Center for American Progress

Public Diplomacy: Restoring Legitimacy to U.S. International Leadership
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Public Diplomacy: Restoring Legitimacy to U.S. International Leadership

Anti-U.S. sentiment is on the rise, and American citizens are paying the price. The precipitous decline in positive foreign attitudes toward the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush, most dramatically since the invasion of Iraq, has put at risk tangible strategic and economic interests: cooperation in countering terrorism, security for U.S. firms and citizens abroad, and contracts for U.S. goods and services.

To overcome this problem, the U.S. government must improve its efforts at "public diplomacy" – the presentation to publics abroad of U.S. objectives and policies. Among foreign publics, particularly in the Islamic world, there is much misinformation about U.S. foreign policy. Correcting the distortions requires more and qualitatively improved information, as well as means for disseminating it that are credible at the local level. It also requires that the next administration – led by Bush or Kerry – put the United States on a new foreign policy course, as much of our country's declining image abroad is the result of misguided policies.

Mistrust and Anger on the Rise

Foreign publics are not simply disconcerted by what they see as mistakes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. They are also angry at what they believe to be the motives behind U.S. policy. Thus, in a nine-country poll conducted in March 2004, a year after Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Pew Global Attitudes Project discovered that, except in the United States and Britain, a plurality or majority of those questioned believes that the U.S. war on terrorism is not a sincere effort to reduce terrorism:

U. S. War on Terrorism[1]
Percent Responding
Not sincere Sincere
U.S 25 67
Britain 41 51
Russia 48 35
France 61 35
Germany 65 29
Turkey 64 20
Morocco 66 17
Jordan 51 11
Pakistan 58 6

Rather, the poll revealed deep skepticism about the motives behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism:

What Are America's Motives?[2]
To control
Mideast oil
To dominate the world To target unfriendly Muslim goverments To protect Israel
U.S. 18 13 13 11
Britain 33 24 21 19
Russia 51 44 25 11
France 58 53 44 23
Germany 60 47 40 30
Pakistan 54 55 51 44
Turkey 64 61 47 45
Morocco 63 60 46 54
Jordan 71 61 53 70

[Percentage of the total population who believe each is an important reason that the United States is conducting the war on terrorism]

Moreover, the PEW survey found that public support in Europe for the U.S.-led war on terrorism has declined markedly over the past two years, from high support in the summer of 2002 (75 percent in France, 70 percent in Germany) to the March 2004 levels (50 percent in France, 55 percent in Germany).[3]

Not surprising, but still disturbing, is the downward trend since Operation Iraqi Freedom of support and admiration for the United States in the Arab world. A June 2004 poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute found that only 4 percent of Saudi Arabians held a favorable attitude toward the United States (down from 12 percent in 2002), and just 2 percent of Egyptians, whose country was a Gulf War ally, held a favorable attitude (down from 15 percent in 2002). Indeed, the responses in the six countries surveyed (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates) were "overwhelmingly negative" toward the United States. The most commonly noted responses include references to America's "unfair foreign policy" and perceptions that "the US is only interested in oil" and "the US is imperialistic=[4]

The Impact of Anti-U.S. Sentiment

This growing mistrust and anger toward the United States and its foreign policy has already had tangible repercussions for U.S. security. In European democracies, public attitudes toward the United States of the kind reported can constrain – even paralyze – the capacity of governments to cooperate with Washington in important strategic undertakings. Spain's withdrawal from the coalition in Iraq (following the 2004 Spanish elections) and the highly-limited contributions of France and Germany to stability and reconstruction operations in Iraq are cases in point.

In the autocratic and monarchical regimes of the Middle East, a public furious at the United States for alleged neo-imperialist, anti-Islamic, or pro-Israeli policies can inhibit otherwise pro-Western leaders (such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or King Abdullah of Jordan) from pursuing pro-Western policies. For example, they may be less inclined to modernize their economies or discourage the kind of shrill Arab state diplomacy that equates U.S. imperialism, Zionism, and racism. Ankara's refusal to allow U.S. forces to attack Iraq through Turkey was in large part a reflection of a society divided in its support for the United States. Similarly, Pakistan's Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation is essential for combating the remnants of al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, is constrained by the strength of jihadism among the populace – a jihadism he must contain to prevent the militants from taking power in Karachi and gaining possession of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Additionally, throughout the world, U.S. firms can become tempting targets, not only for boycotts by resentful nationalists, but also for aggressive harassment at the hands of cultural or religious traditionalists who believe that U.S.-led globalization is corrupting their way of life. The periodic violent demonstrations by aggrieved local populations in the Nigerian south against U.S., British, and Dutch multinational oil firms (namely Chevron, Mobil, and Shell) are a harbinger of such growing resentments.

