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Substituting Storytelling for Foreign Policy

Peter Beinart flagged a telling quote from Hillary Clinton’s interview on the Daily Show last week:

What I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world—especially young people—they had no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning, that was just ancient history. They didn’t know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it. We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world.

Beinart commented incredulously:

As a vision for America’s relations with the world, this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing. It’s true that young people overseas don’t remember the Cold War. But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be inspired by America’s “great story about [promoting] human freedom, human rights, human opportunity.” That’s because in the developing world—where most of humanity lives—barely anyone believes that American foreign policy during the Cold War actually promoted those things. What they mostly remember is that in anticommunism’s name, from Pakistan to Guatemala to Iran to Congo, America funded dictators and fueled civil wars.

That’s a perfectly fair point, but Clinton’s error goes beyond feigning ignorance about what the U.S. did during the Cold War and how other nations view those actions. Her emphasis is entirely on rhetoric and messaging, as if other nations weren’t buying “our story” because we haven’t been telling it to them often enough or in the right way. This reminds me of the Bush administration’s dubious efforts to promote U.S. foreign policy by way of spin-doctoring by Karen Hughes. Leon Hadar wrote about the multiple failures of this venture back in 2005:

Indeed, as the famed marketing guru made clear in his workshop, “You can’t sell a soap that doesn’t wash.” Or to apply that overused cliché, “It’s the policy, stupid.” Sworn in early in September, Hughes became the latest top official charged with repairing a U.S. image abroad soured by the war in Iraq and complaints in Europe and the Middle East over Bush’s policies and leadership. In fact, she is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this position since 9/11—more proof that what the White House needs is not another Madison Avenue PR executive or K Street spinmeister. Hughes’s predecessors—Charlotte Beers, a successful advertising hand who helped produce a pathetic propaganda film targeted at Muslim audiences, and Margaret Tutwiler, Secretary of State James Baker’s impressive spokeswoman, were driven out of office not because they couldn’t get a handle on the mechanisms of public diplomacy as a way of fostering goodwill toward the United States and its culture and values.

The assumption behind those efforts and Clinton’s remarks is that the world just needs to hear “our story” told accurately, and their view of how the U.S. conducts itself around the world would quickly improve. There’s a vague belief that the U.S. needs to communicate with foreign publics, but there is absolutely no idea how to go about combating anti-American sentiment because there is such a poor understanding of the causes of that sentiment. Changing the substance of policies is never seriously considered, because there is little or no recognition that these policies need correction or reversal. This takes for granted that opposition to U.S. policies is mostly the product of misunderstanding or miscommunication rather than an expression of genuinely divergent interests and grievances. I don’t know that Clinton is naive or oblivious enough to believe this (I doubt it), but it’s instructive that she thinks this is a good argument to make publicly. She is more or less saying that there is nothing wrong with U.S. foreign policy that can’t be fixed by better marketing and salesmanship, and that’s just profoundly wrong. It’s also what we should expect from someone as conventionally hawkish and “centrist” on foreign policy as Clinton is.

Another curious omission in that quote is the complete neglect of the last twenty years of U.S. policies overseas. Clinton tells us what people in around the world think of as “ancient history,” but fails to mention the impression that more recent U.S. actions abroad have made on public opinion in other countries. If she had, she would have to acknowledge that U.S. activism around the world over the last two decades has produced much of the resentment and resistance against America that we see today, and that the things that people in many nations remember best about U.S. foreign policy from recent years reflects very poorly on us. That’s not because we haven’t been telling “our story” to anyone who will listen, but that U.S. policies have been causing harm in many parts of the world to the point where large numbers of people in many nations no longer care about or believe what our government has to say.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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