Uncle Sam faces some formidable obstacles in trying to improve America’s image abroad. Sponsoring lectures on such topics as how Malcolm X and hip-hop might unite diverse Muslim immigrant communities in Europe was considered one way of doing it. But competition in the popularity contest from unfriendly foreign media as well as some of our government’s occasional dubious policies is fierce.
A reader commenting on my recent article touching on official US promotion of an LGBT agenda helpfully provided a State Department link to ex-Secretary Clinton’s official guidance a few years ago on that particular subject. It shows that American embassies abroad are getting full Washington backup for those public diplomacy outreach programs. The broader theme of official US “diversity” promotion does not lack support from on high either. In European countries, it involves helping Muslims promote their culture and traditions, and indirectly promoting parallel societies.
In fairness, US embassy PR programs mostly involve uncontroversial cultural events or discussions ranging from US history to current economic and political developments. But the Muslim outreach in many ways seems like attempted compensation for the many other US policies that have enraged Muslims over the decades. Arab Muslim ire over US political and financial subsidizing of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians has been overshadowed of late by outrage at Washington for its inability to stop Muslims Arabs from mistreating each other. Rightly or wrongly, it adds up to a big image problem. The Malcolm X hip-hop lecture at the Amerika Haus in late 2013 was just one program sponsored by the US embassy in Vienna to tackle the dilemma. I happened to attend it, and it had struck me as indicative of a curious approach to promoting US interests.
Farid Hafez, a young Austrian professor with Egyptian background and a frequent TV talk-show campaigner against “Islamophobia,” had started his embassy-sponsored talk with a photo slide of Julie Andrews and her “Sound of Music” family. It was – news to me – the traditional “Christmas film” Americans watched on TV, he explained. And it wrongly misled Americans into thinking that Austrians looked like the film version of the von Trapp family singers and not like he and so many of the audience in head scarves did. But as misguided as Americans were on that issue, they offered much that Muslims in Austria could learn from. Such as how Malcolm X had influenced civil rights and hip-hop and how the latter could help unite ethnically diverse young Austrian Muslims among Turkish, Arab and other immigrant communities. Diversity can have its limits!
For good measure, Hafez praised the major Muslim role in emancipating African Americans. At that point, I couldn’t resist noting that Martin Luther King was a reverend, not an imam; that 19th century Abolitionists also tended to have Christian backgrounds; and that African slaves had been predominantly animists, not — as Hafez suggested — Muslims forced to convert. I resisted a temptation to point out the irony of an African American convert, such as boxing champ Muhammad Ali, having adopted the name of one of history’s great slave traders, 19th century founder of the eponymous Egyptian dynasty.
After the program, I asked the Embassy’s Public Affairs Officer why he thought that sponsoring such a lecture was in the US national interest. As a gay man and immigrant himself to America (born in Prague) he explained, he identified with other victimized people. He thought such efforts positively highlighted the US government’s openness and commitment to abolish discrimination. I’m more inclined to suspect that the “self-flagellating conscience of the West,” a phenomenon observed by our eminent late diplomat colleague George F. Kennan, partially explains this enthusiasm for spreading the culture of victimization. Another Kennan explanation for this and much else in our diplomatic efforts: “Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.”
A certain amount of self-perpetuating bureaucracy is also at play. We had built up an enormous foreign affairs establishment during the Cold War. Institutions created to facilitate a mission became institutions in search of a mission. When not trying to placate Sen. John McCain, whom Pentagon wags purportedly think is “always one war away from perfect happiness,” we’re huckstering various forms of tribalism under the guise of diversity or multiculturalism. But we’re getting little credit among Europe’s progressive elites for the PR efforts regarding the latter.
Tendentiousness in European media reporting is probably no greater than in the US. The TV talk shows, especially in Germany, are often impressively substantive. But selected participants representing points of view favorable to US society and its foreign policy are inevitably outnumbered. And they get most of the annoying applause from studio audiences that are usually part of the shows. As I already suggested, many US policies are an understandably hard sell. But it might be helpful for those wanting to say a nice thing or two about them if off-the-shelf rebuttal arguments to the more predictable and repetitive anti-US carping were anticipated.
Vladimir Putin’s exclusion from the past weekend’s G7 Summit on the grounds that he didn’t share the participating nations’ values generated much criticism. In a German state television debate following the summit Monday, an American participant defending the exclusion decision was ridiculed by a Turkish-born German asserting that US invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan were “identical” to Putin’s Ukraine transgressions. The implication that all invasions are equal got nods of support from at least one other panelist, as well as from many in the audience. It’s a tedious refrain. I first heard it in connection with Putin’s Ukraine annexation when the TV station’s former Moscow correspondent compared it last year to the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. Not a single American soldier was still in Grenada when I joined our embassy there over a year afterwards. More significantly, the US hasn’t been going around annexing these countries. But in a return to the familiar Cold War moral equivalency arguments, there is no difference between unilaterally annexing another country and liberating a country from tyrants, however badly some of our “liberations” have turned out.
Since it is not official policy to accept that we are better at invading countries than fixing them up afterwards, we can’t expect our overseas diplomatic missions to admit such either. We could, however, make better use of our elaborate public diplomacy apparatus in at least defending our motives. Before the US engaged militarily in Bosnia, Europeans claimed US reluctance stemmed from Bosnia’s lack of oil. The greed motive usually suffices for many who lack the imagination to see other possibilities at work. Iraq’s dictator, for example, might have been happy to cut a deal favorable to US oil companies if that would have gotten the US off his back. But the widespread perception remains, fueled to a large extent by a heavily biased anti-American media, that the US invaded mainly for the benefit of US firms.
US embassies will not be able to provide sufficient context to controversial policies and practices to offset media tendentiousness. Nevertheless, foreign public perceptions might improve somewhat if such context were given a higher priority. Austrian state TV, for example, played up the Ferguson rogue racist cop story and virtually ignored the exculpating circumstances detailed in two lengthy government follow-up investigations. Ever since the Vietnam War had cost the US its former “goody two-shoes” image, Europeans in former allied and enemy countries alike have delighted in highlighting America’s own racial and social problems.
Instead of offering context, however, we have public diplomacy abroad heavily engaged at spreading diversity and promiscuous concepts of what constitutes collective rights. Far right parties are rapidly gaining ground in Europe partially because citizens are growing fed up with their own governments’ handling of these issues. Official US exhibitionism and promotion of them won’t stem that tide. Hip-hop friendly diplomacy hasn’t noticeably won us friends among Europe’s Muslims either.
Gene Tuttle is a retired Foreign Service Officer living in Vienna, Austria.