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New Official Faces Challenge in Reshaping the Image of America


In recent years public opinion surveys have found that the United States has a serious image problem overseas.

President George Bush has asked his close communications advisor, Karen Hughes, to help change that image, nominating her to a top post in the State Department. Ms. Hughes was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but as VOA's Kathie Scarrah reports, she has a tough challenge ahead of her.

The American-led invasion of Iraq increased anti-Americanism not only in most Muslim nations, but also in countries considered traditional allies, such as Great Britain and Canada. Another reason cited for diminishing support for America is the Bush administration's continued support for Israel, a foreign policy stance unpopular in the Middle East.

Jodie Allen, of the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based international public opinion polling firm, said polishing America's image now won't be easy. "This is just not something you can cure overnight. You've got to show, not just by words, but by example that America's intentions are good, that we're not an imperialist country."

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed 17,000 people in 16 nations, asking their opinion of the U.S. Only Indonesia, a recipient of millions of U.S. dollars in aid following last December's tsunami, and India had more favorable attitudes toward the U.S. than before the war on terror began.

Ms. Allen said a successful public diplomacy program should highlight positive U.S. policies. "Actions speak louder than words to some degree as you can see with the tsunami aid," she explained. "And I think we are not going to talk our way into popularity, but we can behave in ways to show these countries that we understand their concerns and that we are anxious to help."

At her Senate confirmation hearing, Karen Hughes acknowledged it won't be easy to change attitudes. "I recognize the job ahead will be difficult. Perceptions do not change quickly or easily," she said. "We're involved in a generational and global struggle of ideas, a struggle that pits the power of hate against the power of hope. At a time when rumor and myth reach mass audiences in seconds, communicating with foreign publics is vital to the success of our foreign policy."

Although she did not provide details, Ms. Hughes said she would enlist the private sector to work with government public diplomacy initiatives. "American companies and universities, foundations, our travel industry interact with people across the world every day," she noted. "Our music and film industries, artists and entertainers create powerful impressions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always powerful. I welcome ideas to more fully engage the private sector, and I will seek to involve and empower our most important national asset, our citizens."

Michael Hurley, a counter-terrorism expert, believes Americans understand the impact a negative image has on the nation and are ready to help turn around that image. "As Americans, we want practical and quick solutions to things," he said, "but I think we need to get our thinking and our mentality directed in a way to realize that we won't have a quick solution to these problems. But a strategy, a long term vision, bold steps, dealing honestly around the world, and speaking honestly about short-comings about other societies and addressing your own problems is a good strategy to move forward."

Previous attempts to improve the U.S. government's image with the help of the private sector have received mixed reviews overseas. During the first George W. Bush administration, the State Department financed a campaign called "Shared Values". It was aimed at Arab audiences and featured American Muslims who stressed that America is a nation where people of all faiths and backgrounds live and work side by side.

U.S. efforts to communicate directly to the Arabic-speaking world have been undertaken by the television network Al Hurra and Radio Sawa, which broadcasts news and pop music. Both channels are private corporations but are administered by the same government agency that oversees the Voice of America. According to surveys in the Middle East, the networks have had some success in reaching Arab audiences.

But Karen Hughes adds that listening is also an important part of public diplomacy, "The mission of public diplomacy is to engage, inform and help others understand our policies and values," she said. "But I am mindful that before we seek to be understood, we must first work to understand."

Ms. Hughes is hoping that people around the world will still be willing to listen to her message as well.

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