May 21, 2006

The Image of the United States Overseas

In a piece ostensibly about Karen Hughes, Roger Cohen (Times Select) touches on issues of more foundational import than any one public diplomacy tsarina:

The image of the United States is in something close to a free fall.

There are lots of reasons, beginning with the fact that any elephant this big bestriding the world's stage is going to irk people, especially when George W. Bush is riding it. But I suspect a basic cause is that in the 65-year period of 1941-2006, the United States has been at war in some form or another for all but 14 years.

There was World War II and then, after a two-year break, the Cold War, which ran until 1989, and then, after an interlude of a dozen years, the war on terror. These were different sorts of wars, of course, and among them were Korea and Vietnam. But somewhere along the way, most acutely in the past few years, people got tired.

They got tired of America's insatiable need for an enemy; suspicious of the talk of freedom and democracy and morality in which every struggle was cast; forgetful of the liberty preserved by such might; alarmed at the American fear that appeared to fire American aggression; and disdainful of the distance between declarations and deeds.

In short they stopped buying the American narrative. [my emphasis]

This is a hugely complex issue, and it is very true there is so much cheapness in the attacks on America born of bad faith, ignorance, envy, varied over-simplifications, cheap propaganda, fascination even, and so much more. And yet, in the past several years, at least in my travels, I can attest to what Roger Cohen (and I take it guys like Clive Davis know what I mean) is saying more and more.

Yes, our national narrative isn't selling like it was before. This isn't any one leaders fault, or one wars fault, or one detention centers fault, or anything so mono-causal. It's not even the end of the Cold War or something more macro and systemic like that. Nor is it, in my view, Cohen's view that it's mostly because we've been in something of a perma-war since Pearl Harbor, necessarily.

But causation issues aside, and while it's true our great national narrative is not dead, totally bespoiled, or even on critical life support, I think it's fair to say it's in real trouble, for many reasons (as I said, some valid-- some not). That strikes me as rather a big deal, and frankly, I haven't seen a truly coherent strategy yet to get it out of trouble. I've seen, as Cohen points out, some innovative and intelligent PD style initiatives, and kudos to Hughes for implementing some of them. But they strike me as more 'trees' than 'forest', and we've got a very long road ahead yet, I'd think, in ensuring a materially positive impact on our image abroad. To avoid sounding like a broken record, I'll avoid the urge to state here several big policy moves that would start moving us back in the right direction...but regular readers will know some of what I'd have in mind.

Posted by Gregory at May 21, 2006 01:08 PM | TrackBack (0)
Comments

To the world: flee Amerca's way of life: its not life at all: but its a race, a NASCAR race, going in a circle as fast as you can. Why should the world want America has - we have become the role model of big bad bully who has to get his way or else. Embrace your culture and sense of who you are: this is best defense and always was: a people with an identity have it over a people of faceless zeros and ones.

Posted by: Tony at May 21, 2006 01:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"They got tired of America's insatiable need for an enemy"

...yet they don't get tired of all of those other folks who keep volunteering to be that enemy.

Posted by: cirby at May 21, 2006 05:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Very useful note. I suspect that nationalistic reaction on the Right (and its Left knee jerk mirror image) will overcome thoughtful response on the part of many (although Cohen's phrasing probably unnecessarily pushes some buttons), but an important issue.

I very much agree with Clive, whose commentary is probably more deserving of quoting than Cohen's: Sadly, my impression is that too many US conservative commentators, in the mainstream and blogosphere alike, are locked into that tiresome and deeply parochial "Why don't they love us?" routine. Self-pity alternates with bursts of righteous anger and the irritating assumption that, in all known fields of human endeavour, the American model is the only one that works. Not forgetting that oh-so reassuring belief that, yawn, Europe will be going down the tubes in 30 years' time anyway, so why bother listening?

I'm about as pro-US as they come, but I have to say I'm beginning to run out of patience - and hope.

The commentator cirby rather falls into the very trap Clive and Greg are touching on.

Having some enemies is indeed inevitable ... and inevitable for any power; generating unnecessary opposition however by callous disregard is another matter. I generally think of this as the Napoleonic problem (in reference to the degree to which Napoleon generated enemies on a strategic level, not to Napoleon's person).

