The Journal Revisited: A Rocky Road for US Public Diplomacy

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, tours the Sultan Hassan Mosque with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, June 4, 2009. Photo by AP/Gerald Herbert.

Read Smith’s Original Piece “The Hard Road Back to Soft Power”

In the Winter/Spring 2007 edition of GJIA Pamela Hyde Smith, former US ambassador to Moldova, argues in “The Hard Road Back to Soft Power” that the US needs to focus more attention and resources on public diplomacy to counter dangerous levels of anti-Americanism around the world which threaten US national security.

Smith was writing during the administration of President George W. Bush when anti-Americanism had risen to historic highs due to opposition to the War in Iraq and the broader US-led “War on Terror,” prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the US’s decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Indeed, Smith noted that, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, US favorability ratings had reached an all-time low in Western Europe. Positive views of the US had declined precipitously in Muslim countries, including Turkey and Indonesia. Except for modest levels of approval in Asia, few countries around the world seemed happy with American influence under the Bush administration.

A lot has changed since Smith wrote her piece. In 2008, Obama rode to the White House on a wave of optimism for a new kind of American leadership—one that many global citizens hoped would include US troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, a greater reliance on diplomacy rather than force, and in general, a preference for multilateral approaches and inclusive decision-making.

Obama’s first year in office brought huge gains in US approval ratings globally. According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, between 2008 and 2009, US favorability ratings jumped from 31 to 64 in Germany; 22 to 27 percent in Egypt; 37 to 63 in Indonesia; 47 to 69 in Mexico; 41 to 47 in China; and 64 to 79 in Nigeria, to name a few.

As the initial euphoria for President Obama fades and hope gives way to frustration over the slow economic recovery, Congressional gridlock, and broken campaign promises, the President’s domestic approval ratings have dropped to as low as 43 percent, lower than Jimmy Carter’s approval rating in 1979, before he lost his second term. Yet around the world, despite the global financial crisis, Obama’s approval ratings have remained surprisingly high, albeit with slight declines since 2009.

Obama should be commended for lifting America out of the seemingly bottomless pit of global antipathy that Smith described. Indeed, he already was, when he was controversially bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Yet, the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of one particular region of the world remains. A 2011 survey by Pew Research found that Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey had the lowest percent of favorable views of the United States. US approval ratings in Pakistan have been abysmal, with a drop from a 13 percent favorable rating in 2009 to 8 percent in 2010 and 12 percent in 2011. The only majority Muslim countries where the US had a majority favorable view were Nigeria and Indonesia—where Obama lived as a child.

Polls show that many Muslims view the US as a military threat and the “War on Terror” as a “War on Islam.” Many Muslims disapprove of US efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and believe the US is not serious about promoting democracy in the region. Even the Arab Spring has not improved the US image in the Muslim world.

Despite landing on the “right side of history,” the Obama administration’s slow and tepid reaction to the protests unfolding in Tahrir Square cost the US a great opportunity to show its support and shared values with the Egyptian people fighting for freedom and democracy, much as American revolutionaries had done in 1776.

As Smith notes, the golden rule of public diplomacy is that what matters is not what you say, but what you do. If the US seeks to combat anti-Americanism around the world, it should practice public diplomacy and foreign policy that promotes its values not only in rhetoric, but in action.

There is a thirst for democracy in the Muslim world. The US would be wise to demonstrate its commitment to its own democratic principles. It can do this by supporting free speech, uncensored media and a diversity of viewpoints on air waves, satellites and the Internet in the Arab world. It can do this by fighting discrimination against Muslims at home. It can do this by letting democracy happen naturally rather than through US-led nation-building efforts. And it can do this by taking the opinions of Muslim publics into account when deciding US foreign policy.

Rhetoric can be powerful, but the hope it brings quickly fades. Only when US policy aligns with US values, will US public diplomacy in the Muslim world ring true.


Jennifer Steffensen is co-editor of the online section of the Georgetown Journal and a first-year student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University.

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