Monday, September 7, 2009

Inconsistent Policies or Inconsistent Communication about Policies?

As we draw near the eighth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I found Gary Weaver's A Personal Reflection of the development of International Communication very pertinent. As an undergrad, I was very focused on International Relations and never considered the importance or impact of communication about International Relations. It was not until I took a course in Intercultural Communication that I realized the role of Communication in International Relations.

Many researchers have attempted to explain why Islamic extremists hate American culture with such a passion. It is not hard to see why: Americans thrive in a culture that defies the ordinary: success can be gained through hard work, determination, and straight up will to succeed. How we communicate that with the rest of the world is what causes problems and issues in regards to foreign policy and decision making. Many argue that the Bush Administration took it a step to far in the wrong direction, focusing on demonstrating the strength of the American culture through military might and other means (which in turn reminds me of President Teddy Roosevelt sending the Great White Fleet around the world to showcase America's naval superiority). However, I can argue that the Obama Administration has hurt our standing in the world just as much. While giving a speech to the Muslim World in Egypt is a good idea in hindsight, it has given the wrong impression to many. As Americans, we are proud of our hard work, determination, and success and feel that a president apologizing for all of our past actions does not correctly communicate the importance of our standing in the world. It is a sketchy line when it comes to International we "beef" up our branding of ourselves in the world, or do we diminish it to make us appear "more like everyone else"? Should we be proud of our culture, success, and the differences that make us stand out, or should we shy away from pointing them out to other countries as though we should apologize for being great? This is a line that all Presidential administrations attempt to define in their own way along their own ideological terms. Is their a right way or wrong way to communicate American culture in terms of achieving foreign policy goals? While our democracy is enriched through the differences and the direct participation of the people, I almost feel that in order to accomplish foreign policy goals it is necessary to have a streamlined, non-changing approach to foreign policy, and not one that changes every four to eight years.

I grasp the fact the International Relations is a dynamic, changing discipline and the approach taken to it is based upon current events, I just wonder if it would benefit our standing in the world and take out the uncertainties present if our government settled on specific International Communication strategies to convey our foreign policy agenda more consistently. Right now, the Obama administration has opened a can of worms in a probe regarding terrorists interrogations used under the Bush Administration. Ignoring our own political leanings, whatever they may be, what message does that communicate to our foreign policy allies and foes? If the next administration investigates the Obama's administration's techniques, we change our message in the international arena again. This appears to be an unsolvable question to an unsolvable problem, but once nonetheless that should be considered and evaluated. I do not have the answers, I do not even know where to begin about discovering such answers. I do however feel that such a conversation should be taking place among the International Relations and International Communication scholars in the United States foreign policy arena, especially as we look back on the attacks of September 11th in just a few short days.


  1. Concerning your questions about making ourselves appear like everyone else or perhaps flaunt how great we are/were in relation to apologizing on an international stage for the mistakes the previous administration made, I think that this was the correct thing to do, though I do not believe it made us look like everyone else or level the playing field in any way. Different countries have different views of the US, some despise anything American and some tolerate, others are apathetic and some are friendly. It is difficult to change a people's minds concerning our policies, our past actions and our reputation. I believe that the US has made mistakes and so have other countries, but the fact is that these smaller, less economically successful countries relied on the US and are also suffering due to the financial crisis. In terms of how to better 'brand' the US, well, I am not sure how to do that. But you are right that there needs to be a better IC strategy, better PR and communication in general. The choices the government makes are often masked behind a curtain and we Americans don't even know the full story, much less the countries far away. Their media, their leaders conjure up ideas and disseminate them. Religious leaders, fanatics, and others that are hateful for one reason or another exist everywhere. How can we help other countries develop and perhaps even change people's mind about what the US has done and will do? This is one of the biggest tasks for the new administration. The last 8 years did a number on the US reputation. Just like the economy will take a long time to fix, so too will our image.

  2. I agree with Amparo that apologizing on the international stage was the right thing to do. I think there's the perception in the world of America as a bully nation-state that flexes its might wherever and whenever it wants, without regard for the consequences to other countries. By acknowledging past mistakes, America portrays a humbler side, a nation more willing to discuss and negotiate rather than just being a big bully. One hopes that such demonstrations of humility would inspire respect, rather than just using might to incite fear.

    The question of how to maintain a consistent foreign policy agenda across different administrations is an interesting one, and I'm not entirely sure that I have the solution either. That said, our country is a model for peaceful transition of power, and, Dick Cheney comments notwithstanding, I don't think that other countries see us as either stronger or weaker for having a new administration that is willing to reconsider past policies.

  3. America has its own mythos: that anyone can succeed if they work hard, that you can reinvent yourself, it doesn't matter where you come from, that all can enjoy peace and prosperity, that we succeed because we are good. Some countries see us and conjure up this mythos. Others see the opposite - that inside America is one thing and outside quite another.

    The problem is this is a mythos. They are ideals, dreams that do differ from reality. It doesn't mean we should give up these ideas, but we have to acknowledge where we fall short. We have done great things, but we have also done wrong. For instance, even though we pledge ourselves to democracy, parts of our government have opposed democratic governments that were anti-capitalist or anti-American and even supported bloody coups to overthrow them that ended up in military dictatorships. (Latin America has plenty of grievances in this respect.)

    We have to admit we do make mistakes - this is humility and it does not undermine our authority. We're not apologizing for being great - we're apologizing for abusing our greatness. We can not stick to the preconception we are infallible and portray that to the world. It's not likely anyone would buy it and it makes people less willing to work with us, not more. Admitting our flaws is a sign of maturity and a sign we can make peace with those who disagree with us. It makes us like everyone else in the idea no country is perfect and I can not fault that, but not that we suddenly are just as powerful, etc. as any other country.