I'm working on a short article, more thematic than event-based, about America's global image. I've got the rhetorical basis set; now I just need to add some meat to its bones. But while I'm working on it, here's my draft for the consumption of the lucky few who have been basking in the joint genius of Sean and Wang.
Corporate entities are highly attuned to the need to project their brand in a manner that is well received by their target audiences. When signs occur that their brand image is becoming inaffective, they go into full scale reform mode in order to save their bottom line. It is an overused cliche that government could benefit from business lessons, but branding is one area where the U.S. government could learn from corporate America.
After years of breathtaking global dominance, the U.S.'s global identity--what I'll refer to as Brand America--is mired in a relative slump, as outside criticism and poor performance sully its image and raise questions about the nation's ability to sustain its hegemonic status.
Brand America, first of all, is the representation of America as seen by the world, both in style and substance. What you or I see as Brand America is not nearly as important--companies don't worry about what their employees think nearly as much as they do their customers--as what the rest of the world sees. In the Clinton years, Brand America symbolized benevolent and sometimes somnolent prosperity. But at the same time, Al-Qaeda plotted 9/11, Iran and North Korea worked on their bombs, developing nations watched their liberalized economies founder, and China's juggernaut economy continued to open to the world. Clearly, Brand America of the 1990s is not what we need now.
But there is no question that Brand America must change. Whereas the power of Brand America in the 1990s was based largely on the passive power of its military and its economy, Brand America today has gambled on the awe-inspiring power of its unparalleled active military to reestablish American dominance in the face of shifts in international relations. We were on the way to success in Afghanistan when we bet the house on Iraq. Winning the war in Iraq and failing to plan for a prolonged occupation became a drain on the U.S.'s ability to project its power and influence elsewhere. The challenges we now face are increased by the inability of Brand America to adapt in the face of failure.
The U.S. faces two chief challenges today in restoring Brand America's reputation globally. First, it must continue to adapt to a global environment where terrorism, an age-old tactic of the weak, has become the methodology of small groups with a disproportionate ability to wreak havoc through access to more powerful weapons and an increasingly global reach. The U.S., despite the focus on Iraq, has advanced light years in this decade in its capabilities to counter terrorism. With a reallocation of resources in the next two years from Iraq to the fight against terrorist organizations, Brand America can restore a degree of international acceptance to its military and diplomatic operations. Terrorists scare governments because they are for the large part unmanageable. When the U.S. became mired in Iraq, the pressure on governments like Pakistan to crack down on terrorist operations was lessened. Brand America's message became muddled through its lack of a broad and consistent justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the current tension with Iran only further threatens the coherence of Brand America in foreign policy.
Second, Brand America must return to one of its basic historical purposes; to sell liberalism as a governing theory that is not only morally strong, but that can be construed as having concrete benefits to nations that pursue political liberalization. Brand America's message must take into account the newfound acceptance many developing nations have found for illiberal capitalism, the method of amoral profit-making that China pursues in spreading its economic gains to countries like Sudan that have felt like nothing if not whipping boys for the U.S. Brand America was successfully sold as being superior to the USSR's ideology during the Cold War, but since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has forgotten that while our policies may make sense to our leadership, our Brand is diluted globally when we don't focus on explaining why our policies represent (or should) both the correct and profitable path for other nations to follow.
China's leadership has in recent years pushed the idea of no-strings-attached economic dealings with countries that have been enjoying the disfavor of the U.S. Policy-makers largely assumed that that form of illiberal capitalism was unworkable in economically developed nations, so a common strain of thinking ran in past decades that China would liberalize as its economy grew. We now realize that our hopes are no so easily achieved; and we must restructure our foreign policy to respond to the economic and political challenge China poses to us. Brand America's program of sticks and carrots has for decades followed a path of evangelical rigidity that has lost its luster as nations have realized that U.S. policies don't always lead to future gains--the U.S. needs to expend less time rattling sabers at the Middle East and more time engaging allies, rainy day companions, and even global opponents in negotiations to restore the argument for following the U.S's lead on a host of issues, from trade policy to anti-terrorism activities.
Ultimately, the viability of Brand America comes down to the U.S.'s ability to once again enlist like-minded nations to the cause of liberalism, the delegitimization of all methods and entities relating to terrorism through the isolation of terrorist organizations from the support of host nations, and the revitalization of Brand America as a symbol of achievable prosperity and commonality.
It is not enough for us to believe that we are right or even to change our current course and begin pursuing policies that history will judge as having been appropriate. We must also be able to sell ourselves--image and content--to the rest of the world. Brand America has lost much of its selling power right now, but with the resources we have at our disposal, it is not an impossible task to set about modifying the product we sell.