The Whole World’s Still Watching

In today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, James Traub raises what will likely be the most important foreign policy adjustment for the next presidential administration.

The announcement this month that Karen Hughes would be stepping down as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy was greeted with a combination of relief and derision. In her first appearance in the Middle East, in 2005, this Bush confidante and fellow Texan avoided substantive issues while reassuring audiences that “my most important title is Mom” and that Americans “greatly value many religious faiths.” The trip was a very public fiasco for the White House; thereafter, Hughes appears to have been largely withdrawn from circulation. 

Hughes was not the first casualty of the administration’s attempts to improve America’s global image. That distinction belongs to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive who produced and broadcast throughout the Middle East a series of uplifting video clips called “Muslim Life in America.” Beers retired for “health reasons” in 2003 after the campaign was widely ridiculed in the Arab press. She was succeeded by Margaret Tutwiler, a former State Department official, who was welcomed with great fanfare and who stepped down after a few months. Today, six years after the terrorist attacks produced a moment of global kinship, America is feared, loathed and misunderstood across the world. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 2002 and 2007 favorable views of the United States fell from 60 to 30 percent in Germany, from 61 to 29 in Indonesia and from 30 to 9 in Turkey (though in Pakistan the figure rose from 10 percent to 15).

Perhaps the time has come to rethink what we mean by public diplomacy. In 2003, the Djerejian report — named for the veteran diplomat who presided over the study, Edward Djerejian — made the eye-catching allegation that “a process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats.” The report noted that the U.S. was spending just $25 million for “outreach programs” in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. Only 54 State Department employees had achieved a high level of fluency in Arabic. Public-affairs officials themselves considered American broadcasting efforts in the region ineffective.

The planet has lived with an administration that publicly postured like an adolescent “cool kid” on the stage of world affairs: “If I say it or do it, it is therefore cool, and to hell with anyone who doesn’t like it.” Meanwhile, our public goodwill ambassadors came out of spin factories. No wonder the world is saying to hell with us.

…Today, as the Djerejian report observed, “Arabs and Muslims have a surfeit of opinion and information about the United States.” We are bound to lose any battle of spin control, whether carried out by a pal of the president or by the most credible Arabic-speaking proxy.

From this we may draw two opposite conclusions. One is that we must simply accept that the cost of acting in our national interest is that publics in the Islamic world will shower us with contempt. The alternative is to recognize that public opinion is the medium in which we now operate. All diplomacy is therefore public diplomacy. When Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials split hairs over torture, that shapes our ability to conduct the war on terror more powerfully than do the interrogation techniques themselves. What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing — on occasion, what we are caught doing — matters immensely.

Exactly. The people who are hell bent on shredding our privacy — their own words walk naked in the world. A new day may be emerging in global politics, where the world’s winners will be those with straight talk and open hearts.  Let’s hope.

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