Arhiva lunara: noiembrie 2007

Always Blame the Americans

Foto: istockphoto

…cause even when you’re wrong, you’re right…” said the main character in a 1969 Costas Gavras movie. And indeed…why is America viewed so badly worldwide?

The first Chatham House(Royal Institute of International Affairs) event that I attended in London had an intriguing title that left room for both interpretation and analysis: “What is America doing to improve its image abroad?”. After months spent as a grad student of an American university, I was truly interested in finding out an answer to this question, or at least hearing what a “Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy” such as the speaker Colleen Graffy had to say on the matter.

I will have to admit that I was somewhat biased in my conceptions about the US when I embarked on this Master Program and most of my outlook on what America stands for and on American values and ways of doing things has known significant changes due to the insight that I’ve had for the past three months. Hearing Colleen Graffy speak about encouraging young people from Europe and all over the world to study in American universities or come with study abroad programs in order to discover US from the inside and not through stereotyping and prejudicial thinking really made me think of myself and my former perspective on things.

First of all, from my point of view, the most interesting element of the conference was the analysis of the concept of Public Diplomacy, a new and interesting term that would at a first glance be deemed illegitimate by scholars because of the mere association of “diplomacy” with the word “public”. Diplomacy was never supposed to be public; it was always seen as an art of establishing and maintaining international relations through the intercession of diplomats, people who would negotiate crucial aspects of the inter-state relations in a totally non-confrontational way. Before being endorsed by politicians and government people, treaties and important papers were always analyzed by diplomats, which gradually placed into the public mindset the idea of diplomats as people who are usually not seen, but who help orchestrate the official actions of a country.

However, in our times diplomacy is a process that no longer takes place exclusively “behind the curtains”, but has actually become a public action. Our speaker, Ms.Graffy, stressed this aspect at the beginning of her presentation on America’s image abroad and underlined the role of “public diplomacy” as an art of communicating a country’s values and messages to peoples in other places of the world. As she interestingly formulated it, thanks to public diplomacy “people can disagree with the United States without being anti-American”.

Public diplomacy was heavily used during the Cold War as a way of getting messages thorough, from the Western World onto the Eastern European peoples who were constantly subjected to the Communist propaganda that depicted the West as the one and only enemy of the socialist state and the main hindrance towards reaching the communist goals. Nevertheless, for a brief period after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was considered futile, as governments thought that their policies will speak for themselves and will freely transmit the message of their states.

This proved to be a wrong move for the Western countries and for US in particular, as Public Diplomacy is a constant process that cannot be “turned on and off” according to the temporary interests of the parties involved. It entails a continuous process of communication within countries, a process that cannot and should not be stopped regardless of what policies are put into practice. Policy-making and public diplomacy should work close together or, the way Coleen Graffy convincingly expressed it – “Public Diplomacy should be there at the take-off, not only at the crash landing”.

Basically, the United States is presently trying to convey its message to the world through a series of channels, the majority of which imply engaging diplomats in an active communication process, in order to get them out of the so-called “Washington Bubble”. This entails a whole range of methods, including providing them with an immediate alert of the narrative overseas through the EUR Alert – a compilation of the news overseas, extracted from the most important newspapers.

Moreover, if traditionally the ambassadors were thought to be the exclusive messengers of a country and the only ones to speak out on behalf of their states, the Public Diplomacy strategy of the US targets all diplomats, who must be present where the public that is absorbing their information is. In order to implement this somewhat theoretical concept, special websites have been set up, with diplomats taking turns blogging about important issues and giving answers to people’s questions and concerns. The main goals of these actions are to have all the embassies officials engaged in communication and to prevent the spread of rumors that have the tendency to harden intro conventional wisdom before they get to be countered through traditional channels.

In order to meet these purposes, the US is presently setting up Media Hubs in Europe and Asia, respectively in Brussels (where a TV studio is to be built as well), London and Dubai. This implies, in Graffy’s opinion, a certain amount of “pre-activity” (a concept situated in between “reacting” and “acting proactively”), of anticipating what the story will be and lining up the voices needed for it to be heard. Moreover, I found very interesting the fact that there are people whose jobs are to log onto Arab blogs (where the information is written 100% in Arabic) and to counter misinformation intended to mislead the population.

From the cultural point of view, US is promoting the English language through language courses in Muslim communities and is trying to engage citizens in the program of “Citizen dialogue”, by which American Muslims travel in Arab countries for organized dialogue with the Muslims abroad. There is also an outreach to women, through the promotion of breast cancer awareness in the Middle East and Latin America and a support for business women in Russia.

From a personal point of view, ever since I first encountered the term of “Public Diplomacy”, the thing that came to my mind was the business-related term of “Public Relations”. Public Relations implies acquiring public sympathy and positive feedback from the public by using of a series of tools that are mainly focused around communicating brand values, engaging the customer and creating a positive image of the company and/or brand. Drawing a parallel between the Public Relations(PR) and Public Diplomacy, I would say that Public Diplomacy does for International Relations what PR does for International Business – bolsters the development of a positive image of a country worldwide.

As a graduate of International Business, I would simply call this “country marketing”. The concept is of utter importance nowadays and it is also essential for building a country’s credibility and image for the ordinary people. Diplomacy itself handles the official ties between countries, but Public Diplomacy is meant not only for officials, but for the entire population, for the ones who are most vulnerable to stereotyping and to absorbing negative aspects that are heavily promoted throughout more or less biased media channels.

