Friday, January 2, 2009

Fixing Uncle Sam’s Image Problem

Recognizing that America can't go it alone is the best way to boost the country's standing.
Since 2000, the United States' standing has deteriorated in all parts of the world, and anti-Americanism has grown intense. The 2008 Pew Global Attitudes survey reveals that in the past eight years, favorable views of the United States fell from 78 percent to 30 percent in Germany, 50 percent to 22 percent in Argentina and 75 percent to 37 percent in Indonesia. Yet as bad as this looks, America's image problem can still be healed—if the next administration correctly diagnoses the problem.
Many Americans want to believe things will automatically get better when George W. Bush leaves office. There is a kernel of truth in this. The Bush administration has been amazingly incompetent in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, lately, Georgia. Yet the same administration has also improved America's relations with China and India, suggesting that not all of America's PR problems can be blamed on the 43rd president.
The discord actually dates from the end of the cold war, when Washington thoughtlessly disengaged from the world. After whipping up the Islamist mujahedin into a frenzy to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States walked away from them once the communists were defeated—without thinking about the consequences. This oversight led directly to 9/11. Other allies like Pakistan were also dropped, and today Pakistan is a nuclear-armed—and deeply troubled—state.
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In the 1990s, democracy promotion replaced anticommunism as Washington's overriding policy focus. Americans cheered relentlessly when the drunken Boris Yeltsin was elected in 1991. The Russian people suffered under his rule—but Americans seemed not to notice or care. Now Americans seem puzzled by the deep resentment Russians feel toward them. Yet Georgia was only the straw that broke the camel's back—not the cause of the current rift between Washington and Moscow.
Underlying all these events has been a central source: Washington's failure to think strategically. The solution, therefore, would be for the next president to revive old-fashioned strategic policymaking. This isn't a call for cynical realpolitik; the United States need not abandon its ideals. But it will have a better chance of realizing them if it takes a more prudent and strategic approach to world affairs.
In practice, this means recognizing that the United States can't do everything. Like any normal nation, it must prioritize. And it should view the world as a single geopolitical chessboard. This means that if Washington wants to improve its standing in, for example, Indonesia—the world's most populous Muslim nation—it must work to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such linkages count.