REVIEW: Article

Now the US Needs to Win the Global War of Ideas

Success in Afghanistan will count for little if the United States (US) loses the global war of ideas, which has produced a growing gap between how much of the world sees America and how America sees itself. If this gap persists, it will erode American influence. The partners Washington needs to advance its interests will stand down. The few real enemies the United States faces will find it easier to avoid sanction and make converts among the world’s silent majority.

In the war of ideas, facts have been losing ground to fiction. Many Muslims consider the United States hostile to Islam and to Arab interests. In fact, the United States saved tens of thousands of Muslims in the Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. US troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia at that country’s request to protect its people and Islam’s holy sites from Iraq. The United Nations, not the United States, imposed sanctions against Iraq. The Taliban killed far more Muslims intentionally than the US bombing campaign did accidentally; their demise will save many Muslim lives.

Europeans complain about a growing values gap with the United States. They see a country enamored of the death penalty, obsessed with guns and violence, and beholden to unchecked capitalism. In fact, Americans are questioning, not embracing, the death penalty; violent crime is at a 30-year low; large majorities favor stricter gun control; poverty is at its lowest in 22 years.

To correct these misperceptions, the United States must rebuild the power to persuade. Public diplomacy was an effective Cold War weapon. With the ideological war won, the resources and energy devoted to shaping the US image abroad fell into dramatic decline. Yet the success of US foreign policy is inexorably linked to America’s ability to understand, inform and influence foreign publics. President George W. Bush should order a crash program to build weapons of mass communication.*

Such a program would put public diplomacy officials in meetings where policy is made, to explain the likely impact on foreign opinion. It would strengthen foreign public opinion research, so that Washington knows what others are thinking, and develop rapid response capabilities to answer false charges about American policies.

The program would empower Foreign Service Officers with media training and better language skills; fill foreign media with American views and voices; and build up government broadcasting and Internet programs.

Finally, it would use those with more credibility than government officials—prominent personalities, ethnic Americans and foreign opinion leaders—to make the US case; bolster exchange programs; and develop message campaigns with Hollywood, the advertising industry and nongovernmental organizations.

Winning the war of ideas also requires remaking the marketplace of ideas. Anti-Americanism is often the product of limits on free speech, education systems that promote bias and the practice of some leaders of saying one thing abroad and the opposite at home. Washington should tell governments that printing lies and teaching intolerance will have consequences in terms of foreign assistance, political support and military aid. US assis­tance should be moved away from double-talking governments and toward independent media and education programs.

Finally, the United States must recognize the downside of its superpower standing: People frustrated with the status quo take out their anger at its primary symbol. America faces criticism from those whose culture is being strip-malled out of existence, frustration from the economically and politically disenfranchised, and hatred from a small number of fanatics.

Defeating the haters will be easier if the critics can be co-opted and the frustrated won over. Washington should act as if it has less power than it does by building coalitions and forging compromises. The United States should do more to bridge the fault lines of globalization—poverty, disease, access to education and bad governance.

The war of ideas will help determine whether the new century, like its predecessor, is an American century. The United States brings powerful weapons to the battlefield: freedom, opportunity and tolerance. The haters can counter only with repression, regression and fanaticism. The critics have useful corrections, but no alternative system of values and practices that offers as much progress and possibility as America’s. The war of ideas is America’s to win—if it takes up the challenge.*

* Editor’s Note: According to the Chicago Tribune of March 14, 2002, Representatives Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the Committee’s Ranking Member, planned “to introduce legislation [on March 14] that would create a US International Broadcasting Agency and add funding for translators and public-relations training for diplomats…Among the provisions of the Hyde-Lantos bill would be protections to prevent trimming of the State Department’s half-billion-dollar public diplomacy budget.”

* Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in The International Herald Tribune of December 8-9, 2001. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

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National Security Council, 1994-2001