Can Karen Hughes sell Brand America?

Military analysis.
March 15 2005 6:32 PM

Karen Hughes Sells Brand America

She's supposed to market Bush policies to the Muslim world. Good luck!

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

As part of his plan to improve America's image in the Muslim world, President Bush has appointed his longtime adviser, Karen Hughes, as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Condoleezza Rice, announcing the choice on Monday, said, "We must do more to confront the hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths, and get out the truth."

Hear, hear. The question is: Can that be accomplished by this peculiar tool called "public diplomacy?"

Hughes' most notable predecessors—two similarly strong women—ended up fleeing the post in horror. Charlotte Beers, a brilliant advertising executive, took the job a month after 9/11 with a mandate to re-brand America, and got run out of town a year later when her marketing campaign prompted storms of outrage and ridicule from its intended audience. Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's press secretary during the presidency of Bush's father, followed with her customary can-do gusto, and lasted a mere six months before throwing up her hands and taking refuge as vice-president at the New York Stock Exchange.

The problem wasn't with Beers or Tutwiler per se, but rather with the assumption that led President Bush to believe their credentials were suitable in the first place. The assumption was that a clever ad can sell America in pretty much the same way that a clever ad can sell Coca-Cola, Nike, or Britney Spears. The fundamental flaw in this notion isn't so much that Arabs or Muslims overseas are different from Western consumers: They too are susceptible to shrewd marketing. Arab Muslims can take a swig of Coca-Cola, try on a pair of Nikes, or listen to Britney's new hit. If they like it, they might buy it and gradually develop a loyalty to the brand. If they don't like it, the best ad in the world won't convince them otherwise—just as, in America, not even Bill Cosby's endorsement could overwhelm the wide consensus that the New Coke was swill.

In consumer marketing, it's not just the slogan that counts; it's ultimately how the product tastes, feels, looks, or sounds. The same is true with public diplomacy. The product matters: What's important is what the U.S. government does. As a recent RAND Corporation paper on public diplomacy put it, "Misunderstanding of American values is not the principal source of anti-Americanism." Sometimes foreigners understand us just fine; they simply don't like what they see. The study concludes that "some U.S. policies have been, are, and will continue to be major sources of anti-Americanism." (Italics are in the original.) It didn't matter what ads Tutwiler produced: Her audience already distrusted Brand America.

The good news for Karen Hughes is that she steps into this job just as some of President Bush's policies are riding high. If the winners of Iraq's election can put together a stable governing coalition; if Syrian troops pull out of Lebanon, and the Lebanese people elect a government that reflects the country's ethnic divisions without spurring conflict either internally or with Israel; if the new Palestinian authority and Israel can work toward a peace accord—then these developments will refurbish America's image in the region more glowingly than any conceivable P.R. campaign might. It would go too far to argue that Bush's policies set all these trends into motion. But two things are clear. First, whatever the merits of the war in Iraq (and I'm a critic), some of these developments couldn't have happened without it. Second, Bush's recent rhetoric on global freedom places him—and thus America—on the side of these democratic movements, which is a noticeable shift from our historical tendency to side with the region's autocrats, for the sake of stability.

In short, we may—repeat, may—be entering a time of unusually ripe opportunity for creative public diplomacy, when people who have generally been hostile to America (because of American policies) might be willing to give an American message at least a listen.

What they make of the message, and whether they're willing to elevate their impression of the United States, will depend on two things: first, on how the promising developments in the region play out; and second, if they play out well, how President Bush—not Undersecretary Hughes, but President Bush—handles a series of dilemmas that he's likely to face as a result of their success.

For example, if Israel proves to be an obstructionist in the peace talks, will Bush pressure Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make more concessions? If Hezbollah ends up with a prominent role in a new Lebanese government, will Bush deal with its delegates as officials of a democratically elected, sovereign nation—or as terrorists in a rogue regime? If the Iraqi factions can't settle their disputes, will Bush step in as an intermediary—and, if so, what kind of trade-offs will he accept between, say, Islamic laws promoted by the Shiite parties and human rights, especially for women, favored by the Kurds?

I don't mean to imply there's a right and wrong answer to these questions. I'm only suggesting that democracy is a tricky thing, that it doesn't always play out according to U.S. interests (see, for example, Venezuela—or, for that matter, France and Germany), and that foreign policy poses plenty of choices beyond the stark ones of freedom vs. tyranny.

There's another reason for public diplomacy's limits in the Muslim world today—the prevalence of global media. During the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a fairly effective, nonpartisan public-diplomacy operation. (Under right-wing pressure from the Senate in the '90s, the USIA was dismantled, incorporated into the State Department, and politicized. Its activities are now supervised—at a drastically reduced budget—by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.) It had worldwide cultural consulates that housed libraries and hosted prominent lecturers. Its radio network, the Voice of America, beamed newscasts and jazz concerts across the Iron Curtain—and freely distributed tens of thousands of radios inside Russia, so people could hear them. Willis Conover's jazz program on VOA—and a series of State Department-sponsored jazz concerts, inside the USSR and throughout the third world—conveyed a potent, appealing image of American freedom and (somewhat misleadingly) racial equality. When I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow in the '90s, I met many Russians whose first—and enduring—impression of America had been formed by hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

But in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and '60s, there was Pravda on the one hand, Voice of America on the other. The former dished out the dreary boilerplate of the ruling Communist Party. The latter offered exciting rhythms from the forbidden outside world. Clear-eyed Russians of the day were well-disposed to the western message.

Today, an official American image, even a well-crafted one, would have to compete with a vast array of newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and, most crucially, satellite TV networks—some state-sponsored, some independent—that have a much better idea of what appeals to their viewers than we do.

Which is all the more reason to emphasize that America's image in the world will depend not on branding but on actions.

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