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?