Foreign Policy Blogs

Restoring the Brand

We may be witnessing the most unusual overseas public affairs climate for the United States in the modern era. One the one hand, public opinion regarding the United States is as low as at any time since the beginning of modern polling. On the other, there appears to be an unprecedented level of international interest in and enthusiasm for the U.S. election contest now underway. In particular, the prospect that Barack Obama might emerge as the next U.S. President has captured the imagination of foreign audiences in a remarkable way, as many of the posts on this blog illustrate.

But what if Obama does not win? What if John McCain, after all, in a free and fair election, is the popular choice? Richard Cohen's recent article in the International Herald Tribune reminds us that McCain, too, has his supporters overseas. McCain's Los Angeles World Affairs Council speech included an eloquent call for dialogue with countries and peoples around the world that is fairly unusual for Washington these days. Might McCain — and the U.S. — be given the benefit of the doubt if Americans should turn to him to find a way forward on Iraq and other problems?

There are a number of indicators that suggest this might indeed be the case.

First, most anti-Americanism is focused on the person of George W. Bush. Any new U.S. President who promises a new spirit of cooperation with the world will be listened to.

(The only major country where McCain's rise would evoke an immediate, negative response is probably Russia. McCain has been particularly scornful of Putin and it appears that Putin is likely to remain Russia's most influential political figure.)

Second, even if McCain wins the Presidency, it is highly likely that Democrats will control both Houses of Congress, probably with majorities sufficient to override Presidential vetoes. The only way for him to govern effectively will be through a more bipartisan approach — including foreign policy.

Third, McCain has distanced himself from the Bush Administration on climate change. The Bush Administration's refusal to take a leadership role internationally on this issue has been exceptionally damaging to perceptions of the United States.
Fourth, the challenge of dealing with the war in Iraq will force McCain toward greater realism and multilateralism in dealing with other world trouble spots.

Finally, it appears that whoever becomes the next U.S. President will begin to restore America's public diplomacy programs overseas. All three candidates — including McCain — have remarked repeatedly on the decline of American international prestige and the need to do something about it. Public diplomacy programs such as the ones now conducted by the U.S. State Department can't reverse the trend alone, but are overdue for more support and will likely get it.

America's marathon electoral process — contentious, expensive, but ultimately public and democratic — is the first step in repairing the U.S. image overseas. The steps that follow will depend on who is elected the 44th President. But any one of the three candidates, based on their campaigns and actions so far, stands a good chance of enjoying the world's support at the outset.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy