PAUL HOLMES: Bush's re-election, Rice's replacement of Powell send European view of US into spiral

When I showed friends the front page of the UK's Daily Mirror the day after the US elections, they assumed the image was a joke or that the Mirror was the British equivalent of a satirical publication like The Onion.

When I showed friends the front page of the UK's Daily Mirror the day after the US elections, they assumed the image was a joke or that the Mirror was the British equivalent of a satirical publication like The Onion.

In case you missed it, the Mirror's front page featured a photo of George W. Bush and the headline question, "How can 59,054,087 [Americans] Be So Dumb?" And the Mirror is a thoroughly mainstream newspaper, a slightly left-of-center version of the New York Daily News. More to the point, the question it asks accurately reflects the views of the majority of Britons and an even greater majority of Europeans. Having spent a couple of weeks across the Atlantic since the elections, I can attest to a shift in attitudes, one that should be troubling to anyone concerned with the image of the US - and US companies - overseas. There was much pre-election talk of anti-Americanism in Europe, but most of that misunderstood European attitudes. While there was strong opposition to US policies (not only on Iraq, but on environmental and human-rights issues), the criticism was leveled at the Bush Administration, not the US. (While the administration would like to conflate the two, there's a big difference.) The feeling was that the majority of Americans had voted against Bush, and that because he had run as a compassionate conservative and an opponent of nation-building, those who did vote for him could be forgiven for assuming that his policies would look very different from those that materialized after he took office. But his re-election with a majority of the popular vote has caused a significant change in attitudes, reinforced by the replacement of Secretary of State Colin Powell by Condoleezza Rice. While Powell's credibility took a massive hit after his pre-invasion testimony to the United Nations, he was still considered by many Europeans to be a voice of reason within the administration, a multilateralist by instinct, and someone who understood that positive perceptions of the US abroad could be helpful in achieving the administration's foreign-policy objectives. While the State Department's public diplomacy efforts under Powell were conspicuously unsuccessful - words contradicted and undermined by deeds - they are likely to get worse under Rice, who appears to share Bush's disdain for the process of winning hearts and minds. Already, the US-installed government in Iraq has told Iraqi media to "make the position of the Iraqi government" in its coverage of the assault on Fallujah or face legal action, a threat unlikely to persuade people of our commitment to freedom in the region. International perceptions of America are likely to get a whole lot worse before they get any better.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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