From this perspective, US is generally criticized for being too frivolous, having too many religious fixations, lacking values and profoundness of thought, for being too materialistic and too puritanical. Having these traits as anchor points, it is easy to imagine why the term “Americanization”, used in explaining the process of adopting certain features of the American way of life in European countries is always thought to have a bad connotation. I found very interesting a quote from Oscar Wilde that Colleen Graffy used for emphasizing the idea of the bad image of US that must be countered – “America is the only country who went from Barbarity to Decadence without Civilization in between”.

Indeed, America is often seen as the unsophisticated and superficial state that only relates on military and economic power in order to attain its purposes, regardless of the ones who suffer the consequences. However, this image has not emerged solely as a result of a strategy meant to discredit the United States but it came as a consequence of some of the political choices made by the American leaders throughout history.

As much as I have personally appreciated Colleen Graffy’s attempt of depicting US in much brighter colors than its real image, the best example that comes to mind in regard to the way America is viewed by the world can be extracted from her very speech. When asked about the way the war in Iraq is affecting US’ image abroad and attracting negative vibes from the people who are anti-war and who consider America’s intervention in Iraq illegitimate, her answer truly struck me. I have been working in the field of Public Relations for the past 4 years and I perfectly understand that image must be handled with care, that there are aspects that are too delicate to be directly tackled and that there must always be a strategy.

However, I am also aware that the tactic of handling a company or a country’s image must be a sensible and reasonable one in order to attain the goal of shifting the public opinion from the negative to the positive side; it must have the substance and the consistence necessary for rendering it believable.

With this framework in mind, I found Ms.Graffy’s answer not only naïve but dangerous for the credibility of the sheer image that she was trying to uphold: “I may sound idealistic, but America went in Iraq wanting to make a positive difference in the Middle East”. As idealistic as I am myself and as much as I would want to believe the good intentions that led the US into intervening in Iraq, I am also realistic enough to separate economic interests from pure and unconditional humanitarian intervention.

Just as we had debated during the Research Methods class with regard to single-variable explanations, US’ intervention in Iraq cannot possibly be explained by a single-variable; even more when that variable is roughly “making the world a better place”. Clear economic interests, worries regarding weapons of mass-destruction as well as the previous conflict between US and Iraq have all led to the American intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.

From this standpoint, one of the first rules of Public Relations is that it is better to give a “No comment” answer or simply to remind the person who asked the question that this does not fall within your range of authority than to provide an answer that will clearly be interpreted as fake and inconsistent with the real situation. I truly think that the same principle should apply to Public Diplomacy as well.

Nevertheless, I am by no means in disbelief regarding America’s good intentions worldwide, expressed in the policies that it is promoting throughout the world. While I was listening to Colleen Graffy talking about Radio Free Europe and Voice of America as one of the main tools of American Public Diplomacy, I couldn’t help not thinking about the days when Romanian people were persecuted by the institutions of the Communist Party or even imprisoned for the mere act of secretly listening to Radio Free Europe. My grandparents were politically detained and persecuted during their entire lives for being “anti-communist” and even deported with forced domicile for 10 years because of their political beliefs.

I therefore know what being idealistic means and I know that during the Cold War Radio Free Europe and Voice of America have done more for the people in Eastern Europe than the US can probably imagine. What is today considered a tool of Public Diplomacy was back then a tool of ideological survival for the peoples of Eastern Europe; it was their oasis of mere sanity in a desert of communist propaganda that was meant to make them lose contact with what was happening in the world, keeping them exclusively connected to the Communist rhetoric. From this point of view, I totally agree that Public Diplomacy was acting for bettering the world; however, that does not imply that America itself always is.

Moreover, Public Diplomacy should never be just a one-street approach, as the negative image that America has in Europe is most of the times counterbalanced by the European conception that America itself has a negative image of the rest of the world. The so-called “American exceptionalism”, seen as a sign of superiority is inherently undermining the relations between US and other states of the world.

Just one of the many possible examples with regard to this matter is the reluctance of the United States in signing the Rome Treaty and becoming a state-party to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The thing that most shocked me while reading about this issue before the visit to the ICC was the assertiveness of the US officials in claiming that “having our American citizens, especially the members of the armed forces, indicted and tried by other than American judges would be unacceptable”. This not only undermines the credibility of a Criminal Court meant to act as a legal guardian for the same world that the US wants to „make better”, but it also sets a double-standard for justice, according to the level of power of the state in question. When a state uses its power to claim a different treatment, the feedback of the rest of the world cannot possibly be a positive one.

Overall, this Chatham House event was extremely interesting for me and I would say interesting for any International Relations student. Public Diplomacy is becoming an increasingly active part of international relations, an aspect that one should be fully aware of when pursuing a career in this field. It was a valuable insight to find out from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy of the US how the mechanisms of Public Diplomacy really work. Nonetheless, it would be also interesting to know how the effects of these actions can be assessed on the long term, if there is a way of quantifying the outcome of the ongoing programs and how they will affect the country’s image in time. If they will truly make the desired change for the better it is still to be seen in the future

Extrapolating from the benchmark of ”American Exceptionalism” and thinking about the final call in Ms.Graffy’s speech, for “leaving the negative conceptions about the US aside and joining in a united effort to face world challenges”, I reckon that America’s image will stop being a negative one in the moment in which the cultural and social actions that it undergoes and its claims for a better world will be supported by an attitude of solidarity with the rest of the world rather than one of domination. For, in my opinion, this is what “united effort” is all about.

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