America's black eye

September 06, 2002

POOR COLIN Powell. The secretary of state jetted to Johannesburg this week during the final hours of the World Summit on Sustainable Development -- and promptly got jeered by a hostile crowd while trying to explain this country's environmental goals and record.

The United States does not deserve this kind of humiliation. Yet it got it in Johannesburg because this country allowed itself to be branded as the home of Ugly Americanism, a stereotype outsiders were only too eager to embrace.

President Bush set the tone by refusing to join more than 100 heads of state in Johannesburg. Instead, he sent Mr. Powell, whose late arrival many saw as an intentional slight.

"How is that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?" Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, asked months ago during an earlier public relations debacle.

Good question.

In Johannesburg, the Bush administration invited disaster by isolating itself even from allies on many controversial issues. Worse yet was America's failure to claim credit for the truly pioneering things it has done in regard to the environment.

Item: Despite Washington's opposition to targets on promoting renewable energy sources, American researchers and nongovernmental sponsors are in the forefront of developing and testing alternatives.

Item: The modern environmentalist movement got its start in the United States in the 1960s. But while Europeans refined it into political parties -- which now hold sensitive Cabinet posts in Germany, for example -- the U.S. movement failed to develop similar muscle. Nevertheless, the movement here is alive and well.

Last year, President Bush appointed advertising agency executive Charlotte Beers to hone this country's public image. In late July, an Office of Global Communications was created to conduct "public diplomacy" and to improve America's image abroad.

The government's spin doctors have their work cut out for them. They must make sure that the unnecessary trouncing in Johannesburg will never be repeated.

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