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"Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America"

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates calls for the US government to commit more money and effort to "soft power" tools, including communications, because the military alone cannot defend America's interests around the world. The NY Times quotes Gates as saying:

"We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals," he said. "It is just plain embarrassing that Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America."

Fred Kaplan asked his readers for ideas on how to improve America's image in the world. He received 120 responses, "nearly all of them from foreigners or from Americans living abroad." Kaplan summarizes them in an interesting article in Slate Magazine:

A few common themes emerge from these suggestions: Government-sponsored PR has its limits, mainly because people see it for what it is; the important thing is to change policy, and part of that involves aligning America's approach to the world with the most attractive aspects of our culture (in the broadest sense of that word). One of those aspects is what the Bush administration constantly boasts about -- our openness and our freedom. But those boasts ring hollow when the rest of the world sees us as closed down and locked shut. The first step, then, is to reopen the doors to the world.

Kaplan describes several suggestions from readers. Very popular are calls for expansion in the Peace Corps, in Fulbright fellowships, and, in student-exchange programs.

One readers also pointed out that "globalization has stripped pop culture of nationality." Beyoncé, for instance, is very popular among young people, but they don't associate her with America." I found that interesting.

I wonder how much of the US image problem is bad policy and cannot be fixed with better public diplomacy. And how much could be fixed with better communication?

As a Fulbrighter, I instantly agree with Kaplan's readers about the importance of personal exchanges. This is not controversial. Let's focus on the internet instead. Secretary Gates said that Al Qaeda is more successful on the internet than the United States. Does that mean beheading videos are more popular with the target audience than Chocolate Rain and Evolution of Dance?  Or are the West's internet videos the problem? Perhaps it's all Germany's fault: Do Heidi Klum videos cause terrorism?

I wish the hugely popular Where the Hell is Matt? video would improve the image of the American tourist.

US bloggers are more authentic than PR firms. They could counter Al Qaeada's internet propaganda. Why have blogs so far failed to change the minds of Al Qaeda sympathizers? What could bloggers do better? In addition to writing in Arabic. And what could the Atlantic Review do? Any ideas on how to reach out and win hearts and minds?

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ian in hamburg on :

What can bloggers do? Perhaps they can get a movement underway to make sure the new administration doesn't make the same mistakes as the current one. It's hard to win hearts and minds when countries are being invaded on false pretexts.

John in MI on :

Some thoughts from an American. If there was a broad consensus in the US about what actual message we wished to communicate, we would find we were very, very effective. However, there is not. Put another way: we are underperforming in the information war because not enough of us agree that there is a war to be fought, or if there is, whether we should be engaged in it or indeed whether we are worthy of winning it. This lack of consensus is particularly acute in the academe, and in Hollywood. We control vast communications, cultural, and information resources. Beating Al Qaeda in the information war would be trivial, if we were willing to adopt Al Qaeda's methods and mentality. But it would be a pyrrhic victory; we would have to become as conspiracy-obsessed and nihilistic as they are. Even if we could do that, we shouldn't. A superpower with universal health care, impeccably polite customs officials, sensitive, cultured tourists, and a military that does nothing but UN-approved charity work...is still going to be resented. In fact, if we had those, we would be well nigh unstoppable...and thus greatly resented. To the extent its a friendly universe, it is better to be loved; to the extent its a hostile universe, it is better to be feared. If you want to change the universe and make it more friendly, remember: change is by nature disruptive. If you aren't testing some friendships and antagonizing some enemies, you probably aren't making real change. Those are my thoughts.

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