by Jamie Metzl
Originally published in the Huffington Post, January 15, 2009
As is well known, popular perceptions of the United States in most places around the world have taken a nose-dive over the past eight years. The highest-level US official in charge of spreading America's message, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman, recently said, correctly, that the world is angry at America because of America's policies and actions, not because we've done a poor job of explaining ourselves.
But although the election of Barack Obama and the coming changes in some of the more controversial areas of US foreign policy will do more than anything else to improve global perceptions of the United States, America still needs to do far more to effectively make its case internationally.
As the new administration enters office, the following three major steps can be taken right away to set a new tone for America's public diplomacy under the Obama administration.
First, America's diplomats should embark on a one month "listening tour" of the world. Gandhi travelled around India hearing from Indians of all ilks for two years when he returned from South Africa in 1915, and Hillary Clinton's listening tour around New York state at the beginning of her first Senate race did more than anything to set the tone for her candidacy. There is no reason why all senior US diplomats can't do the same. Secretary of State Clinton, the regional Assistant Secretaries in the State Department and the Department of Defense, US Ambassadors, and other leading officials should spend a month meeting with foreign leaders and all types of foreign non-governmental groups with the express purpose of active listening.
One often-articulated reason for global hostility towards America is the feeling among some non-Americans that although America's actions tremendously impact their lives, they have no say in what America does. The United States does not need to extend voting privileges in US elections to foreigners, but we would make an important statement by demonstrating in a very direct and symbolic way that we are listening. At the end of the month, the Secretary of State should give a speech outlining the broad trends in what has been heard and what steps the US will take to make sure that we will remain active listeners to the voices of the world, even if we might not be able to take action on all that we hear.