts tie the tourism phenomenon to America's place as the world's only superpower, and the resentment that people have long felt toward the power they believe must be responsible when events turn negative.