Restoring Legitimacy to U.S. International Leadership

The United States can often get what it wants in the world by exercising its raw military and economic power coercively. But the more the United States forces its will upon others, the more it risks undermining other more effective means of exerting influence and leadership, such as:

  • Obtaining cooperation by serving common interests and values.
  • Dealing fairly with conflicts and situations in which burdens and benefits must be internationally allocated.
  • Distinguishing wisely between our own and others' irreducible national interests (that are non-negotiable) and secondary interests (over which bargains can be struck).
  • Judiciously applying raw power to achieve essential and specifically defined objectives, and with due diligence not to harm innocent persons.
  • Cooperating with the institutions and processes of the international community – whether a regional or sub-regional grouping, the members of the United Nations, or the World Trade Organization.

Insofar as these means of exerting power are pushed aside, countries around the world will continue to balk at U.S. international leadership. The United States, in turn, will be even more tempted to resort to raw power to get its way against those who defy it. As a consequence, the United States will inflate the idea that force is the primary arbiter of world politics, stimulating further resentment of the United States.

The role of public diplomacy

The way the United States portrays its purposes and policies to the rest of the world requires fresh attention, and the agencies responsible need augmented resources. Such is the thrust of the Independent Task Force on Public Diplomacy, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations[5] , and the Bush administration's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World[6]. Their principal recommendations include:

  • Providing strategic direction and coordination of the public diplomacy effort at the White House- or Cabinet-level.
  • Assessing the ways U.S. actions will be received by the rest of the world before major new international initiatives are undertaken, and building into such initiatives efforts to enhance a positive "hearts and minds" reaction.
  • Increasing Arab-language and Muslim culture expertise in all U.S. agencies involved with the Islamic world.
  • Augmenting public diplomacy personnel throughout the government.
  • Enlarging the capacity of U.S. media and U.S.-sponsored media to broadcast to and in Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
  • Utilizing the Internet to disseminate the good news about America and to rebut the evil caricatures.
  • Enlisting private foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and academic institutions in the enhanced public diplomacy effort.
  • Enlarging cultural and academic exchange programs with Arab and Muslim countries.

While these recommendations are sensible, the actions they call for can be easily perceived as U.S. government propaganda. To overcome this challenge:

  • Media that disseminate U.S. public diplomacy information should wherever possible be locally owned and operated[7]. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, although known to be U.S. Cold War instruments, were seen as credible by the great numbers in the Soviet sphere who hated living under communism and saw the United States as the land of freedom and prosperity. Today, by contrast, the majority in many countries regards the United States as overbearingly imperialistic and does not trust U.S. information sources.
  • U.S. and foundation funds should support independent newspapers and broadcasters abroad. This step would maximize the development of plural and diverse information sources that are not simply the mouthpieces of anti-American governments or demagogues. These media outlets should be allowed to challenge U.S. policy in their programming.
  • The U.S. government should provide scholarships for media personnel, particularly from developing countries, to study in U.S. schools of communication and journalism to hone their journalistic skills and objectivity. Media personnel who have studied in the United States are more likely to adopt the journalistic ethos of investigation to determine the facts and view demagogic rhetoric skeptically.

The need for policy change

No public diplomacy program, however, will succeed in restoring legitimacy to U.S. leadership if U.S. foreign policy does not change course. The United States cannot credibly claim to be the leader of the international community and at the same time summarily slough off one international accountability obligation after another – such as its unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty; its failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and its dismissive stance toward the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Nor can public diplomacy efforts rescue the incongruence on the one hand between the Bush administration's efforts after the invasion of Iraq to get the United Nations to take up the burden of reconstruction, and on the other hand the administration's "my-way or-the-highway" bypassing of the U.N. in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Similarly, elevating preventive military action into a doctrine, oblivious to the consequences for world order generally, is quite beyond the skills of any public diplomacy artist to paint over, as is the contradiction between the administration's professed dedication to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its pursuit of bunker-busting nuclear weapons.

Anti-U.S. sentiment puts U.S. interests at risk. The United States must reshape its image abroad by crafting public diplomacy efforts that are effective at the local level. But even the best public diplomacy efforts cannot overcome a misguided foreign policy. The next U.S. administration – under the leadership of Bush or Kerry – must not only strengthen public diplomacy efforts, but dramatically change U.S. foreign policy to overcome the negative way in which the world now views our country.

Seyom Brown is the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University.



[1] The Pew Global Attitudes Project, A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: 16 March 2004). Available at www.people-press.org.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Zogby International, Impressions of America 2004: How Arabs View America; How Arabs Learn About America (A Six-Nation Survey Commissioned by the Arab American Institute, June 2004).

[5]Independent Task Force on Public Diplomacy, Public Diplomacy: A Strategy for Reform (sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, 2002).

[6] Edward P. Djerejian, testimony on findings of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy before the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State, the Judiciary and Related Agencies, 4 February 2004.
[7] Cogent arguments on behalf of supporting indigenous media rather than relying mainly on U.S. "Voice of America"-type efforts are found in David Hoffman, "Beyond Public Diplomacy," Foreign Affairs, March / April 2002.

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