How is U.S. public diplomacy going?
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In an effort to make steering passenger jets into our office buildings seem less appealing to foreigners, the Bush administration began a high-profile public diplomacy campaign shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The woman hired to head up the campaign was a former big-time advertising exec named Charlotte Beers. Over the course of her career, Beers masterminded the ad campaigns of several popular consumer brands, including Uncle Ben's rice and Head & Shoulders dandruff shampoo.
Bush & Co. figured Beers, working as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, could rebrand America to foreigners, as if America was merely a product in need of a new and clever ad campaign. "U.S.A.: It's Nacho Cheesier!" "Try New & Improved Pine-Scented America!"
Beers' most touted contribution to public diplomacy was a series of videotaped messages featuring American Muslims telling their co-religionists in the Middle East how totally awesome life in the U.S. is. The videos were about as successful at making Middle Easterners more pro-American as bin Laden's videos are at making Americans join al-Qaeda.
Another example of Beers' work is the U.S. State Department-funded magazine, Hi. Distributed in 20 countries, the glossy Arabic-language monthly attempts to appeal to the hip Arab youth by providing "insights about current trends and ideas in the United States." With features on topics like anger management ("Don't throw a fit or a punch or a chair: Take control of your anger and watch your life blossom"), it's perhaps the most relentlessly dull magazine I've ever read (and I subscribe to Harper's!). Perhaps Beers and the State Department were hoping readers of Hi would be too busy nodding off to actively hate America. (You can read the English language version of Hi yourself at www.hiinternational.com.)
Has any of this "public diplomacy" worked? Sadly, no. As we've stepped up our public diplomacy, we've actually gotten less popular. As laughable as her attempts were, Beers' failure wasn't really her fault. Nor was it the fault of Margaret Tutwiler, who replaced Beers in March 2003 only to quit six months later for a job at the New York Stock Exchange. The fact is, our overseas public image crisis is the direct result of our foreign policy. We're perceived by our allies and enemies alike as self-serving, aggressive and hypocritical.
A 2004 Pew Research Center report characterizes global anti-Americanism as "deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history." The study indicates that foreigners think that we're more interested in dominating the world and getting our hands on Mideast oil than we are in standing up for democracy.
Pew's most recent poll shows another disturbing trend. Foreigners, particularly those in Muslim countries, are no longer confining their dislike of the U.S. to its government and leaders. They're starting to dislike American people. (My Pakistani beach vacation will have to be canceled yet again.)
President Bush & Co. aren't entirely insensitive to America's eroding popularity. Naming Condoleezza Rice, his closest foreign policy adviser, as head of the State Department was widely interpreted to mean friendly relations with the rest of the world is one of Bush's top second-term priorities.
More recently, after letting the office sit vacant for all of 2004, Bush nominated one of his longest-serving political advisers, Karen Hughes, to Beers' and Tutwiler's old gig. The pundits keep saying Hughes' nomination, like Rice's, is a sign that Bush takes public diplomacy seriously.
This columnist isn't so sure, though. Hughes is great at presidential campaigning and cheerleading for Bush policies to Republican and Republican-leaning Americans, but that's an entirely different job than the one she's being asked to do - namely win over people who are, at the moment, disinclined to like us. Just because Hughes has effectively charmed the Midwest on the president's behalf doesn't mean she'll be able to do the same in the Mideast.