The USA Needs a Strategy to Rebuild its Image
Carol Bellamy & Dam Wienberg | The Washington Quarterly | Summer 2008
A study by the Pew Foundation recently confirmed that the USA has been suffering from an image problem for years, and this all over the world. Even in Japan, Argentina, Germany or Great Britain, all countries with a traditionally positive stance towards America, approval rates are sinking drastically. Traditional image building in the shape of the media-orientated work of the US Information Agency (USIA) will hardly be able to halt this trend – not to mention turn it around. A far-reaching image building strategy is necessary: a public diplomacy offensive involving school children, students, and the working population who would act as quasi civil-diplomats. Individual exchange programs should be used as an effective public diplomacy tool. In this context, it is worth paying attention to four main principles:
- Diversity: If US citizens are sent abroad within the framework of an exchange program, then they should reflect the diversity of the American population. Hispanic students for instance have until now only made up 9% of the share of exchange students although they represent 25% of the American student population. Besides, two thirds of American exchange students still go to Europe. Future programs should therefore especially promote regions which are increasingly significant geopolitically.
- Cultural immersion: Individual exchange does not make much sense if the contact between the visitors and the local population remains superficial. This applies both to foreigners visiting America and US citizens abroad. Effective exchange programs be able to continue due to the fact that they include a firm connection of the visitor to local institutions and families.
- Civil-diplomats: The USA should urgently think of ways of supporting people who are already active as civil-diplomats without being aware of it. This is for instance the case of the thousands of people working for USAID and involved in a wide range of aid projects worldwide. For example, these projects provide the framework to organize (and finance!) events at which the local population often comes into contact with members of USAID and where intercultural understanding can be strengthened.
- Tomorrow’s elites: Exchange programs should especially focus on the young elites of other countries. The world’s future decision makers should experience personal contact with US citizens early on in order to subsequently be able to positively influence the forming of opinion in their home country, an opinion which often enough is distorted by media coverage.
The image of the USA, which was once a positive one all over the world, could be recovered if one manages to initiate a carefully coordinated public-diplomacy offensive based on dialogue and individual exchange. In principle, the USA still benefits from a fair amount of respect around the world. The negative trend in surveys is more the reflection of disappointment and irritation with respect to recent political developments than deep-seated hatred. It is therefore time to halt this trend and make sure that image building becomes once again a political priority.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "Educational and Cultural Exchanges to Restore America's Image" published here in The Washington Quaterly edition Summer 2008.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Paul Hockenos: Why Hate America?
- Niklas Keller: Think Tank Analysis: US/EU Relations: It's Not About the Values
- William Drozdiak: 4 Myths About America-Bashing in Europe