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U.S.: Can Image Abroad Be Changed Without Altering Foreign Policy, Too?

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The White House looks set to make a major effort to improve its international image by creating a new office to coordinate the U.S. foreign-policy "message" and to help shape its image overseas. But can a superpower improve its standing in world opinion without significantly changing its policies, the source of much of the ill will?

Prague, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "Why do they hate us?"

U.S. President George W. Bush posed that question to Americans in his address to a joint session of Congress nine days after the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Bush was referring to the rage in the Muslim world that fueled the suicide plot by Islamic militants to fly jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing some 3,000 people. But Bush's answer to his own question -- "They hate us because of our freedoms" -- appears simplistic to many of America's allies, let alone its enemies.

Indeed, critics counter that U.S. foreign policy is the main source of international anger and resentment toward Washington. And such anti-U.S. sentiment has actually risen since 11 September, due to a wide range of White House policy decisions that followed. These include what is seen by many as a largely unilateral war on terrorism to an unbalanced Middle East policy and the rejection of key treaties on global warming and a new international war crimes court.

Now, however, the White House looks set to launch a major effort to improve America's image overseas. The U.S. newspaper "The Washington Post," citing unidentified senior White House officials, reports today that the Bush administration is preparing to create a permanent Office of Global Communications to coordinate America's foreign-policy "message" and to shape its image abroad.

The news comes at a time when American policy institutes have issued a rash of studies recommending the U.S. take more aggressive action to improve its international image. The latest, issued today by the Council on Foreign Relations, calls for stronger White House-led "public-diplomacy" efforts to reach out to moderates in the Muslim world and to young people, especially in the Middle East.

On paper, the new White House office appears aimed to do just that. Can it work?

Most analysts agree that better explanations of U.S. policy objectives could help solve Washington's problem. But they also say the issue is as much one of image as it is of substance.

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth are professors at Dartmouth College in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire. They are also coauthors of the lead article in the latest issue of the prestigious quarterly journal "Foreign Policy." They argue that Washington needs to take specific actions to improve its standing abroad in order to quell rising resentment stemming from America's overwhelming political, economic, and military supremacy. Wohlforth observes: "The United States does seem threatening to large numbers of people. It's threatening partly for what it is. It's threatening in part for what it represents in their minds as the leader of globalization."

But how can the U.S. combat resentment and win the hearts and minds of skeptics in Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world?

Like many others, Brooks argues that poverty and a lack of economic and political opportunities have much to do with the anger that fuels terrorism. Therefore, he says, the U.S. ought to do more economically -- including opening its markets -- to help people in poor countries. "If resentment is more likely if developing countries cannot grow, and if they could grow more quickly if they had access to the U.S. market in terms of agriculture and textiles, then we find it surprising that the United States would not, at this particular juncture, be very interested in trying to reduce barriers to the exports of developing countries in the area of agriculture and textiles," Brooks said.

Brooks says that besides helping people, the main benefit of such action would be to project an image of America as a powerful country that also provides resources to help people lead better lives. He believes that image runs counter to the current message out of Washington, that the U.S. will act on its own according to its own interests.

To that end, Brooks recommends substantial increases in U.S. foreign aid.

The U.S. ranks first among providers of development assistance in terms of total aid: nearly $11 billion in 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. ranks last, behind Italy and Greece. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden give as much as 1 percent of their GDP to overseas development assistance, which is nearly four times more than the U.S.

Brooks says Washington could easily fix this, to its enormous benefit. "Why is it that the United States would want to be at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to something like foreign aid? The United States should at least be somewhere closer to the middle so that no one in the developing world can say, 'We are poor because the United States is stingy.' That would be one recommendation that we would make," Brooks said.

But anger at Washington is not limited to the Muslim world. Bush's stated intention to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his seeming endorsement of many of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and his rejections of the Kyoto global-warming accord and the new International Criminal Court (ICC) have fanned European distrust of the White House, as well.

Many analysts say things have been made worse by the way in which the Bush administration has approached these issues. They say the administration could have achieved its objectives on most of those issues without resorting to such a confrontational manner, citing Washington's recent threat to pull U.S. peacekeepers from Bosnia unless it received major concessions from the ICC.

And on other more long-term issues, Wohlforth says the U.S. must realize it cannot "go it alone." "The critics are right. The U.S. needs to cooperate with other powers on some of these issues. Global warming is a real issue. And the only way to solve it is going to be through cooperation with our most important partners," Wohlforth said.

The White House's new Office of Global Communications will seek to improve America's image abroad through a variety of means, including radio and television broadcasts in key regions such as the Middle East.

But many analysts, and even former U.S. intelligence officials, say that unless the U.S. balances what is widely perceived as its pro-Sharon policies in the Middle East, it will be hated by large numbers of Muslims, and, so the thinking goes, targeted by terrorists.

Mark Emerson is an analyst with the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. He believes the White House has enraged Muslims around the world with its tacit support of Israel's recent military crackdown on Palestinian areas. But Emerson says the Bush administration could rectify this if it listened more to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is viewed as seeking a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It's quite clear that if the president [Bush] began to accept sound advice, particularly from Secretary of State Powell, that would be of huge benefit to the crumbling international reputation of the United States," Emerson said.

Another issue that has sparked protests across the Muslim world is the stated U.S. intention to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. Washington accuses him of possessing weapons of mass destruction and of wanting to acquire more.

Brooks says some problems, such as Iraq, may warrant U.S. military action. But he says that his and Wohlforth's recommendations would orient U.S. foreign policy toward a long-term reduction of anti-U.S. resentment in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, so that the need for military action rarely, if ever, would arise.

Whatever the answer, the conditions for growing resentment appear clear.

Surveys in the Middle East show that the U.S. is among the most admired countries in the world. But at the same time, it is one of the most criticized, not only because of its perceived pro-Israeli bias but also due to its support of authoritarian Arab governments, a position that contradicts America's avowals of being the world's leading champion of democracy.

Many analysts fear the U.S. could now be creating a similar scenario for itself in Central Asia, as Washington has allied itself with some of the region's authoritarian governments in the war on terrorism.

But even the fiercest White House critics would concede that any country's foreign policy -- let alone that of a superpower -- may please some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time.

Can the White House significantly change world opinion without significantly changing its policies? The Office of Global Communications will have its work cut out for it.