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Public Diplomacy Chief Predicts Turnaround in US Standing Abroad

The U.S. State Department's new public diplomacy chief says she's confident America's image abroad can be rebuilt after sagging badly during the Bush administration. Former media executive Judith McHale spoke in an on her first full day as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

McHale is not predicting a miraculous rebound in America's standing abroad, which opinion polls suggest hit historic lows under the past administration, whose foreign policy was perceived as unilateralist and overly militarized.

However, the new undersecretary does say the Obama administration has already made some headway in restoring the U.S. global image, starting with the election and inauguration of the new president, who has family ties to Kenya and spent formative years in Indonesia.

"His election clearly helped our image in the world in a number of ways. Certainly his roots in Africa, the time that he lived in Indonesia. He and I actually had a conversation about the fact we both lived overseas when we were younger. I think that does give you a different world-view. So yes, I think the world right now is very willing to re-engage with the country. He, in his inauguration, made an important point of talking about reaching out his hand and I think there are lots of people who want to reach out to us now," she said.

McHale said the president's June 4 policy address in Cairo, in which he is expected to urge reconciliation with Muslim states, will be a critically important event in U.S. public diplomacy and an effort to reach out to those countries as partners.

McHale, who for 20 years headed the cable TV combine Discovery Communications, said she developed her interest in foreign and particularly African affairs as the daughter of a U.S. diplomat in apartheid-era South Africa.

She spent much of the last two years traveling in Africa to launch a mutual fund specializing in investments in African companies, and as such said she rejects the notion that her lack of traditional foreign policy experience will be a liability in her new job.

McHale, whose company operated in some 170 countries around the world, said the key to America reaching foreign populations and particularly youthful audiences is through new media - not only cable television but cellular communications and Internet social networking.

"We have to understand what's working. What are the things that are most relevant to help us reach and connect with billions of people around the world. There's no other way of doing that unless we employ new media in appropriate circumstances. When you look at the demographics of all the regions that we're trying to reach and you see that in many cases where the population is under 25 or under 20 and you have a younger demographic, they rely and use new technologies increasingly around the world," she said.

McHale oversees a $1 billion a year array of State Department communications, cultural, educational and exchange programs.

She promised a top-to-bottom review of U.S. public diplomacy efforts but said she enters the post with no preconceived notions about structural changes, though there are abundant study-commission reform recommendations.