In the fifth year of the Iraq war, high levels of anti-American sentiment abroad continue to trouble US policymakers and the public. Indeed, Pew global public opinion polls of 47 countries released this summer indicate that America’s image in much of the world is negative: Almost as many nations view the US as a threat versus those who view America as an ally. In the Muslim world, perceptions about the United States are described as “abysmal.”
Despite the bad news, Americans can help remedy this situation by employing more effective “public diplomacy”—US government-sponsored communication and exchange programs—that may restore their country’s standing in the world, while potentially negating support for anti-American extremists.
Of course, US foreign policy matters. Yet often anger overseas is directed at specific American policies that private citizens do not have the power to change except through the ballot box. For the US to succeed in the global war of ideas, citizens who make up its fabric of diverse civil society of professional, non-profit, and volunteer groups, but who may otherwise feel powerless to help transform attitudes abroad, need to complement government efforts and engage directly with foreign counterparts when feasible. How? There are more opportunities than most people realize.
For example, millions of US citizens work in American corporations that have offices overseas. Whether you’re a chief executive or a middle manager in a US multinational firm, it may be of value to know more about Business for Diplomatic Action—a private sector initiative that is leveraging how US multinationals can best improve America’s standing in the countries where they operate, while building bridges of mutual understanding and cooperation.
For the many Americans who work in non-profit organizations or in higher education, or who are enrolled in a college or a university, there are incredible opportunities for engagement. According to recent polls, US non-profits and educational institutions are viewed very favorably by foreign publics, particularly in the Middle East.
Foreign volunteer opportunities and internships abound for entrepreneurial students, allowing one to learn about other countries while being an unofficial ambassador for America. Importantly, for professionals at US non-profit organizations and educational institutions with an international focus, you can bring the weight of your institution to the fore as a public diplomacy actor in at least two ways.
First, you can reach out to the Washington or local offices of the State Department’s International Visitors Program (IVP), which brings rising leaders to the US from around the world to meet with and learn from their professional counterparts, and to experience America directly. For example, our respective institutions—the Brookings Institution and Princeton University—frequently cooperate with IVP, arranging formal or informal meetings between our officials or experts and government-sponsored foreign guests on fact-seeking trips about America.
Next, while most US non-profits and colleges and universities—as well as American businesses—want to raise their profiles, reaching out to the foreign press based in America is often a mere afterthought, if the idea is considered at all. Officials at such institutions should remember to think globally while acting locally. All manner of foreign news outlets from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have bureaus in such cities as New York, Washington, and Los Angeles.
Many of these foreign media organizations, large and small, are willing to cover issues in far greater detail and depth than their American counterparts. American organizations, by engaging with foreign media in the US, can ensure that all information is reported back to the host country in its own language, from a media outlet that country (generally) trusts. Indeed, hundreds of foreign news organizations are accredited to the State Department’s Foreign Press Centers located in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles.
Moreover, whenever your institution has the chance to be represented overseas by one or more officials or through its work on the ground, consider engagement with foreign press. When our organizations’ representatives are in foreign capitals such as Beijing, Doha, or Vienna, we reach out to foreign publics through their media, to demonstrate the diversity of US life and character beyond Washington or Hollywood. Working together on such efforts we feel that we have made a difference and built bridges overseas that will stand the test of time.
The myriad numbers of Americans who work in state and local government represent a valuable corps of professional expertise in policymaking and governance. Opportunities exist to create important touch-points between local-state officials and foreign counterparts, through trade promotion and sister-city programs, and through the creation of learning exchanges with local and provincial leaders from other countries.
Finally, for those who don’t work in the kinds of organizations we’ve just described, there is plenty that Americans can do. First, the Internet offers the chance to reach across the world—literally. The opportunities for civilized dialogue and debate are enormous. By learning more about their government, Americans will be more knowledgeable about how their local, state, and federal elected officials make policy toward the outside world. In that way they can have an impact on those policies through the ballot box, voicing an informed opinion with their power of their vote.
Todd Stern speaks at The Economist’s Climate Risks Summit.