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U.S. Election Helping America's Image Worldwide
By By Eric Green


August 28, 2008

Washington -- The U.S. presidential race, with "the spectacle of democracy at work," is a great thing for America's image worldwide, and historically has given a boost to U.S. public diplomacy, said Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy.

Cull, director of the public diplomacy program at the University of Southern California, says both presumed presidential nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have mentioned the possibility of a "radical reform of U.S. public diplomacy, and there are multiple studies in progress to suggest what this might look like."

The U.S. State Department defines public diplomacy as "government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries." Public diplomacy differs from traditional diplomacy in that it deals with individuals and organizations as well as governments.

McCain outlined the challenge for public diplomacy in a June 2007 article in the Orlando Sentinel. He said Americans of all political stripes "agree that the war on terror is not just a military struggle, but a battle of ideas." McCain said U.S. efforts to "communicate our message are ineffectual, especially compared to the anti-American information operations of much of the Arab media, al-Qaeda and radical Islamists."

The Arizona senator said America has "an opportunity to share our culture, our history and our ideals and we can start taking advantage of that opportunity by establishing an independent agency to communicate America's message to the world."

Obama says on his Web site that he would create an "America's Voice Initiative to send Americans who are fluent speakers of local languages to expand" U.S. public diplomacy. Obama also would "extend opportunities for older individuals such as teachers, engineers and doctors to serve overseas."

Cull, author of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency, called the impact of Obama's candidacy "simply tremendous," as reflected in a June 12 survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center that reported many people worldwide are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential race.

If Obama is elected president, Cull said, "I expect that [global] opinion polls will show a tremendous willingness to allow the United States to start fresh." McCain, he said, "would probably not generate the same response. He would seem more like business as usual."


Pew found a majority of Americans surveyed said the United States is "less respected in the world than it has been in the past, and a growing proportion views this as a major problem for the country."

Cull said a return to re-creating the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), an independent agency that coordinated public diplomacy efforts in the second half of the 20th century, would not necessarily be the best idea for improving American public diplomacy. USIA was merged into the State Department in 1999.

The United States "should look at what works in other democracies," such as in the United Kingdom and Germany. Such countries, he said, "do very well by keeping the advocacy part of public diplomacy -- the policy promotion element -- in their foreign ministry, but making the cultural work independent in its own body" and "keeping their international broadcasters behind a firewall [separated] too."

"Looking to the future, I feel that the new media are already connecting people in new ways," Cull said, and that the United States and its allies "should do what they can to promote this and trust that in the long run the tide of information will wash the world our way."


Arizona State University professor Steven Corman, who directs that school's Consortium for Strategic Communication, said neither McCain nor Obama "has explained how they plan to fix problems with American public diplomacy and restore our international image."

"Granted, this is not an issue that's on the mind of the average voter," Corman said. "But it is crucial to the future success" of the next president's foreign policy, he said.

Corman, co-author of A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas, said the United States is perceived as having a very wide gap in what it says versus what it does, with "policies that international audiences think are against their interests. That damages our credibility, and without credibility you can't persuade. Our Number 1 priority going forward must be restoring our lost credibility with international audiences."

In reference to an old advertising adage that "to sell the steak you've got to sell the sizzle," Corman said that "if people don't want the steak, then the sizzle isn't going to sell either. Unfortunately that's the situation with the U.S. international image at present."

The United States, he said, has to "engage the narrative in the new media. We should be able to do that better than any terrorist group."


On the Web:

The Pew Research Center's survey

Information about the USC Center on Public Diplomacy

ASU Consortium for Strategic Communication



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