Objective evidence: the collapse of US' reputation as evidenced in global opinion polls (however flawed) over the past 5-6 years.

Winning friends at any cost, among those who will never be so is clearly an error. Losing friends through sheer clumsiness (and making enemies out of the merely indifferent) is equally an error.

At present the US Right has adolescent obsession with one side of the equation.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 22, 2006 02:23 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Cool Brittania" How did that turn out?

Maybe we should stop worrying about our national image and remember that time heals all wounds.

Posted by: Aaron at May 22, 2006 02:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Queer, stupidity:
Maybe we should stop worrying about our national image and remember that time heals all wounds.

One should worry about national interest and achieving goals. Like Walmart realised that attending to image is an important part of doing business. Any business. Of course, not the sole part, but fundamentally poor image imposes costs, unnecessary costs.

When one steps away from adolescent "they don't like me anyway" acting out, it becomes easier to see that.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 22, 2006 04:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

They don't like us so much we need immigration quotas.

Or how about the Palis interviewed a while back who hate America but want to go to school here.

Yep. We have an image probem. With insane people. Which by the looks of it is a highly over represented population in the world.

Boo frickn hoo.

Posted by: M. Simon at May 22, 2006 12:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wonder how much of this intellectual fashion is generated by our oh so social elites in NY and Hollywood and parroted by the consumers in other countries. Maybe when the intelligencia's political hemlines change the overseas polls will change too. In my travels I see anti-Americanism as a river three kilometers wide and two milimeters deep. I hope it reverses, or at least stays as it is, but I'm not losing any sleep over it here in the vast red state wasteland.

Posted by: wks at May 22, 2006 08:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The lounsbury,

The problem is I saw Europeans hating America in the 80's along with the Middle East, plus ca change, plus ca meme.

And here's a prediction: no amount of image buffing by Wal-Mart will make it appealing to leftists.

Posted by: Aaron at May 23, 2006 05:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I know a lot of people who hate New Yorkers (City) (Mostly rural Americans from upstate) but just love going to New York.

Maybe it's like that.

Posted by: NeoDude at May 23, 2006 09:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, yet more illustration of the very problem the Belgravia Dispatch's dear author was talking about.

As to Aaron: I am sure you 'saw' Europeans expressing all kinds of opinions about America (although how one sees hating escapes me...), such as the good old anti-Nuke demos of the 80s.

It's amusing that you use this as your main... well point if one can abuse the word in implying you actually had one.

The key fact underlying is of course that while large numbers of Europeans were upset about American policy in re tactical nukes in Europe, overall support for and positive image of America was fairly decent, higher than today.

The point for those capable of something resembling actual thought, and with a passing acquaintance with critical analysis, being that the US has seen a substantive decline in support in those quarters that have historically been well-disposed to it.

Of course, as noted supra (although I understand those with problems in actual joined up reading may have to puzzle through a bit) is not those that will dislike the US regardless, but losing support among those who would be, normally, its friends.

Or in other words, no one is universally loved, but the child who begins to lose all his friends, well might just look at his own behaviour as a contributory factor. Or the same child may feel it is much easier to simply blame "The World" for being mean.

One does hope that emotional development impaired adolescents are not the standard for behaviour in terms of US policy development, and a reasoned response might be seen to reverse the decline (noting again for the comprehension impaired that reasoned response is not the typical hard Left "It's all our evil imperialist selves" response either).

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 24, 2006 12:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The comparison with Wal-Mart is interesting. For in that case, it is not Wal-Mart's fault that it has a poor image. It is doing nothing wrong other than being a highly successful company that serves its largely low-income customers well - which is its primary crime in the eyes of leftists. The very thing that incenses leftists about Wal-Mart are the things that should earn it praise.

The comparison between the US and Wal-Mart illuminates the PR problems of the US, because if the analogy is apt, then the US should in fact be praised for those things which are causing it to lose popularity. I do not know what those things are, but then I did not bring up the analogy with Wal-Mart. That pro-American, pro-capitalist commenter Lounsbury did. :)

Posted by: Constant at May 24, 2006 02:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, first Constant seems to suppose I am on the Left and somehow anti-Capital.

A queer thing, as I work in finance and am a partisan of liberal economies.

But let's leave that aside:
For in that case, it is not Wal-Mart's fault that it has a poor image.

