What Does the World Think of America?

Amar C. Bakshi, a producer and videographer with the Washington Post’s PostGlobal site, has just set out on a trip to the far corners of the world to chronicle “How the World Sees America.” Right now, he’s only gotten as far as Manchester, England, but the results so far — from a conversation with Prospect magazine founder David Goodhart about British anti-Americanism to a discussion with British college students about American patriotism — show the project has promise.

The germ of the idea came from Bakshi himself, according to the Post’s David Ignatius. An experience in a Zimbabwean prison in 2005 first got the 23-year-old Harvard graduate thinking about the world’s view of the United States, Bakshi writes on the project’s site:

In that African dictatorship I first experienced the downside to being an American, especially a curious one with a video camera asking too many questions about state propaganda. But that wasn’t all. During my five days in detention, the guards who harassed me with cookie-cutter anti-American rhetoric also treated me as an object of fascination, asking questions about American obesity, the White House, and Michael Moore.

Ignatius, who spoke with WPR this morning about the project, believes how the United States is viewed abroad is a “core national security issue” and one that should be a top priority for the next president. (In a March 14 column on the issue, Ignatius suggested Barack Obama might be up to the challenge, but he insists he’s “not in the business of endorsing candidates.”)

“I’ve never seen a period in which our country is held in lower esteem around the world,” says the well-traveled Ignatius. While much of the world still admires U.S. values, many “see us as not being faithful to our values.”

Foreign policy thinkers from across the political spectrum are worried about the U.S. image in the world, though their solutions differ. One much-talked-about measure is improving U.S. public diplomacy, which includes tools like government-funded broadcasting and other measures to communicate to foreign publics.

Ignatius says he’s suspicious of many proposals for bolstering U.S. public diplomacy. When advocates talk about “strategic communication” they usually mean “talking,” Ignatius said. But real communication entails listening, and right now the United States is “just not listening,” he added.

Do projects like PostGlobal’s “How the World Sees America” constitute journalism’s contribution to U.S. strategic communication efforts? “I would put it differently,” Ignatius said. “We’re not doing our job as journalists unless we’re out there listening to what the world says. It’s not so much that it’s a civic function, but it’s our job as journalists.”

We’ll be following Bakshi’s efforts, and of course continue doing our journalistic duty here at World Politics Review.

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