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Better U.S. image abroad: how to attain it?

Presidential candidates cite intent to improve US stature, but retooling policies is complicated.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2008

Capitol: A man straightens fallen flags on display at the National Mall. Presidential candidates have intentions to improve US stature abroad but it may take more than a fresh face in the White House.

Susan Walsh/AP/FILE



Hillary Rodham Clinton would send prominent emissaries to world capitals the day after being elected president. John McCain would close the Guantánamo detention facility and renounce the use of torture. Barack Obama would speak to all foreign leaders, even America's worst enemies.

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With global views of the United States seemingly stuck at historic lows, improving America's image abroad has emerged as a prominent issue of the 2008 presidential campaign. In debates and speeches, candidates acknowledge to varying degrees that everything from the prospects for diplomatic initiatives to America's economic well-being in the global economy hinges in part on how the world views the US.

And they are offering ideas, like those cited above, for how the image slide can be reversed.

But changing America's world image will take more than campaign rhetoric, experts say, especially in the post-9/11 era. Although they note that much of the blame for a deteriorated image is placed at the feet of President Bush, they say it won't work for the next president to seek a return to where the US was in 2000. Rather, they say, the next US leader should try to discern the kind of leadership the world is craving for the 21st century.

"The image challenge is much more about substance than symbols; but changing some of what the world perceived as the more egregious policies of George Bush will be necessary but far from sufficient," says Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a member of the State Department policy planning staff during the Clinton presidency. "The next president has to realize the world has changed, and there's no going back to square one."

The sharp decline in America's image abroad is acknowledged by the Bush administration, which has launched various public-diplomacy campaigns to try to reverse it. At one point, Mr. Bush named one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes, to take on the task of polishing America's brand around the world. Despite those efforts, a majority in many countries that once had a positive opinion of the US now view it negatively.

In NATO ally Turkey, for example, a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey last year found that only 9 percent of Turks had a positive view of the US, down from about half in 2001.