Is it not?

When a company develops a poor image - whether the substance is real or not - some portion of the blame has to devolve back on the company.

As a corporate officer, e.g., I am attentive and concerned about a firm's image.

For firms my old Fund invested in, I was not pleased if Mgmt sat with its thumb up its ass and did not concern itself with its corp image - reputational risk, reputational capital are important assets that real capitalists (not play ones or ideological whankers) are concerned with.

Now, how much of the fault devolves to Wal Mart's apparently poor PR game and inattention to reputational risk, and how to the Left Anti Commerce types, how much to perhaps real problems, I don't know. Following Wal Mart substantively isn't my business - the analogy of course was illustrative.

It is doing nothing wrong other than being a highly successful company that serves its largely low-income customers well - which is its primary crime in the eyes of leftists.

Perhaps, perhaps not: there have been accusations of violations of labour laws, etc. I am not so naive or ideological as to write such things off, although I have zero sympathy for the exageratted Wal Mart is evil drum pounding.

The larger point, as noted supra is regarding watching out for one's reputational capital, as damaged reps raise (ceteris paribus) one's cost of doing business and to the extent they can be avoided or lessened, should be.

Given what I read in business press such as The Financial Times, Wal Mart had a poor PR game for a long time. That is an unnecessary error.

The very thing that incenses leftists about Wal-Mart are the things that should earn it praise.

Some of the things. Others, if true, should not. Some things are simply irrelevant.

What counts, however, is not ideological purity, ideological whanking or other abstractions, but rather practical attention to real costs and constraints of doing business.

The lesson applies quite well to the US, by the way. As I noted supra, regardless of the content of policy, it is clear by the recent collapse of American popularity even in circles well disposed normally to the US, that a poor job is being done of late in defending and promoting US image.

Rather than shrieking and kicking like adolescents recieving bad news and acting out in denial, one might consider pragmatic responses.

Or not. I am sure competitors are happy to have one self-handicap and commit own goals.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 24, 2006 08:06 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The visceral dislike for the US around the globe, especially Europe, is also caused because they ask, "Why does the US engage in war so much, use their military so much, act unilaterally so much. We don't act like in our country. We are peaceful."

Which totally ignores the fact that Europe has ridden under the umbrella of US military protection for decades, to the point that almost no European country has much of a military left. Those that hate us have no military capability, no will to engage in any military actions and are resentful of the power that comes with military might. They have blinded themselves to the fact that militaries are necessary, and military action can and should be used in certain circumstances to achieve worthwhile, defensible goals.

The rest of the world hates us from the more direct point of view of jealousy of our wealth and power, or that we are the only country who challenges and threatens the power of dictators and bad actors in the world.

Posted by: Joel at May 24, 2006 10:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, do you sorts repeat these fine little just so stories to try to convince yourselves or others?

Sad.

There is, of course, like any just so story, a grain of truth in the simple mythology. But it's not an explanation for the depth of American problems.

The visceral dislike for the US around the globe, especially Europe, is also caused because they ask, "Why does the US engage in war so much, use their military so much, act unilaterally so much. We don't act like in our country. We are peaceful."

Some yes. Some.

It's a nice stereotype that Americans love to repeat, but again hardly explanatory of the recent free fall. The 'visceral dislike' in certain quarters, Europe or not, tied to the above certainly explains a certain percentage of dislike of hte US - call it the ceiling or floor.

It does not explain fluctuation.

Now, the comical distortion here is almost painful:
Which totally ignores the fact that Europe has ridden under the umbrella of US military protection for decades, to the point that almost no European country has much of a military left.

This fine strawman "totally ignores" the fact of UK and even, horrors, French contributions to Afghanistan (never mind Iraq for UK), and non-US centric operations (as in Cote d'Ivoire) that would be hard to explain for this cartoonish distortion of reality.

Certinaly of course there is hard Euro Left that hates to admit the US contributed massively to a security umbrella over Western Europe (although let's be frank and not adolescent - the US contribution was in self interest, and the US has also as a policy preferred the Europeans make contributions in kind rather than build up independent force. Which is quite rational. All in all these immature chest-beating adolescent posturing about US military, no Europe is tedious at best).


Those that hate us have no military capability, no will to engage in any military actions and are resentful of the power that comes with military might.

