In 2005, Karen Hughes became George W. Bush’s undersecretary of public diplomacy. Her charge, both poorly defined and ill-timed, was to improve America’s international image in the years after the country had launched two wars. Other countries will side with us and do what we want if only we better explain our point of view, the thinking went, and make them see us as we see ourselves. By the time Hughes left office in 2007, international opinion of the U.S. was no higher than it was when she arrived, according to polls.
And yet, this kind of if-we-say-it-clearly-enough-they-will-listen diplomacy is not exclusive to the Bush administration. It has carried over into the Obama White House. So when an Obama administration official says that Washington welcomes a “strong, responsible, and prosperous China” that plays a “constructive” role in regional and global institutions, Chinese officials are left to wonder who gets to decide what the words “responsible” and “constructive” mean for China’s foreign policy. Responsible and constructive for whom?
And when senior U.S. officials describe their relationship with Iran as “marked by open hostilities since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran,” they are insulting the intelligence of the men they’ve been negotiating with. From the Iranian perspective, bad relations with the U.S. didn’t begin in 1979. They started back in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy, led a CIA-backed coup to remove an Iranian prime minister — proving that Americans would violate Iran’s sovereignty to ensure its favored politician ruled the country.
This dissonance between what’s presented and what’s perceived is a problem, especially in a new world order that lacks order. More than ever, the U.S. needs help and cooperation from other countries to manage challenges like Syria, Libya, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but its diplomacy is outdated. Americans have never been willing to understand how their actions are received by others and to accept the consequences of those actions. The country was once powerful enough to get away with that myopia. It’s not anymore.
Take, for example, the repeated suggestion that China become a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics, a phrase made famous by then-Deputy Secretary of State (later World Bank President) Robert Zoellick during the Bush years. The Obama administration has embraced this view — but Beijing sees itself differently. Beijing wants international institutions capable of seeing the world from a Chinese point of view. It feels like it’s in a different position than the U.S., still radically poor per capita and therefore not responsible for expensive heavy-lifting in the world at large, as we saw last week with its meager response to Typhoon Haiyan. When the U.S. demands that China behave like the superpower it’s becoming, it fails to recognize how China regards itself.