Social Studies March 2005

Cheer Up, Karen Hughes. Your Job Is Not Quite Impossible.

In his first term, Bush demonstrated the worst ear for international public diplomacy since—well, since ever.

Dear Karen Hughes, On March 14, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced your nomination as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. "The time has come to look anew at our institutions of public diplomacy," Rice said. Translation: You need to figure out how to make the rest of the world hate us less. Two previous holders of your job resigned, and the post has been vacant since last summer. Congratulations. You have the worst job in Washington.

Fortunately for you, I am here to cheer you up. Read on, and prepare to be inspired.

The state of world public opinion of America is not bad. It is awful. "Anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history," says the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in the Pew Research Center's new Trends 2005 report. The Islamic world is especially hostile. "Muslims see American policies as inimical to their values, American rhetoric about freedom and democracy as hypocritical, and American actions as deeply threatening," reported the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication in September.

Cheerful yet? No? Then you might take a look at Europe. When I first read claims that European regard for America had reached unprecedented depths, I was skeptical. President Reagan appalled right-thinking (read: left-leaning) Europeans, and his insistence on stationing Pershing missiles in Europe set the Continent aflame with outrage. Is today's situation really worse?

Apparently it is, at least in France and Germany. Since at least 1981, the U.S. government has polled people in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy about their confidence in America's ability to deal responsibly with world affairs. In late 2003, narrow majorities of Brits and Italians expressed confidence in the United States; but confidence among the French (27 percent) and Germans (32 percent) was indeed even lower than during the Reagan depths. When people in those countries were asked how favorably they viewed the U.S. in general, the pattern was the same.

Still not cheerful? Consider, then, another data point: China—yes, repressive, aggressive Communist China—is now more highly regarded in the world than is the United States. A pair of recent BBC World Service polls of more than 20 countries finds that the plurality of respondents (47 percent to 38 percent) and of countries (15 out of 21) regard America's influence in the world as "mainly negative." A plurality of respondents (48 percent to 30 percent) and of countries (17 of 21, excluding the U.S.) regard Chinese influence in the world as "mainly positive."

Why the sharp turn against America? Not just because President Bush is personally unpopular abroad; Pew notes that world opinion of America did not plunge until 2003, well after Bush's election. Nor, Pew finds, is the trans-Atlantic values gap wider today than it was in the early 1990s. Rather, says Pew, "in the eyes of others, the U.S. is a worrisome colossus," quick to throw its weight around and selfish in its aims. In a 2003 Pew survey, majorities in seven of eight predominantly Muslim nations (including Turkey) said they regard America as a potential military threat to their own country. In a Eurobarometer poll of European Union nations in 2003, respondents placed America on a par with Iran as a threat to world peace. Pew finds that in France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, many people believe that America's real goal in the war on terror is not to reduce terrorism but to dominate the world.

In other words, the problem is not so much that foreigners hate the American people (most don't) or dislike American policies (though many do); it's that they fear America's unrivaled power. The Iraq war seems to have operated on world opinion as a catalytic event, arousing foreign alarm at American power much as 9/11 catalyzed America's alarm over Islamist jihadism. What seems to be happening, says Steven Kull, the director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, is not just a reaction against the United States, but also a realignment of world opinion toward other centers of power. This rebalancing can be managed, but whether it can be undone is an open question.

So the environment you enter, Ms. Hughes, is deeply skeptical of American intentions. If that doesn't make you feel ebullient, pause to ponder the sorry state of your toolbox.

After the Cold War ended, America whacked its global public-relations efforts. Funding today is "substantially less in real terms than public diplomacy budgets during the Cold War," says the Defense Science Board task force; the total is one-quarter of 1 percent of the military budget.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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