The American brand is in trouble. Anecdotal evidence has led many of us to draw this conclusion for some time now, but a new Pew Global Attitudes Project poll confirms it—favorable opinion about America has declined in 26 of the 33 countries tracked by Pew since 2002.
Consider Turkey. A modern, secular Islamic state composed of over 60 million people, Turkey holds great strategic import in the Muslim world. The people of that great nation should hold the American brand in high esteem. But that’s not the case. The Pew poll found that only 9 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion about the U.S—down from 12 percent in 2006 and from an all-time high of 52 percent in 1999. This poll and others have also confirmed that unfavorable opinion about America has increased in Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Spain.
Unfavorable opinion about America matters not because international relations is a popularity contest, but because it hinders our ability to influence world events and achieve our goals. As such, the next president—Republican or Democrat—must seize the opportunity to reinvent the American brand that a change of leadership in Washington will afford. The goal: persuading the persuadable that America remains a force for good in the world.
To do this, I believe the next president must rebuild our relationships with friends around the world and recommit to understanding and communicating with our target audience, particularly in the Muslim world.
After September 11 the international community rallied around America, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have since negated much of this goodwill. Such is the cost of international leadership. This cost need not be permanent, however. The next president must rebuild relationships with crucial allies. There is no other way to ensure success in the face of a wave of international challenges.
We should begin with France. Thanks to the recent election of Nicolas Sarkozy, America has a unique opportunity to restore good relations with that country. Unlike his predecessor, Sarkozy is pro-American. In his victory speech he said he wanted tell his “American friends” that “France will always be by their side when they need us.”
We should capitalize on this goodwill by strengthening communication between our two countries; by cooperating to meet common challenges (e.g. the war on Islamic radicalism); and perhaps most of all, by smoothing over past disagreements by acknowledging that—as Sarkozy has said—sometimes “friendship means accepting that friends can have different opinions.”
Given its stature in Europe, a turn in French opinion about America may have consequences beyond that country’s borders—making it a strategic location for the next president to begin the long process of rebuilding alliances.
The next president must also achieve a better understanding of our target audience. Muslims, of course, comprise a large and critical portion of that audience, but majorities in the Muslims countries polled in a World Public Opinion survey said that America has a “mostly negative” impact on the world.
Islamic fanaticism and dogmatic antipathy toward America account for a good portion of this unfavorability, but so does misinformation about America perpetuated by al Qaeda and its sympathizers. This misinformation is often fed to the Muslim world in quick-hitting news clips or pictures on Al-Jazeera and usually depicts America in a woefully inaccurate or out of context manner.
Opportunities do arise, however, to counter this dangerous practice. Case in point: the Christmas tsunami of 2004. As images of American soldiers airlifting supplies into Indonesia and other devastated regions splashed across television screens it became nearly impossible to depict America in an unfavorable light. As a result, favorable opinion about America in Indonesia rose from 15 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2004, before falling to 29 percent in 2007, according to the Pew poll.
While 29 or 38 percent favorability certainly isn’t a cause for rejoicing, it does tell us that an important part of our target audience responds to positive action. As such, we should redouble our efforts to communicate with Muslims across the globe by revitalizing Cold War-era communications agencies such as the United States Information Agency and Voice of America.
Perceptions are difficult things to change. After all, perception is reality—regardless of the facts. But in striving to rebuild our relationships and recommit to understanding and communicating with our target audience, the next president can do a great deal to change the unfavorable perception others have of our country, and in the process he or she can restore the good name of the American brand.