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America’s Sagging Brand

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: May 11, 2006


Though Americans diverge on many aspects of foreign policy, they generally agree about the need to improve their nation's declining image abroad, which is charted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. To combat the slide, the Bush administration began spending more on public diplomacy immediately after 9/11. Last year, President Bush appointed a former aide and confidante, Karen Hughes, as a kind of ambassador-at-large to explain American policy aims to the world. Hughes spoke on the challenges facing the U.S. public diplomacy effort at CFR's New York headquarters on Wednesday. A transcript of her remarks is available here.

Funding government-wide has increased yearly since, according to the Congressional Research Service; the latest rise from $954 million in FY 2005 to just over $1 billion this year. Arguing on behalf of another increase, to $1.14 billion for FY 2007, Hughes told a House panel on May 3 "the values we promote are universal, meant for people everywhere, and we seek to promote them with other nations and peoples in a spirit of partnership and respect."

But the government's efforts are beset by problems. Testifying the same day as Hughes, the Government Accountability Office's lead auditor on public diplomacy efforts reported the U.S. public diplomacy campaign still lacked strategic coherence. Disturbingly, "30 percent of officers in language-designated public diplomacy positions in the Muslim world have not attained the level of language proficiency required for their positions, hampering their ability to engage with foreign publics," he said.

Nor is needle of global opinion moving significantly. Confirming years of negative poll results, Andrew Kohut, who runs Pew's surveys, concludes in his recent book that "America's image is at a low ebb: where once it was considered the champion of democracy, America is now seen as a self-absorbed, militant hyperpower." (In an interesting corollary, Pew last November found more Americans harboring isolationist attitudes due to the war in Iraq and other issues.)

CFR Fellow Julia Sweig blames much of this backlash on the Bush administration's unilateralism. Sweig, who talks about her new book, Friendly Fire, in this Podcast, is a Latin America expert who sees parallels between Washington's poor reputation in its immediate neighborhood and the recent spike in anti-Americanism in the rest of the world. In effect, she says, America's dismissive attitude toward its own hemisphere has gone global, with predictable results.

Others believe Washington makes too much of its own role in all this. Marc Lynch, author of Voices of the New Arab Public, says this is not a war of ideas between the United States and Islam, but rather an inter-Arab issue. "In fact, America is a relatively marginal and often self-defeating player in the real ideological struggle among Arabs and Muslims," Lynch writes in the National Interest. "American power and policies matter, but direct American interventions, however necessary, tend to reinforce al-Qaeda's arguments about an Islam under siege."

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