BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last month, the President’s 2009 budget request included 395 million dollars to quote, “engage foreign audiences and win support for U.S. policy goals.” This continues the Bush administration’s trend of increased spending to influence hearts and minds abroad.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls consistently show America’s image abroad sinking to new lows. Twenty-three-year-old Washingtonpost.com correspondent Amar Bakshi has spent the past eight months exploring the rest of the world’s love/hate relationship with America for The Washington Post foreign affairs blog, PostGlobal.
His trip through Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America took him to night clubs, sporting events and mass protests to report on popular perceptions of the United States. AMAR BAKSHI: One problem that the United States has in terms of its public diplomacy efforts is it tries very hard to sell ideals that I think are already fairly popular – freedom, democracy, etc. – but have been corrupted by actions, for example, supporting Saudi Arabia or the kind of debacle going on in Iraq.
So more salesmanship I don’t think is what the United States needs. But, you know, on the bright side, I think what Karen Hughes did quite well was radically increased a number of exchange programs that U.S. students had with other countries, and encouraged even younger and younger elements of American society to go abroad.
So there is some good use that that spending’s being put to, but I think we need to reconceive how we’re doing public diplomacy so it’s more about dialog and less about branding and salesmanship. BOB GARFIELD: You and others have broken down anti-Americanism into four basic categories. Can you run through them for me, please? AMAR BAKSHI: Sure. There’s liberal, social, sovereign and radical. Liberal is Americans don’t live up to their own values. We support torture even though we say we don’t. You hear this a lot in England.
Social is Americans don’t take care of their poor. They’re too hyper-capitalist. And people will turn to Scandinavian democracies rather than American ones, because they say there’s a better social safety net.
Sovereign is, you know, America’s impinging upon our right to self-governance. You hear this from Zimbabwe to Venezuela as populist leaders try to drum up a foreign enemy to justify their strong rule.
And then radical is the toughest one to define, but it’s basically everything about America is antithetical to who you are and what you want to be. Islam is a cohesive way of life. America’s too afraid of it. Therefore it wages a war against Islam.
And I think the shift from the first three towards that final one are what we should be watching and be worried about. BOB GARFIELD: Now Amar, this may sound like a ridiculously naïve question, considering what-all has gone on for the last seven or eight years, but, you know, I am curious why so many Muslims around the world believe that America is at war with Islam itself.
We are, [LAUGHS] after all, in bed with many Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which practices an extremely conservative form of Wahhabi Islam, and we did dethrone Saddam Hussein, but we have installed a Shiite government, fundamentally, in his place. If this is a war against Islam, it’s a pretty selective one, no? AMAR BAKSHI: It often falls to the advantage of local leaders to play that card, to consolidate support. Then, you know, the media, small viral videos, websites, YouTube clips, show horrific pictures of young Afghan boys getting their private parts blown up. They circulate like wild among a lot of websites, even YouTube, until they’re taken down.
I think another reason is because they see America talking one thing and doing something, in their eyes, that looks very different, and so it opens up a lot of space for these alternate explanations. BOB GARFIELD: You also encountered quite a bit of affection for the United States, even among people who criticize it. AMAR BAKSHI: I think it’s our saving grace. What people always say is love/hate, and what they mean is love for, sort of, many of the ideals of Hollywood, what it represents.
If you look at Pakistan, a man I interviewed who’s a transvestite, on national TV, named Begum Nawazish Ali, has one of the biggest TV audiences in the country, grew up worshipping American pop culture, American rock ‘n roll in the ‘80s, while her parents in the military were with the ul-Haq and she had to hide her fascination under the covers and, you know, read and listen to music late at night.
But at the same time, she’s livid at the policies that robbed her of a free childhood. You get this always, especially with the older generations. I think something to watch is with the younger generations, where there’s a lot more cultural products to choose from. You get less of a love/hate relationship and more of the capacity to say, the U.S. has done very little good for us at all. BOB GARFIELD: So you’ve been around, 10 countries, four continents, I guess. What was the most surprising thing that you encountered? AMAR BAKSHI: I was always surprised by how far into the middle of nowhere I could go and get very visceral reactions to the United States. You know, really rural Philippines, where a woman would say, I feel like I’ve been raped by America, very graphic stuff.
What I found quite amazing was how much of this was pegged on much longer swaths of history. In the Philippines the presence of U.S. military bases, and the narratives of U.S. soldiers, a few of them, unfortunately, raping Filipino girls, you know, and it’s different in every country.
So while poll numbers often make it look like, you know, it’s all about Bush, the Iraq War, you know, certainly these things are true, but it was much more about catalyzing and crystallizing a whole variety of discontents that are very locally based.
And unless we understand and start addressing them, we will risk just washing on top of a phenomenon and never really getting at its roots. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Amar, thank you so much. AMAR BAKSHI: Thanks for having me, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Amar Bakshi’s recent project, How the World Sees America, was jointly published by The Washington Post and Newsweek Interactive’s foreign affairs blog, PostGlobal.