US tries to paint a better picture

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Iraq, an American public affairs expert weighs up the challenge facing the nation's newly appointed reputation manager.

Last week Karen Hughes was sworn in as US under-secretary of state for public diplomacy, taking formal responsibility for the country's reputation abroad. Months ago, when George W Bush tipped Hughes for the job, she would have been aware of the challenge. As she perused the post-Hurricane Katrina press, this challenge must have seemed greater.

Coverage of the handling of the crisis was scathing. The Bush administration has been lambasted and ridiculed for the federal government's response in terms of both urgency and logistics.

The failure to secure the region - with the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans most notably - was frightening and embarrassing.

Meanwhile the insurgency in Iraq continues apace, amid growing concerns over Iran, North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia, among others. It looks like Hughes is going to be busy.

A friend of Bush

As an architect of Bush's political career and a streetwise Texas PR operator, Hughes is uniquely placed for this role. She has the ear and the confidence of a president she helped elect twice.

Hughes is a sunny, disciplined, hard-working uber-loyalist to Bush. This has served her well in the US, where her unique access gave media the confidence that she spoke with the knowledge of the president. She is good at creating a line and sticking to it and has to be handed some of the responsibility for the administration's tendency to paint the rosiest portrait possible. In a big, insular country that approach can often work.

But Hughes' new position offers different challenges: to persuade a world cynical about spin that the US is not just pushing good news stories but is being straightforward; and explaining policies that many will not like.

Hers is a relatively new role. Created in the Clinton years, the original objective was to address a growing realisation that the US was not doing a very good job explaining its policies to the world, particularly Muslim countries.

Needless to say, after 9/11 and subsequent decisions (Afghanistan, Iraq) there was growing evidence that world opinion was increasingly negative, if not downright hostile, to the US. Throughout the first Bush term the administration seemed only minimally interested in the niceties of better PR. The terrorist attacks empowered an administration to act unilaterally, and resentment for this attitude grew. Traditional partners and allies felt that on a wide range of issues - the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocols, land mine treaties - the US was arrogant in its dismissal of alternative views. As the Pew Centre on Global Opinion reported in the spring: 'In the eyes of others, the US is a worrisome colossus, too quick to act unilaterally, too slow to solve the world's problems, too prone to widening the global gulf between rich and poor.'

The worsening situation in Iraq and the increasing awareness of the scale of the terrorist challenge seems to have brought a realisation that more needs to be done to communicate with the rest of the world. Condoleezza Rice's appointment as secretary of state appears to have kick-started a more proactive effort to be better understood; Karen Hughes will be an important part of that new dynamic.

As her two predecessors discovered, this is not an easy job. Hughes has announced the creation of an interagency co-ordination group to promote American policies and respond to foreign critics. She oversees several cultural and exchange programmes and has an advisory role at the Voice of America and several other US broadcast media abroad.

In a recent interview with The New York Times she identified her three strategic goals as disseminating 'a positive vision of hope and opportunity for the president's freedom agenda', to 'isolate and marginalise the extremists' and to try and put 'greater emphasis on common values with other countries, cultures and religions'.

But the job will be tougher than that. An isolationist Congress has only dedicated five cents of every $100 in the federal budget to 'public diplomacy' and is sceptical of the need to convince others of the legitimacy of American foreign policy.

And while it is well known that she gets on well with her new boss, Rice, she is an outsider in the State Department. Like the FCO in the UK, the State Department is in a world of its own. Hughes will have to build some bridges with the thousands of career diplomats who are suspicious of PR people. Voice of America and other broadcast media are more independent than they used to be and require better co-ordination.

Image problem

Research over the past several years has shown that growing antipathy towards the US is not a question of presentation. It is all about the policies.

Public opinion against the war in Iraq has consistently run at 60 to 80 per cent in most European countries. In the Middle East there is ongoing suspicion over American motives to 'spread democracy', and paranoia about its thirst for oil reserves and to secure military outposts. Europeans cannot understand what they see as a cavalier attitude towards energy consumption and its effect on the environment. The perceived 'arrogance' of Washington's position on these issues has only added fuel to the fire.

More significantly, there is a growing disappointment, perhaps even sadness, over the erosion, if not the disappearance, of the post-war idea of America.

This is particularly true in Europe where there are strong memories of World War II, the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the UN, the World Bank and NATO. America was seen as idealistic, benevolent and collegial: a country strong and unafraid to act in its self-interest, but always aiming for higher principles.

Rightly or wrongly a great deal of the world looks at the US now as slovenly, self-involved and in denial. The country that built the UN sends John Bolton to represent it there. A country under threat from Middle-Eastern extremists seems unable to wean itself off gas-guzzling cars. The country that liberated western Europe and rebuilt Germany and Japan now seems unable to co-ordinate disaster-relief efforts at home. A country of immigrants built on the idea that anyone can lift themselves from poverty to prosperity is unable to plan how to evacuate its least fortunate from a city under threat.

Changing this perception is Karen Hughes' real challenge.

- Nick DeLuca, former managing director of APCO UK, is a public affairs and communications consultant at at The Shore Consultancy.

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