Delivered February 12, 2007
The verdict seems to be that America is currently a "hard sell,"
meaning both hard to sell and sold too hard. Global opinion polls
conducted for the past two decades, notably by the Pew Research
Center, indicate that we are increasingly
misunderstood, disliked, distrusted, even hated.
A recent global survey released on January 22, 2007, conducted
by the BBC World Service, has found that a decided majority of the
world's population now believes the United States' influence
in the world is mainly negative: 52 percent as compared with 46
percent two years ago; only 29 percent believe our influence is
mostly positive, down from 40 percent two years ago. While
the U.S. economy is still unquestionably robust, this growing ill
will appears to be infecting even some American products,
especially those identified most obtrusively as "Made in the
At the same time, an antagonistic reaction to the United States
is itself allegedly caused by a "hard sell" approach, a Madison
Avenue-style "in-your-face" public diplomacy qua marketing
which predictably misfires when local sensitivities and customs are
ignored, either out of ignorance or insensitivity or both.It is
difficult not to look arrogant when you don't seem as if you care
to learn much about another culture. Equal-opportunity ignorance of
one's own history and geography--by all accounts appallingly
widespread--does not count as an excuse.
On occasion, the "hard sell" is flauntingly deliberate: We
resort to it in frustration, reacting to what we consider to be
infuriatingly unwarranted, vicious, even murderous
anti-Americanism, which 9/11 only confirmed in spades. The hardest
"sell" comes at the point of a gun. By then, the store is closed;
the whole point of any form of diplomacy, whether private or
public, is to keep the lights on.
Obviously, America must expect to have enemies: As long as we
are the most powerful and the wealthiest nation on Earth, we
will be feared, envied, and resented. And yes, we haven't always
acted wisely. But neither excessive self-flagellation nor
self-righteousness is a rational response to unpopularity.
Like individuals, nations make mistakes, and the United States
government has sometimes pursued wrongheaded policies that have
failed to advance even our own interests. Far less excusable is the
failure to make our intentions understood not only abroad, but
also at home. This failure is not just a recent ailment, but a
Consider, for example, that at the end of the Second World War,
according to the premier historian of public diplomacy, Wilson
P. Dizard, Jr., "the United States was the only major power that
did not have a strategy, with a supporting bureaucracy, for
carrying out ideological operations beyond its border."
Eventually, we caught on; but by the time we finally figured out
that we were the target of a brilliantly demonic disinformation
campaign involving an army of well-trained agents of
influence, some of whom specialized in cultivating gullible members
of the Western elite, the Iron Curtain collapsed.
Responding to the New Enemy
The new enemy plays by a whole new set of rules and is proving
in many ways harder to eradicate, his tentacles seemingly as
capable of regeneration as a hydra's. What is more, the Internet's
blessing and curse come as a double-edged package: Instant
global communication serves good and ill alike, carrying
both weapons of knowledge and knowledge of weapons with the moral
equanimity of blind chips conveying dumb bytes. Not that we should
throw up our hands and give up, but we do have to be a lot less
flat-footed in fighting the war of ideas than we have been so
The business of presenting who we are, why we do what we do, is
the ultimate goal of what some call "public diplomacy" and others
call "public affairs"--a confusion that the State Department, ever
the champion of compromise (often a euphemism for
obfuscation), has exacerbated by creating the Bureau for Public
Diplomacy and Public Affairs. It doesn't help that knee-jerk
anti-Americanists dismiss the whole thing as "propaganda,"
hence suspect by definition.
Instead, what should worry us is not that we over-sell
but that we under-sell and mis-sell ourselves. We
seem to have succumbed to the arrogant impression that everyone
already knows all about us, since we are such an important country,
shining in the limelight on top of the proverbial hill.
Nation-branders Steven Anholt and Jeremy Hildreth correctly observe
that "insufficient understanding of the different ways that
foreign publics interpret American ideas has often bedeviled
American policy and commerce overseas."
Perhaps, too, our nation's multicultural pedigree has resulted
in a false sense of anthropological omniscience. It's as if we
half-consciously expect to induce the world's cultural "pot" to
emulate the U.S. by melting national peculiarities to a common
pulp: a dangerous form of prejudice indeed.
The ubiquity of American products and entertainment only
reinforces that misleading expectation as we assume that
familiarity breeds understanding. On the contrary: Not only does
superficial familiarity sometimes earn the (not always
unjustified) contempt of others, but it also undermines our
own self-image to the point that we start believing the
caricature that others draw of us.
It is high time that we Americans finally rose to the new
challenge of rediscovering the truth about ourselves as if our
life, liberty, and property were at stake. Dubbed by some as the
Fourth World War (presumably following the Third, albeit
undeclared, Cold one), by others as the War for the Free World, and
by still others the Long War, we don't need to wait for Congress to
declare it officially in order to know that it is as real as the
national shrines at Ground Zero in Manhattan and at the
Public-Sector and Private-Sector
The time has come for introspection: Following a dose of healthy
self-criticism, along with a sober rather than merely
self-congratulatory reassessment of our formidable strengths,
we must take stock of what are the necessary ingredients of a more
effective global outreach strategy tailored for the 21st century.
