Preaching U.S. supremacy won't help image abroad

October 09, 2005|By SANFORD J. UNGAR

There has been so much public hand-wringing in the last several years over America's public image around the world that our national knuckles are all red and sore. They hurt in the morning and they hurt in the evening, and nothing seems to help.

The latest spin doctor on the case is none other than Karen P. Hughes, President Bush's successful communications expert, now embarked on a new career as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She recently returned from a five-day swing through Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where she shook a lot of hands, hugged many children and assured everyone of U.S. support for democratic reforms.

But even the irrepressible Ms. Hughes apparently came home disappointed. The people she encountered in the Middle East did not immediately proclaim their admiration for America when she talked about faith and family values, when she distributed books about American presidents or when she noted that Mr. Bush supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

Theoretically more sophisticated on these issues than most of her colleagues in the administration - and certainly more so than one of her predecessors, who had made her name on Madison Avenue - Ms. Hughes seems to realize that the problem is not just a matter of writing better ad copy for the United States or finding a snappier jingle to describe our positive attributes.

Nor is it a matter of shouting louder about ourselves or endlessly repeating our standard boasts about the magnificent system we have developed. These boasts might lose credibility as corporate leaders go off to jail and our response to a domestic natural disaster falls flat and exposes serious inequities in our society.

But she apparently does not understand why it is a bad idea to lecture Muslims about "the important role that faith plays in Americans' lives" - as if no one else had a faith central to their lives. (She also claimed that the U.S. Constitution cites "one nation under God," which it does not.)

Building or improving an image can be a complex matter, but at the heart of the effort are some simple principles familiar to us all: Schoolyard bullies may be feared, but they do not tend to be admired; they generally don't get elected student council president. Countries, like people, that go around saying they are better than everyone else provoke resentment; others often take pleasure in their woes. Claiming superiority based on religious faith never works.

If the U.S. government decides that the American image abroad really matters, it will have to embark on a long-term project to convince the rest of the world that it cares about the opinions and the sensibilities of others. Difficult as this might be for a nation accustomed to behaving as a superpower, the United States might need to take those views into account in the formulation of foreign policy and in decisions to go to war.

But there is another dimension to this effort: Ordinary Americans, schooled for so long to believe that we must teach others how to become more like us, need to develop a new perspective. We have to observe and listen and, in the process, learn from others.

At Goucher College, we think we've found a way to do our little part. Beginning next fall, we will require all entering students to study abroad at least once during their time as undergraduates - for a semester, for a year or at least for a three-week intensive course overseas.

The international and intercultural literacy that can be gained from such exposure, we believe, is as important as many other building blocks of a liberal arts education - including scientific discovery and reasoning; a sense of history; an appreciation for literature, art and music; and an awareness of difference and privilege.

Along the way, our 1,350 students will become better prepared for life as global citizens and, with any luck, understand our problems at home much better. We don't mind being trailblazers, but we hope that other institutions will join us on this path and there will soon be tens of thousands more young people traveling abroad, setting an example for their elders.

This may well have another salutary effect, very much in the national interest. Just as the libraries at U.S. diplomatic missions overseas - shut down as unnecessary after the end of the Cold War - once provided a great resource for learning about America, warts and all, so can individual citizens. One by one, they can help reverse the damage done by Ms. Hughes and other American supremacists.

I cannot think of a better way to improve the American image abroad than to let others see how wonderfully diverse and free-thinking and pluralistic a people Americans are, much more able to engage in introspection and self-criticism than our official actions and statements would imply. That's bound to stir genuine admiration, but it might take a decade or two to develop fully.

Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College, is a veteran journalist and was director of the Voice of America from 1999 to 2001.

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