Sad, there are

Well, if one is only interested in a sort of beer-sotted football hooligan 'understanding' of what drives sentiment towards the US, I suppose "my dick is huge, you guys are dickless" is comforting.

They have blinded themselves to the fact that militaries are necessary, and military action can and should be used in certain circumstances to achieve worthwhile, defensible goals.

Indeed, military action is required, and the US has in the past been convincing in gaining the support of the supposed effete Europeans, as for example in Afghanistan. US leadership was important.

The cartoon above fits the hard pacifist Left well - however that's hardly the only people who have a problem with the US at present. Of course I am sure the writer prefers to attack the sad little pacifists rather than consider that perhaps some policy missteps - at the very least in the arena of convincingly explaining oneself to others - have occured.

The rest of the world hates us from the more direct point of view of jealousy of our wealth and power, or that we are the only country who challenges and threatens the power of dictators and bad actors in the world.

Ah the Righteous Shining Knights.

Sorry mate, the US is a country made up of humans.

Not angels.

Nor is it "the only" country challenging dictators - the French (yes indeed the evil and hated French) have put life on the line keeping the peace in Cote d'Ivoire, for example, with few thanks from either side of the conflict (which is to say none).

The point, of course, is not some more tedious "my dick is bigger" whanking, but that self-involved, ill-informed chest-beating may go down well in domestic bars, but it also illustrates part of the problem.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 25, 2006 05:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

> ... that we are the only country who challenges and threatens the power of dictators and bad actors in the world.


Heh, this is a bit silly, and pretty cartoonish, as it ignores the countries that have challenged US-installed or supported dictators and tyrants.

Iran is a fine example, as Iran managed to overthrow its US-supported dictator, but, perhaps at British instigation, the US defeated the Iranian democracy to restore the dictator.

Posted by: frank wallace at May 25, 2006 07:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

First

I doubt the reasons the US is hated in parts of the third world, is the same as the reasons we're hated by the Euro left, or that the euro right is disenchanted, etc. I doubt, for ex, that most thirdworlders dislike the US, but love France and Britain. In fact I can say for sure that such a dichotomy is not true. I lived in an international dorm when the Falklands war happened, and every Indian there was "pro-argentinian" Some grudges die hard. We are hated in much of the 3rd world for SUPPORTING our european friends in the post war years.

Indeed the issue of military prowess varies differently from country to country. France may well throw its weight around (though in Cote D'ivoire they are in a place that was long part of their neo colonial empire) but Germany does not. Clearly hostility to the US comes from different roots than it does in Germany.


Second - much of the criticism of the US is confused to say the least. Theres a lot of "we dont want to be like Americans" with alot of stuff about religion, guns, health care, obesity, etc. Well, Ive never seen that it was a goal of US foreign policy to make Euros give up health care, or agnosticism, or leanness - not under Clinton, and not even under Bush. Sometime it seems like theyre not reacting against US policy, so much as against the American temptation, thats in their own society, or even in themselves. Of course we get the same thing here on the right, where some hate europe for being secular and welfare statist. Doesnt make anymore sense, at least to me.

Third - With the Middle East still so central in REAL foreign policy concerns (i mean other than the question of obesity) the elephant in the room is the arisal in Europe, even outside of leftist circles, of an antizionist sensibility that sometimes takes on the symbols and airs of antisemitism. I had two friends who spent a year in London in 2002 - one was a born American, the other was born in the USSR - both reported back real antisemitism. I know that will be denied, but I trust my friends perceptions.

Maybe those perceptions are wrong. Maybe Europeans should look long and hard at why THOSE perceptions exist, and not blame it on a handful of American right wing bloggers, who are distorting European reality. Though that may go down well in the pub.

Posted by: liberalhawk at May 26, 2006 08:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Always the other guys fault, eh mate, and two mates in London characterise the EU....

Well, you get what you deserve.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 27, 2006 03:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

> Maybe Europeans should look long and hard at why THOSE perceptions exist

Does this mean you imply that the widespread hatred of the US is the fault of Europeans? The Europeans are really to blame for the sad rise in the number of Moslems (from the Magreb to Persia) who believe it is justified to kill US soldiers in Iraq?

Posted by: frank wallace at May 31, 2006 03:48 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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