Our plummeting popularity is partly the result of what we ourselves
have--and have not--projected.
The history of American self-styled "public diplomacy,"
which in reality seldom reached the right "publics" and even less
often managed to be particularly "diplomatic," deserves no
great accolades. The inauspicious demise of the United States
Information Agency (USIA), absorbed near the end of the
Clinton Administration by the Department of State, provides ample
proof of our reluctance to engage in what might be perceived as
self-promotion. In the final analysis, it seems that we either
cannot or do not want to decide how to communicate with the world
beyond our borders, at least not through an agency explicitly
devoted to the task.
It isn't even clear whether we have the patience it requires,
let alone the tools. A plethora of commissions and councils
are advising reinstating the moribund agency, seemingly more
out of desperation than a conviction that much would change
sufficiently to make a difference. And it won't unless we do
some serious rethinking. As former Voice of America director and
Heritage colleague Robert Reilly wrote in The Washington
Post on February 9, if the best we can do is broadcast Britney
Spears to the Arab world, why bother?
Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
shows alarming signs of being headed in the same direction as USIA:
Its current administrator, former Bank of America executive Randall
Tobias, spends most of his time in Foggy Bottom after Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice appointed him Undersecretary of State
in charge of Foreign Aid. Since most of his senior policy and
management staff have already schlepped their files into
their new offices at State, the handwriting on the wall seems to
spell absorption by some other name. Small detail: A great
deal of U.S. foreign assistance is handled by other departments and
agencies, notably Treasury, Justice, Education, and especially
Defense, to mention but a few.
For that reason, some experts have recommended the creation
of a new Cabinet-level department based on the British model in
order to address the current lack of coordination that
characterizes U.S. development assistance. While few could object to
coordination as such, however, consolidation is not necessarily a
panacea. It may even exacerbate problems if it results in
overregulation, discontinuing different approaches to problems
under the guise of avoiding duplication, and could amount to little
more than an expensive, clumsy, overly bureaucratic
reorganization of the deck furniture on the tottering Titanic
that is U.S. public diplomacy today. More promising would be to do
a better job of learning from the private sector and finding a more
effective way of interacting with it.
The private sector, in fact, provides by far the lion's share of
support for foreign outreach, as demonstrated by a new report
produced by Dr. Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute, entitled
Global Philanthropy Index 2006, which offers the first
comprehensive estimate in dollar figures of all the aid
directed at the developing world. In 2004 alone, writes
American private giving through foundations, corporations,
voluntary organizations, universities, colleges, religious
organizations, and immigrants sending money to families and
villages back home, totaled at least $71 billion dollars
[sic]--over three and a half times U.S. government
America's official aid package, little over one-half provided
through USAID, in the amount of nearly $20 billion, is by far the
largest in the world, with Japan ranking a distant second at $8.9
billion. United States government overseas development
assistance, known as ODA, constitutes no less than one-fourth
of the total global aid.
But who knows about this? Hardly anyone even within the United
States, let alone abroad. And just to add insult to injury, what
circulates in the swamp of global communication is disinformation
that defies imagination. A small sample is captured on a Web site
produced by the U.S. government. Relying almost exclusively on
sources conveyed by U.S. embassies, here's a list of juicy
AIDS is a bioweapon.
9/11 was actually the product of an Israeli- American
The United States is planning to invade Venezuela--it is
actually called "Plan Balboa."
John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man claims
that the U.S. National Security Agency recruited him to be an
"economic hit man" to deliberately entrap foreign countries in
unmanageable amounts of debt so they would be beholden to the
A secret network allegedly set up by Greece with CIA assistance
committed acts of terrorism during the Cold War.
If you check http://usinfo.state.gov/media/misinformation.html,
you will also find organ-trafficking myths, military
disinformation, and state-sponsored disinformation. But you
won't be able to access this site directly from www.state.gov.
The reason? You may well wonder. An obsolete yet
nonetheless perniciously self-debilitating piece of
legislation, known as the Smith-Mundt Act, prohibits
disseminating inside the United States information designed
for foreign audiences.
You also should not expect much of a counter-disinformation
campaign against all this barrage of lies. The office that is
tasked with that job can only do so much, for no matter how
hard-working and well qualified, its lone employee is exactly that:
one man. His clerical assistant is only half-time. A result of
unwarranted and ill-informed pride, we seem to think that we don't
need to protect ourselves against lies.
