No matter how small their post, every embassy public affairs officer who ever arranged an exchange, distributed a pamphlet, or in the jargon of contemporary public diplomacy fretted over "moving the needle" of foreign public opinion knows that a U.S. presidential election is an opportunity. Traditionally they have been animated quadrennial civics classes, dramatizing America's democratic process and contrasting starkly with the brutality with which power changes hands or not in too much of the world.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, December 13, 2006.
Anti-Americanism has emerged as a term that, like "fascism" and "communism" in George Orwell's lexicon, has little meaning beyond "something not desirable." However it is defined, anti-Americanism has clearly mushroomed over the last six years, as charted in a number of polls. This phenomenon is, everyone agrees, intimately tied to the exercise of U.S. power and perceptions around the world of U.S. actions.
Earlier this year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in China -- and quickly made himself at home. The occasion was a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional group linking China, Russia, and Central Asia. During the summit, Ahmadinejad seemed to be everywhere. He posed, arms linked, with Russian and Chinese officials, who said nothing as he called for "impartial and independent experts" to investigate whether the Holocaust happened. He delivered a major address broadcast on Chinese state television.
With U.S. elections little more than a month away, America's public diplomacy has been cast into the fray. By an odd coincidence, on the same day President Bush charged that a classified intelligence report on Iraq had been leaked to the New York Times to embarrass the administration leading up to the November elections, another news organization published an exclusive story regarding U.S. public diplomacy.
Let's face it, America. We're having more than just a bad day.
No, this isn't malaise, but a serious condition brought on by prolonged exposure to really bad news.
Like everything else, it seems to date from Sept. 11, 2001, when we faced the unthinkable on our own shores. We've been reeling ever since, seeking answers and leadership and policies that work. But it's been a bitter harvest.
It was just over a year ago that Karen Hughes, then nominee for Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before her swift appointment as the nation's chief public diplomat. Striking all the right chords along the way, Hughes affirmed that "the mission of public diplomacy is to engage, inform, and help others (read 'foreign populations') understand our policies, actions and values.