Foreign Policy Program

Getting America’s Message Out to a Skeptical World
by Michael C. Polt, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States*
Almost universally, people around the world discount much of what is said in the course of political campaigns as much as they view with skepticism any government’s official proclamations of its accomplishments, goals or even motivations. For America’s leadership and our diplomats, once our election is over this year and CNN has changed its colorful sets to post-electoral coverage, this global popular skepticism presents both an ongoing challenge and a new opportunity that must not be missed. Getting America’s message out with credibility to foreign audiences makes public diplomacy as important a challenge as any we face on our foreign policy agenda. To meet this challenge and succeed, on January 21, 2009, we have to have meat on the bones of a new Administration’s agenda as soon as the newly elected president finishes the oath of office. In the past, after the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, after declaring victory in the Cold War, and certainly still before 9/11, we were known as a nation of optimists. We did not mind being called naïve or even cockeyed, since we considered many of our critics to be worriers, paralyzed by the fear of failure, rather than energized by the belief in success. Over the past three decades, displayed on my office wall during my missions at vari*

Summary: As the world continues to be intrigued by the U.S. electoral process, getting the American message out to its foreign audiences in a credible manner will be one of the most important agenda items and the toughest challenges for the new U.S. administration in January 2009. When most political rhetoric is viewed with skepticism, a new American leadership needs to be out front creating new realities that match the verbal commitment to take on a full range of global issues from security to the environment. With a pioneering foreign and domestic policy and a strong diplomatic service, the United States is uniquely positioned to take on this public diplomacy challenge.

ous U.S. Embassies around the world, two pictures were hung as constant reminders of the contrasting “American” world vision, and what I would call the “Lil Abner” view, from the famous cartoon strip that included a character with a personal dark cloud hanging over his head. The pictures are the front covers of the British periodical The Economist and the German newspaper Der Spiegel, both depicting the horrifying January 1986 explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger.” Their headlines read: “It’s still worth it” on The Economist and “The shattered dream” on Der Spiegel. Today, Americans fear their dreams are shattered rather than project a grim determination to forge ahead. With the war in Iraq, the threat of a nuclear Iran and North Korea, a home mortgage crisis and consumer credit crunch, recordhigh energy prices, fear of an economic recession, and a declining dollar, what average citizen wouldn’t be rightfully worried? What politician wouldn’t dollop out reassuring patriotic messages of America’s greatness to reassure the electorate? In fairness to all of us, we are desperately seeking reasons for not becoming that character in Lil Abner. We look for hope and inspiration in every political speech, no matter by what political candidate or from what end of the political spectrum. We want

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Foreign Policy Program

to be pre- 9/11 Americans again. And as we try, as a people, to convince ourselves of faith in the future, we must, as diplomats, prepare to convince others outside our country that we are still the Americans they once looked to for reassurance of the possible rather than confirmation of the impossible. an ever-increasing public enterprise. We should be better at that than anyone else. With a pioneering foreign and domestic policy and a strong diplomatic service, we are.

“The United States must be out front in creating new realities on the full range of global issues from global security to global warming.”
So how do we convince ourselves and others? First of all, we must realize that since hype does not convince us, neither will it convince others around the world. We have to believe before the rest of the world can believe. Second, it is as important to count honestly our problems as well as our blessings. We have to move beyond hoping, coping, persevering, protecting, or even fixing, and focus and talk about looking beyond current problems and charting future progress. Progress along the lines of, “a giant leap for mankind” for our first step on the moon or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In both cases, the ideas came from America; the achievements were the world’s. In both cases, there were doubts whether such goals were achievable and arguments that America had more important domestic issues to deal with than walking on the moon or tilting at “Iron Curtain” windmills. But a vision of progress needs not only a slogan. It needs substance. The United States must be out front in creating new realities on the full range of global issues from global security to global warming. As the current U.S. administration seeks to complete its agenda and prospective transition teams start to polish their position papers, our foreign policy professionals continue to translate American can-do enthusiasm and concrete plans into the nearly 7,000 languages of the world, literally and figuratively. Armed with both vision and substance, our President, our Secretary of State, and our diplomats are able not only to inspire enthusiasm for the American vision, but gain confidence in American leadership around the world. The rest is diplomatic tradecraft and the irreplaceable element of human interaction. We need our diplomats outside the highly secured fences of our diplomatic compounds and we need more of them, as President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have asked for in their newest budget requests for the U.S. State Department. Diplomacy, despite its necessary elements of confidentiality, is

Michael C. Polt, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF
Ambassador Michael Polt joins GMF, on loan from the U.S. Department of State where he most recently served for three years as Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia. He is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service of the United States and served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs prior to his posting in Serbia. He has also served as U.S. Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany and Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland. He served as senior advisor to the Director General of the Foreign Service for Management Reform and was a key member of the Senior Management Steering Board directing the State Department’s 2003-2005 multi-million dollar reinvention of its Diplomatic Communications System. He has also previously been assigned to Embassies in Bonn, Mexico City, and Copenhagen, as well as the U.S. Consulate in Bremen, Germany. He received a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Tennessee. Ambassador Polt is the recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Service Award and numerous Department of State Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards for Outstanding Policy Leadership, Management, Crisis Performance, and Political Analysis. He has been awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award for Service to U.S. Citizens Overseas by American Citizens Abroad.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between the United States and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.


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