This is the kind of attitude that gave us the obscene
declarations accusing Israel of Nazi-style genocide, which finally
culminated in the infamous General Assembly resolution equating
Zionism with racism in 1974. It is related to that
condescending indifference to "mere" rhetoric in the
international body we graciously hosted in the heart of Manhattan,
which gradually formed a political culture whose poisonous fruit we
reap today. Yet somehow the United States still
managed to create what former Singaporean ambassador to
the U.N. Kishore Mahbubani called "huge reservoirs of good will"
among our 6 billion fellow earthlings. But it was done "almost
absentmindedly, without intending to do so. Indeed, most
Americans were probably unaware" of that goodwill if they
thought about it at all.
Ambassador Mahbubani is very much an exception among world
leaders to recognize that this reservoir is hardly empty, but
he resonates a truth that may have eluded the pollsters of both Pew
and the BBC. "The real source of goodwill towards Americans,"
he writes, "comes from daily interactions between ordinary people."
He continues: "Most Americans tend to be generous souls. They seem
to have a natural instinct to help the underdog."
He offers by way of example the particularly striking case of
Vietnam. He recounts that most of the people of Vietnam "could see
clearly that most [Americans] came with good intentions, to help
and not destroy Vietnam." This undoubtedly played a critical factor
in the country's decision to help America in Iraq. While that
assistance has been small, mainly in the form of shipments of rice,
Ambassador Mahbubani finds it curious that few commentators have
noticed it. "The contribution was clearly symbolic, but it was a
very powerful symbol. The country that came to assist America in
its new 'Vietnam' was Vietnam."
Indeed, nothing makes one as hungry for freedom as its
absence. Having been born in Communist Romania, which my
family tried to leave for nearly 17 years, I came to the U.S. as a
teenager full of enthusiasm and gratitude. America allowed me to
pursue a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago and
later provided me the opportunity to engage in assisting other
nations to improve their electoral process as vice president of
programs at the International Foundation for Election Systems
Importance of Democracy Projects
While at IFES, I came to understand the far-reaching
potential of well-designed democracy projects and the effect of
genuine dialogue with our local partners: We learned as much as we
taught. Most important, we witnessed the enormous amount of
goodwill that such programs can generate.
To offer but one example, in Bosnia we trained self-selected
local activists, dynamic individuals who were especially interested
in mobilizing others to help rebuild their war-ravaged country, to
train others in cooperating with their local authorities to build
roads, repair schools, get their garbage collected, and get
their goods to market. After funding for the project (which was
remarkably minimal) was terminated in favor of another organization
that was better connected to the U.S. bureaucracy, our
Pennsylvania-born project manager decided to stay behind with
his new friends. Undaunted by negligible resources, equipped
with endless goodwill and optimism, thousands of people learned to
improve their lives while recognizing and appreciating the American
contribution to the effort.
That contribution is enormous beyond description; it
includes not only traditional forms of foreign assistance and
humanitarian outreach, but the fruits of research and development
that provides the best medical products; scientific and
technological innovations that have revolutionized commerce
and communication (one need mention no more than Microsoft);
billions of dollars' worth of naval, satellite, and other
public goods that enhance security for the entire world; the
world's top universities, where students from every corner of the
globe acquire educational skills they end up taking home with
America's blessing--the list goes on.
Surely, one of the most depressing results of the recent BBC
survey is that only 57 percent of Americans say that the U.S.
is having mainly a positive influence in the world--down from 63
percent last year and 71 percent two years ago.
Yet America's greatest contribution to the world is actually not
material but, indeed, spiritual. Writes Ambassador Mahbubani: "The
single biggest gift that America has shared with the impoverished
billions on our planet is hope." Hope for a better future
and for self-expression, implicit in recognizing the dignity
of each human being, is the result of pluralism in a society that
values and protects individual freedom. This, in short, is the
genuine meaning of the American Dream: not an iPod in every
eardrum but a spark of energy and self-confidence tempered by
humility in every heart.
Ironically, it was an Iranian teacher of Anglo- American
comparative literature, the rightfully acclaimed Azar Nafisi, who
noted that the essence of the American democratic spirit is
captured most exquisitely by none other than the witty novelist
Jane Austen. Writes Nafisi:
One of the most wonderful things about Pride and
Prejudice is the variety of voices it embodies.... All tensions
are created and resolved through dialogue.... In Austen's novels,
there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each
other in order to exist. There is also space--not just space but a
necessity--for self-reflection and self-criticism. Such reflection
is the cause of change.... All we needed was to read and appreciate
the cacophony of voices to understand the democratic imperative.
This message resonates not only in Iran, but in many other parts
of the Middle East--indeed, everywhere in the world where people
are allowed to understand the meaning of that imperative. But
resonance is not enough. Our job is to make it clear, to others as
much as to ourselves, that genuine pluralism, the seeming
cacophony of freedom that leads to the truest harmony, is the
message of America: It is our mission and our Dream.
Juliana Geran Pilon, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Politics
and Culture at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school
of statecraft and security in Washington, D.C. This lecture is
based on her book, Why America Is Such a Hard Sell: Beyond
Pride and Prejudice (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers,