War Stories

To Know Us Is To Love Us

Slate readers on how to improve America’s image in the world.

Last week, in a column inspired in part by Karen Hughes’ departure as the State Department’s public diplomat and in part by Tom Stoppard’s new play, Rock ’n’ Roll, I asked readers for ideas on how to improve America’s image in the world.

During the Cold War, our freewheeling jazz, rock, and movies appealed to millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. Today, the vast phenomenon of anti-Americanism stems mainly from our government’s policies. But if the next president changed some of those policies, is there anything in our culture that might restore our luster, or at least make us less hateful, not just to Arabs and Muslims, but also to the Asians and Europeans who were once our closest friends?

I received 120 responses, nearly all of them from foreigners or from Americans living abroad. On the one hand, this is satisfying; here are ideas sent by people who know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, it’s a bit disconcerting; doesn’t anybody stateside care what the rest of the world thinks?

In any case, the letters are, for the most part, extremely thoughtful—and most of them make the point that American pop culture just isn’t enough. Our music and movies are already omnipresent, through the Internet and satellite TV—yet there has been no payoff for America’s popularity.

Rhick Bose, an American studying in South Africa, notes that globalization has stripped pop culture of nationality. “Young people like Beyoncé,” he writes, “but they don’t associate her with America.”

To the extent that people do link the culture with the country, the effect is not always for the better. Foreigners watch shows like MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and think it reflects the way most Americans live. Bose’s classmates, he says, “asked me what kind of car I got for my sweet sixteenth birthday party.”

Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don’t know that most Americans are religious people. They don’t know that most of us aren’t wildly rich. They’re skeptical of reports that many black people live here—or dismiss them as not “real Americans.” (This tendency appears to be true even of otherwise sophisticated world leaders such as the new French president, who, during his recent trip to Washington, marveled that our recent secretaries of state have come from other parts of the world. True, Madeleine Albright is the daughter of a Czech émigré, but Condoleezza Rice’s American heritage goes back generations.)

And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America’s face in the world—a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me—is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world’s faces into America.

In other words, these readers say, there should be a vast expansion in the Peace Corps, in Fulbright fellowships, and, above all, in student-exchange programs.

An American exchange student in Jordan writes of the foreigners he’s met: “Once they see Americans—blacks, Jews, Asians, and ‘real’ Americans, as they call blonde-haired Caucasians—and hear their diverse opinions on issues from the War in Iraq to pop music, then people realize how much diversity there is in our country.”

With this same idea in mind, an American in Sudan adds that we should put particular emphasis on sending ethnically diverse Americans abroad.

A Fulbright fellow in Budapest, Hungary, further adds that it would be good to brief these students in advance on the countries where they’re going. Foreigners, he writes, “are quite impressed when they meet an American who knows at least a little something about their culture,” who has “an appreciation for their pop entertainment, their great modern novels, movies, and music.”

The flip side—inviting more foreign students to spend a year in America (a practice that has been cut back since 9/11)—is no less valuable. A British journalist recalls that the pro-democracy and human rights activists that he’s interviewed in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, and elsewhere have had one thing in common: They all spent some time studying on an American campus.

But there are more commonplace benefits, as well. An American who teaches English in Egypt writes: “Many an Egyptian is shocked, on arriving in America, to find that we spend most of our time in humdrum routines of work, friends, and family. … Most come away with a greater respect for the American work ethic” and a realization “that we are not demons, nor are we angels.”

In short, our greatest selling point may be our sheer, mundane humanity. A Dutch student writes, “America must (re-)consider itself an ordinary country—special and of great importance, but not playing in a league of its own. If America joins the world … the world will gladly receive America.”

Along these lines is a letter from the aptly named Joshua Mensch, an American in the Czech Republic. When Mensch was a student in Prague in the late 1990s, the Czechs he met regarded him as cool, the arbiter of taste, the beacon of all that is desirable. “Being American,” he writes, “gave you a certain cachet.”

In 2004, after the deterioration in Iraq and George W. Bush’s re-election, the atmosphere changed. He wasn’t shunned for being an American—not usually, anyway—but the “cachet” evaporated.

Now, Mensch writes, he is polite to everybody; he speaks Czech as much as possible; he’s always hoping to find lost wallets or cell phones, so he can return them to their owners, as a way of demonstrating that American people are decent.

“Americans abroad in every city I visit,” he continues, “are quietly re-appreciating their identities as American.” They are openly and unashamedly American. But they also behave “in a manner that is worldly, attentive to the differences between the cultures and not brutish about it. … The Americans who act like America is part of the world and not the commander of it, not the evil ruler or the bane of it, and not the ultimate signifier of it, will be the Americans who make America look good.”

There were many other suggestions on how to open up the pathways between America and the rest of the world.

Many readers seconded my points about the rudeness and paranoia on display at U.S. embassies and customs desks. Americans living in Europe say that some of their friends—even those who studied in American universities—refuse to come here anymore because they’ve been treated so horribly at the airports.

Eric Henry, a doctoral student at Cornell who has spent much time in Shenyang, China, recalls that the U.S. Consulate used to open its libraries, film screenings, and Fourth of July celebrations. Now, he says, the consulate is a “razor-wired compound”; an American friend of his was recently arrested for taking pictures of the front gate. “Expats and Chinese who used to visit the consulate quite regularly now only grouse about the things that used to go on there,” he writes.

Certainly there are ways of staying on alert without tripping alarm bells on everyone who comes across the border.

There are also ways to get the American message out there without making it seem like propaganda. One reason Karen Hughes’ PR trip to the Middle East two years ago was such a disaster, besides the fact that she seemed so ill-suited for the mission, was that it was clearly a PR mission. She was, after all, a government official and thus by nature suspect. Several readers, including a few State Department officials, endorsed my idea of reviving the U.S. Information Agency as an independent entity that promotes American values and culture, not an administration’s policies.

One American stationed in south Asia writes that, during Gen. Musharraf’s state of emergency and the blackout of independent news stations, many Pakistanis have appreciated Voice of America’s news broadcasts—though he adds they will continue to be appreciated only if they are seen as straight news, free of any government’s interference. “When tribal elites in Waziristan trust Voice of America to bring them the news,” he writes, “it can’t be a bad thing for the United States.”

A few common themes emerge from these suggestions: Government-sponsored PR has its limits, mainly because people see it for what it is; the important thing is to change policy, and part of that involves aligning America’s approach to the world with the most attractive aspects of our culture (in the broadest sense of that word). One of those aspects is what the Bush administration constantly boasts about—our openness and our freedom. But those boasts ring hollow when the rest of the world sees us as closed down and locked shut. The first step, then, is to reopen the doors to the world.