Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Cyber age
ND Batra
Changing USA’s image
From The Statesman

There will never be a time when we could say that we have won the war of ideas. That was the mistake the USA made when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and the Cold War was over. It was a false dawn; and to some influential but misguided scholars it seemed the end of history.

You could look at history as a stovepipe, something rising from the bottom and going to the top. Or you could imagine history as an uninterrupted landscape, where past, present and future co-exist in a dynamic tension. Even if Islamic Jihadism is vanquished, some new dangerous ideology will arise to threaten peace and our most cherished ideals of freedom. Some people, especially those trained in advertising and public relations, believe that all that the USA needs is a new image and therefore it must re-brand itself, just as corporations do. That shows poverty of thinking.

To a great extent, a corporation can control its message and its image because it is the sole source of information about itself. But you cannot control the image of an open society because there are so many independent actors, institutions and corporations; for example, Hollywood, US military, corporate America; Britney Spears, Eminem, Guantanamo Bay, Wal-Mart, Microsoft; all contributing to the US image abroad. And now add to all this the havoc caused by Katrina, the horrific images of stranded and abandoned people; and the Bush administration’s initial response to it. Somebody has to say loud and clear that Mother Nature is stronger than the strongest nation in the world.

The US image abroad is an “emergence” and its quality depends upon how much of the USA is present in a country. A country that is exposed to only Hollywood violent movies and video games is likely to have a distorted image of the USA.

But add to it a McDonald’s, university campus, cultural centre, and a garment factory; you see the image of the USA in that country begins to change.

Keeping the emergent nature of the image, it should not be difficult to understand why the public image of the USA differs from one country to another. The image depends upon the quality and the extent of its presence and its usefulness to the country.

Consider this: Why would a small, poor country like Bangladesh give one million dollars for Katrina relief? Apparently, American corporate presence in Bangladesh has generated goodwill, which a public opinion poll might have missed measuring.

How much the newly appointed under secretary of state for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, can do to refurbish the image? She cannot re-brand America because it is not a corporation or a product. Even the smartest public diplomacy campaign won’t change perceptions overnight especially when the USA is deeply engaged in multifarious actions abroad. Events may occur beyond its control, which could further blur the image in some countries. No quick fix crisis communication will help.

The always-on 24-hour global communication, blogs, instant messaging, chatrooms, and news cycles, make it impossible for practitioners of public diplomacy to devise a central strategy to impose a message discipline, as it can be done in advertising campaigns for a product or a political candidate. Nor is public diplomacy like a political campaign, where negative campaigning could kill an opponent with a devastating effect.

In an environment of decentralised communications, you might still control the message, but you cannot control the meaning when instant alternative interpretations, Al Jazeera, for example, are available. Each nation is different, so what works in Bangladesh may not work in Indonesia or Uzbekistan. The challenge is to find the right vehicle to embody the message for a specific local audience. Al-Qaida has used local clerics to champion and spread its jihadist message.

Public diplomacy practitioners must use local leaders to champion and advance their cause and they should do so in such a manner that it makes the local people feel good about themselves while at the same time generating goodwill towards the USA or any country that is using information culture to foster goodwill. There was a time when Hollywood was the best cultural export, but now many people believe that the US popular culture, due to proliferation of senseless violence and explicit sex, creates negative impressions in foreign audiences, in spite of the fact that the world has been spending billions of dollars importing American entertainment, filmed and taped programmes, as well as box office hits.

The paradox is that in spite of negative feelings about US popular culture that it depicts profanity, nudity, mayhem and crime, piracy of popular cultural programmes, even in the Arab and Muslim world, remains unabated.

In any case, public diplomats, who want to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the Arab world, should not count upon Hollywood’s popular culture as the nation’s goodwill ambassador.

Most precious American values such as individual initiative, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and competition, are represented by its corporations, educational institutions, and non-profit organisations. Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Oprah Winfrey embody more of what America stands for than what Hollywood produces. But how would Karen Hughes show and tell the world — especially the Arab-Muslim street — that America is what Americans, women in particular, do at the workplace, its ultimate source of strength and self-renewal?

1 comment:

  1. You are right to say that the cold war is over and communism is dead and safely buried; and unlike Banqou’s ghost it cannot rise up from its grave. Perhaps, nay certainly, it is not the end of history.

    It goes without saying that the image of America needs a lot of refurbishing and therein lies the rub. A country that gives billions of dollars in aid throughout the world has a negative image among a majority of mankind!

    The America we see today is a far cry from the America we love; the America of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson
    and many more who have enriched mankind in various ways. Incidentally who was the last American President that all of us loved: J.F.K I believe [in spite of his philandering].

    The groundswell of support that America had all over after 9/11 was whittled away by George W following his misadventure in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan was patriotic and necessary. But Iraq was definitely a different kettle of fish. Was it patriotic? [we in the subcontinent should know-India’s imbroglio in SriLanka , the IPKF- ordered by the greenhorn Rajiv]The whole world was fed a deliberate lie: that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. The American public, for all their wisdom, chose to re-elect George W. It could be that there was an element of siege mentality and the Republican spin doctors astutely fed on it.

    The most precious American values quoted need better ambassadors than the M.N.Cs and Oprah Winfrey. Maybe the top American academicians, the renowned athletes, the music makers and the famed authors and novelists will put up a better show in winning friends abroad.

    En Passant it was amusing to know that Bangladesh has given one million dollars for Katrina relief. A fine gesture indeed! I am not sure if America needs it, but I reckon that it will do Bangladesh and the whole world a lot of good if that money was utilized by Bangladesh to uplift its teeming, downtrodden humanity.