Monday, December 17, 2007

America's Public Diplomacy and Our Planet

The news emerges this week that James K. Glassman has been nominated by President George W. Bush to replace Karen Hughes as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and already the knives are out. This job isn't so much a poisoned chalice as a loaded revolver pointed at the gunman's own head, and the man must have nerves of steel to take it on.

I find this perennial fixation in US foreign policy circles that one individual can somehow be responsible for 'fixing America's image' profoundly demoralising. Pundits have spent the last week raking over Glassman's past in order to see whether they can start sneering straight away, or wait until he does something awful, or at least until he fails to do something amazing: but the truth is it simply doesn't matter who he is or what he's done. No one man or woman can possibly take on the task of fixing America's image because it's not America's image that needs fixing: it's America.

And yet if America really did want to do what it takes to regain some moral authority and respect, even liking, around the world, the opportunities present themselves on an almost weekly basis. It's not rocket science. Last week's dismally predictable performance from the US "negotiating team" at the Bali climate talks was one of the better opportunities that 'Brand America' has burned during the last several years.

The failure to exercise some badly-needed public diplomacy in Bali probably isn't terminal for the USA, a country which still retains enough political and economic power to get its way without being liked or admired very much. But each missed opportunity to do something useful for the planet, sadly, may prove to be rather more final.