July 26, 2006
Anti-Americanism prompts push for “citizen diplomacy”
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With anti-American sentiment at
unprecedented levels around the world, Americans worried about
their country's low standing are pushing a grassroots campaign
to change foreign perceptions of the United States "one
handshake at a time."
The idea is to turn millions of Americans into "citizen
diplomats" who use personal meetings with foreigners to counter
the ugly image of the United States shown in a series of
international public opinion polls. They show widespread
negative attitudes not only toward U.S. policies but also
toward the American people and, increasingly, even American
To stem the relentless decline of America's international
standing -- a dramatic change from the almost universal
sympathy for the country immediately after the September 11
attacks on New York and Washington --leaders of more than 30
civic organizations formed a "Coalition for Citizen Diplomacy"
two years ago.
The coalition, a loose alliance of national, state and
community groups, held its first national summit in July in
Washington, where speakers deplored the sorry state of the U.S.
image but expressed hope that individual action and
international people-to-people exchanges could go a long way
toward improving things.
ROCK STARS, STUDENTS
"Citizen diplomacy is the concept that the individual
citizen has the right and the responsibility to help shape U.S.
foreign relations one handshake at a time," said Sherry Lee
Mueller, one of the coalition's leaders.
"Whether you are student sitting next to a foreign scholar
at your university, an athlete playing abroad, an elected
official welcoming counterparts, a rock star or a business
representative overseas, you are a citizen diplomat and can
make a life-changing difference."
Not even the most optimistic delegates to the Washington
meeting, billed as the first of its kind, thought citizen
diplomacy could soon reverse a trend that has accelerated
sharply under President George W. Bush, many of whose foreign
policy decisions have been criticized as unilateralist and
Distaste for America runs so deep that, for example, at the
recent World Cup in Germany the American team was the only one
asked not to display its national flag on the team bus. In
South Korea, traditionally a U.S. ally, two-thirds of people
under 30 said in a recent poll that if there were war between
North Korea and the United States, they would side with North
"Anti-Americanism runs deeper and is qualitatively
different than in the past, when it was largely attributable to
unpopular U.S. policies," Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew
Research Center for the People and the Press, says in a new
book on the subject, "America Against the World."
Polls show that people who have visited the United States
or have been involved in exchange programs have a more
favorable impression of the country than those who have not,
and one of the questions discussed at the Washington meeting
was how to attract more visitors and increase exchange
The coalition embraces long-established organizations such
as Sister Cities International, the Fulbright scholarship
program and the National Council for International Visitors as
well as a host of small groups largely run by volunteers and
operated on shoestring budgets.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
Between 4 million and 5 million Americans are estimated to
be involved, directly or indirectly, in "citizen diplomacy"
projects -- not a large number compared to the overall
population of 300 million but substantial in comparison to the
51,000 employees of the U.S Department of State.
Since the alliance was established at a meeting in Racine,
Wisconsin two years ago, its members have held 50 "community
summits" on citizen diplomacy, most in places not usually
associated with foreign policy concerns -- Tulsa, Oklahoma, for
example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
Parallel to the grassroots effort to spread the message
that there is more to the United States than wars, superpower
arrogance and tourists clad in shorts, a business-backed group
called Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA) is lining up
corporate support for public diplomacy by business travelers.
BDA, whose board includes executives from Exxon and
McDonald's, last May began distributing a "World Citizen's
Guide" to corporate travelers with 16 tips to change the
behavior patterns that have earned Americans a boorish
reputation in the first place.
This is not a philanthropic mission. "American companies
should care about America's standing in the world, first of
all, because sooner or later anti-Americanism is bad for
business," BDA President Keith Reinhard said at the Washington
meeting. "Corporate America needs a world that welcomes and
values American brands. Unfortunately, this is becoming less
and less true."
That holds true even for the United States as a travel
destination. "A direct consequence of the decline of America's
reputation in the world," according to Reinhard, "is that more
people around the world are consciously and purposely saying 'I
don't want to visit America."'
Travel Industry Association Statistics show that the U.S.
share of world tourism declined from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 6
percent last year. A 1 percentage point increase, according to
the association, would mean 7.6 million additional arrivals,
$12.3 billion in additional spending, 150,000 additional jobs,
$3.3 billion in additional payroll and $2.1 billion in
additional tax revenue.