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.

By Jonathan Rauch

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.

"We goofed, in my opinion—we thought we were done telling our story to the world," says one U.S. official with overseas experience. He points to Thailand, where the United States shut down its Thai-language magazine, closed American libraries, and cut the number of cultural-affairs and information officers from as many as 18 to just three or four.

"I think what's fair to say is, there's a growing understanding of why [public diplomacy] matters," the official says of the Bush administration. "What we have not seen is the real restoration of resources to turn this around." That is not to say that nothing has been done. Reports have been written. Many reports. Since 2001, at least 15 private and congressional reports have called for the reform of U.S. public diplomacy. "But so far," says the Defense Science Board task force, "these concerns have produced no real change."

I see that my encouragement so far has not produced the desired effect. Before you shoot yourself, consider this:

In November and December, the German Marshall Fund of the United States found majorities in France and Germany saying that it was undesirable for the United States to take a strong role in world affairs, and also that Europe should operate more independently of the United States. The news, however, was that those anti-American majorities were smaller than in the past. "French and German desire to work with the United States actually increased slightly following the U.S. presidential election," the fund reported. "If anything, damage to the trans-Atlantic relationship appears to be showing the first signs of recovery."

The recent trips to Europe by Bush and Rice seem to have improved matters further. "There are still strong anti-Bush feelings, but even those were tempered somewhat by his visit to Europe," Craig Kennedy, the German Marshall Fund president, said in an interview after returning recently from Germany. "You know what Bush did really, really well on this trip? He showed he could listen to Europeans."

To them, this was a novel concept. In his first term, Bush demonstrated the worst ear for international public diplomacy since—well, since ever, come to think of it. For Europeans, just having him come and pay attention was a shock. "When you have someone coming to you and listening to you and trying to make nice, it pays," said Justin Vaisse, a French historian of trans-Atlantic relations, in a phone interview from his office at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. "It was certainly a success."

The success of the Iraqi election in January was a further jolt to Europe. "I think people were shocked by the size of the turnout, by the obvious passion for democracy, and also by the small number of deaths," Kennedy says. "Based on that, Iraq is off to a pretty good start, and Europeans noticed that."

It also did not escape the attention of either the Bush administration or the Europeans that trans-Atlantic cooperation has achieved striking results in Ukraine and Lebanon. The administration has recently begun working more closely with Europeans to end Iran's nuclear weapons program. "It's not a new era, but it is a new phase," Vaisse says. The second-term Bush is still Bush, "but with new methods and more pragmatism. It's much easier to work with this second administration."

One swallow does not make spring, but the good news is this: Bush appears to have gone from ignoring foreign opinion to actively (if inconsistently) cultivating it; and he seems not half bad at the job, when he puts his mind to it. Just as important, foreign opinion has responded, at least in Europe. If the warming trends hold, Bush may be able to replace the downward spiral of his first term with an upward one in his second.

Now, don't get too cheerful, Ms. Hughes. The man who in 2004 seized upon his opponent's use of the phrase "global test" to mock the very idea of multilateralism will not change his spots in 2005. But he may change his tactics. He can be offensive to foreign sensibilities, but he can also be charming, as he proved in Europe. Your job, Ms. Hughes, is to encourage his charm offensive.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/cheer-up-karen-hughes-your-job-is-not-quite-impossible/303927/