Can business save the crumbling international image of George Bush's America, when the diplomats and the politicians can't? I was prompted to the thought by the launch this week of the World Citizens Guide, a handy manual of tips for US businessmen and other travellers abroad on how to be more loved, or perhaps less disliked.
The guide is the handiwork of a non-profit outfit called Business for Diplomatic Action, which has already had a rip-roaring success with an earlier version aimed at US students abroad. Now comes the updated model, aimed at "de-uglifying" the 55 million or so Americans who travel abroad each year, for business or pleasure, as unofficial ambassadors for their unpopular country.
The advice is simple, boiling down to "relax, shut up and listen". Be patient, Americans are told. Engage in "dialogue, not monologue", and don't assume foreigners will be intimately familiar with baseball or the SuperBowl; the rest of the world plays soccer.
More fundamentally, Americans should make less noise. The Guide instructs readers to "match your voice level to the environment and other speakers", noting that "a loud voice is often perceived as a bragging voice". "Keep religion private," Americans are urged. "Religion is not something you wear on your sleeve."
Finally, they should refrain from lecturing. "No one likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them. Rightly or wrongly, the US is seen as appointing itself policeman, judge and jury to the world."
But will this attempt to solve America's image problem succeed where others have failed? It's not that people here aren't aware of the problem. "Public diplomacy" has been the hot thing since the 9/11 attacks raised the dread question: "Why do they hate us?" The State Department now has an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy whose sole job is to promote Brand America. But it's been a tough sell.
The first to hold the job was Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive who thought an advertising campaign showing Muslims happily integrated into American society would do the trick. It didn't. Then came Margaret Tutwiler, once an intimidating spokeswoman for James Baker, Secretary of State under the first George Bush, and a former ambassador to Morocco. The job required "years of hard, focused work", she said, and quit after six months for a well-paid job on Wall Street.
Now the poisoned chalice has passed to Karen Hughes, a trusted old crony of Bush from Texas times, who has set up a campaign-style rapid-response unit at the State Department to put right misconceptions about the US in the Islamic world. She has also made a couple of high-profile trips to the region. But it doesn't seem to be doing much good.
A study by the Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index, which ranks the US along with 25 developed and developing countries, makes grim reading. America is considered the best place to do business, it ranks second after Germany as a creator of attractive brands and its popular culture is still appealing. But it comes last for its cultural heritage, which reflects humanity in its broadest sense, a sensitivity and wisdom born of experience to respect the ways of others.
The message is clear. Anti-Americanism is spreading from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and US foreign policy specifically to America in general. And that's where the businessmen come in.
The problem for the State Department is that if the problem is the message sent by government, even the cleverest "public diplomacy" will be of no use. Business sees the problem differently. Through business, including global tourism, most people get their direct contact with America. If how the world views America is to change for the better, it won't be from the top down, but from the bottom up.Reuse content