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War Bedevils American Image

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
June 14, 2006


It has been one year since Karen Hughes was named to run the U.S. public diplomacy apparatus and only nine months that she has actually been on the job. So, it's not fair to hold up the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey as any sort of report card. Still, the poll's findings of a continuing decline in views about the United States must be discouraging after the high-profile steps Hughes and other officials have taken to explain and promote U.S. policies.

Hughes recently told a CFR meeting that the Bush administration is increasingly adapting policy to serve public diplomacy considerations. She told RFE/RL journalists this month the role of U.S. public diplomacy is to go beyond asserting U.S. positions to engaging in a "conversation with the world." CFR's Michael Moran notes President Bush's recent shift in tone has been an acknowledgment of the need to adjust the administration's posture (Star-Ledger). But U.S. efforts continue to be bedeviled by bad luck, missteps, and the Iraq war. The administration enjoyed a rare double dose of good news from Iraq last week with the killing of an insurgent leader and the completion of Iraq's government. But soon after came reports of three suicides at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. A senior U.S. public diplomacy official called it a "PR move" (BBC), prompting a quick correction from a State Department spokesman that "we would not say it was a PR stunt" (MSNBC).

U.S. public diplomacy efforts, now budgeted at more than $1 billion (PDF), are part of the U.S. Secretary of State's "transformational diplomacy" initiative aimed at shifting the unwieldy foreign policy system to confront present-day challenges. That includes moving diplomats out of cushy Western posts closer to important developing world stations in Asia and Africa. It also involves trying to organize U.S. foreign aid more effectively (PDF).

But public diplomacy is about communication and that is where most of the U.S. spending is directed. There continues to be discussion about whether the country's main broadcasting effort in Iran should be the music-based approach of Radio Farda, profiled recently by the Washington Post. Hughes says the station fosters important dialogue with Iranians. Meanwhile, cultural critic Martha Bayles expresses concern about the export of low-brow popular culture from the United States and the impact it's having on the country's image (Wilson Quarterly). But CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig, whose new book assesses the rise of anti-American sentiment, tells's Bernard Gwertzman, it is improved policies, more than communication, that will improve America's image, such as closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

Another challenge is the current backlash in some states against U.S. democracy promotion policy, which is at the heart of the country's public diplomacy efforts. Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that resistance to U.S. democracy-promotion activities in developing and post-communist countries is at an all-time high.

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