America’s New Leadership: Reboot and Restart

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 16, 2007

Winning the war on terrorism depends substantially on winning the war of ideas; unfortunately, by most metrics, the U.S. is getting its clock cleaned. Public polling shows massive anger directed at the U.S. and our credibility at an all time low. In a few short years, the U.S. has gone from being seen as the Cold War beacon of Coca Cola, McDonalds and freedom to the dark “Long War” home of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act and orange jumpsuits.

The deep and rapid deterioration of America’s standing in the world is one of the greatest challenges the United States faces. More than just some lost popularity contest, the erosion of American credibility and leadership alienates our allies and reinforces the recruiting efforts of our foes. We are stocking the “sea” in which our enemies must “swim.” It also effectively denies American ideas and policies a fair shake.

An important new study by the Consortium for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University, “A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas,” argues that a key part of the problem is the manner in which the Bush administration has sought to engage the world. Building from the latest studies of communication theory, the reports describes our policy as caught in a “cycle of communication dysfunction.”

Since 9-11, the Bush strategy has focused on a repetition of simple messages through controlled channels. But it has proven unrealistic for our complex information age, with our messages getting lost in the global cacophony of ideas. More importantly, the approach fails to account for the framework of interpretation. We focus on the messages we send; but the latest research shows we must equally focus on how people interpret and understand them.

Views have locked in and, unfortunately for America, people around the globe now look at any message from the U.S. government through a lens of doubt. This means even when we think we are saying the right thing, it can backfire; notice how such positive concepts as “democratization” are now largely reinterpreted in the Muslim world to mean “invasion.” As the article sums it up, “Present strategic communication efforts by the U.S. and its allies rest on an outdated, 20th century message influence model of communication that is no longer effective in the complex global war of ideas.”

Once people have seemingly made up their minds to interpret news and policies in a certain way, the study finds that only two things can change them. The first is receiving varied and complex sources of alternative information that force the individual to ask questions of what they earlier thought was true. As people get more and more information—importantly from varied sources and leaders that they trust—the old framework crumbles. A good illustration of this that the Bush administration can understand is how the once-strong levels of support for the Iraq war gradually tumbled over the last year. Early on, any bad news coming from Iraq was interpreted as being unpatriotic or something hyped by the left-wing “mainstream media.” But, as the negative news became both continual and varied, with the sources ranging from journalists to retired generals, attitudes shifted even amongst the most fervent of the president’s supporters. The lesson here is that U.S. strategic communications needs a similar shift from trying to spin simplistics to wrestling with complex realities. We must engage regional audiences in more than just pithy soundbites designed for Western audiences, but through a web of channels and local leaders that have far more validity than our own.

Besides evolution, the other way to shift locked-in viewpoints is disruption. Sometimes a major event can shock the system and force people to question the way in which they had looked at matters before. For example, after the tsunami hit Indonesia, the U.S. sent massive amounts of aid, with no strings attached. This real demonstration of goodwill literally destroyed the existing framework of negative views of the America. High levels of esteem for the United States immediately followed. Unfortunately, when an earthquake hit Pakistan just a year later, our government made minimal effort, sending 3% as much aid. It was a lost opportunity to disrupt the negative framework in world’s only Muslim nuclear power, that also just happens to be where Bin Laden is likely hiding out.

While we should certainly be ready to give such aid the next time, waiting for disaster to strike isn’t much of a strategy. Instead, the report identifies two other chances to “reboot” America’s relationship with the world, the same way you jumpstart your computer when it crashes. The “mother of all disruptions” would be a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peace. Helping to broker a just peace for both sides would undercut much of the rationale for terrorist recruiting as well as the region-wide government repression, which holds back human rights and feeds instability.

But waiting for an Arab-Israeli peace may be like waiting for Godot. Fortunately, the second identified opportunity is a bit more in our control. Much of America’s recent crash in credibility and standing in the world has focused on the actions of the current administration, with President Bush even cited specifically in various regional polls. Whether it is fair or not isn’t the point. This focus on Bush can now actually be a good thing for America.

The election of a new president presents a limited, and likely one-time only, window to reboot how the world looks at America. Indeed, columnist Tom Friedman argues that the “strongest case” for an Obama presidency is “his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.” But, of course, illustrating the study’s finding on how people use filters to interpret messages, a Hilary or McCain donor would likely demur with Friedman’s argument.

The important thing here isn’t in answering that question now of who will best restore America’s standing in the world. It’s not only for each individual to determine, but, for all the speeding up of presidential politics, the reality is we don’t have to decide for 18 months. Rather, the imperative is making sure we keep that good question front and center during our extended campaign season. The issue of who can reboot our relationship with the world goes to the very heart of the challenges the next president will face in their foreign policy. Moreover, it is important for the world to see the American people are wrestling with it.. America’s lost leadership may be at the bottom of a deep hole, but there is no reason we have to keep digging deeper.