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By Bernd Debusmann
With anti-American sentiment at unprecedented levels around the world, Americans worried about their country’s low standing are pushing a grassroots campaign to change foreign perceptions of the United States "one handshake at a time."
The idea is to turn millions of Americans into "citizen diplomats" who use personal meetings with foreigners to counter the ugly image of the United States shown in a series of international public opinion polls. They show widespread negative attitudes not only toward U.S. policies but also toward the American people and, increasingly, even American products.
To stem the relentless decline of America’s international standing — a dramatic change from the almost universal sympathy for the country immediately after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington –leaders of more than 30 civic organizations formed a "Coalition for Citizen Diplomacy" two years ago.
The coalition, a loose alliance of national, state and community groups, held its first national summit in July in Washington, where speakers deplored the sorry state of the U.S. image but expressed hope that individual action and international people-to-people exchanges could go a long way toward improving things.
ROCK STARS, STUDENTS
"Citizen diplomacy is the concept that the individual citizen has the right and the responsibility to help shape U.S. foreign relations one handshake at a time," said Sherry Lee Mueller, one of the coalition’s leaders.
"Whether you are student sitting next to a foreign scholar at your university, an athlete playing abroad, an elected official welcoming counterparts, a rock star or a business representative overseas, you are a citizen diplomat and can make a life-changing difference."
Not even the most optimistic delegates to the Washington meeting, billed as the first of its kind, thought citizen diplomacy could soon reverse a trend that has accelerated sharply under President George W. Bush, many of whose foreign policy decisions have been criticized as unilateralist and arrogant.
Distaste for America runs so deep that, for example, at the recent World Cup in Germany the American team was the only one asked not to display its national flag on the team bus. In South Korea, traditionally a U.S. ally, two-thirds of people under 30 said in a recent poll that if there were war between North Korea and the United States, they would side with North Korea.
"Anti-Americanism runs deeper and is qualitatively different than in the past, when it was largely attributable to unpopular U.S. policies," Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, says in a new book on the subject, "America Against the World."
Polls show that people who have visited the United States or have been involved in exchange programs have a more favorable impression of the country than those who have not, and one of the questions discussed at the Washington meeting was how to attract more visitors and increase exchange programs.
The coalition embraces long-established organizations such as Sister Cities International, the Fulbright scholarship program and the National Council for International Visitors as well as a host of small groups largely run by volunteers and operated on shoestring budgets.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
Between 4 million and 5 million Americans are estimated to be involved, directly or indirectly, in "citizen diplomacy" projects — not a large number compared to the overall population of 300 million but substantial in comparison to the 51,000 employees of the U.S Department of State.
Since the alliance was established at a meeting in Racine, Wisconsin two years ago, its members have held 50 "community summits" on citizen diplomacy, most in places not usually associated with foreign policy concerns — Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
Parallel to the grassroots effort to spread the message that there is more to the United States than wars, superpower arrogance and tourists clad in shorts, a business-backed group called Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) is lining up corporate support for public diplomacy by business travelers.
BDA, whose board includes executives from Exxon and McDonald’s, last May began distributing a "World Citizen’s Guide" to corporate travelers with 16 tips to change the behavior patterns that have earned Americans a boorish reputation in the first place.
This is not a philanthropic mission. "American companies should care about America’s standing in the world, first of all, because sooner or later anti-Americanism is bad for business," BDA President Keith Reinhard said at the Washington meeting. "Corporate America needs a world that welcomes and values American brands. Unfortunately, this is becoming less and less true."
That holds true even for the United States as a travel destination. "A direct consequence of the decline of America’s reputation in the world," according to Reinhard, "is that more people around the world are consciously and purposely saying ‘I don’t want to visit America.’"
Travel Industry Association Statistics show that the U.S. share of world tourism declined from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 6 percent last year. A 1 percentage point increase, according to the association, would mean 7.6 million additional arrivals, $12.3 billion in additional spending, 150,000 additional jobs, $3.3 billion in additional payroll and $2.1 billion in additional tax revenue.
© Reuters 2006