Sunday, October 11th 2015
“The American dream has always been global. In 1931, when the historian James Truslow Adams first introduced the concept, he credited the dream with having ‘lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores.’ Yet in recent years, a troubling gap has developed between this original dream and a new one that speaks far less eloquently to the rest of the world.” This observation framed Martha Bayles’ October 10, 2015, essay, “How the World Perceives the New American Dream,” in theatlantic.com. Bayles is a member of the Public Diplomacy Council who teaches at Boston College. Her most recent book is Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad.
Public Diplomacy officers are in the full-time business of explaining American society and social trends to those they meet overseas, and Professor Bayles’ essay can provide grist for many conversations – especially since so many current Presidential campaign hopefuls speak of “the American dream” in their campaigns.
Bayles’ essay also used the lens of “the American dream” to discuss changes in America’s Public Diplomacy:
A recent poll commissioned by The Atlantic found that, while Americans are feeling quite optimistic about their own lives, that optimism does not extend to the American dream. Indeed, the poll found that a large majority is losing faith in it. This, too, is dangerous, because if these Americans now feel weary and mistrustful of the dream, they will not make the necessary effort to share it with others.
During the Cold War, the U.S. government invested substantial resources in “public diplomacy,” a term that covered a host of overseas activities — from libraries to lecture tours, art exhibits to world’s-fair-style expositions, international visitor programs to radio and TV broadcasts meant to undermine Soviet censorship. As conducted by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations, these activities sought to convey what President Harry Truman called “a full and fair picture” of American history, culture, society, and political institutions — including the American dream as experienced by generations of immigrants.
Today, this form of diplomacy is sometimes dismissed as propaganda. But that is unfair. Having witnessed the extreme propaganda emanating from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the men and women who crafted America’s Cold War public diplomacy generally knew the difference between outright lies and truthful attempts at persuasion.
But then, amid the triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, public diplomacy was judged obsolete. Between 1993 and 2001, funding for the U.S. government’s cultural and educational exchange programs was cut by more than a third, from $349 million to $232 million (adjusted for inflation). Overseas, this meant the closing of libraries and cultural centers that had long served as meeting places and free-speech zones. In 1999, the USIA was dismantled and its activities scattered throughout the State Department.
After the Cold War, authoritarian leaders began separating the American dream’s strand of prosperity, which they wanted, from the strands of democracy and freedom, which they did not.
With hindsight these cuts seem unwise because, contrary to certain predictions made in the 1990s, the whole world did not rush to embrace the American dream. Indeed, during this same period, a new breed of authoritarian leaders — exemplified by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping in China, and (later) Vladimir Putin in Russia — were busy separating the strand of prosperity, which they wanted, from the strands of democracy and freedom, which they most assuredly did not want. Today, almost all of these regimes are increasingly corrupt and repressive. But at the turn of the 21st century, the new authoritarian model was looking pretty good.
Then came the 9/11 attacks and America’s disastrous, costly attempts to impose democracy by force on Afghanistan and Iraq. These military efforts were accompanied by numerous studies calling for a new public diplomacy fitted to the challenges of the new century. But these calls have not been satisfactorily answered. So far, the U.S. government’s main innovation has been to deploy social media—something America’s enemies do just as well, or better, than the U.S. government. This in a world flooded with sophisticated Chinese, Russian, and violent jihadist propaganda, where it is more important than ever to reaffirm all three strands of the American dream.
Here we encounter a challenge rarely acknowledged in the debate over public diplomacy. The post-Cold War spending cuts left a vacuum, which was quickly filled by America’s most successful export: commercial entertainment. Everywhere in the world, people view the United States through some kind of screen, whether a big one in a movie theater or a small one in a television or computer. And what appears on those screens has the power to shape foreign opinion of the American dream and what it stands for.
This does not bother most Americans because, after all, jazz, rock and roll, and Hollywood films played a positive role in the Cold War “battle for hearts and minds.” Plus, the export of popular culture imposes no burden on the taxpayer — indeed, it makes a hefty profit. Ever since World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson described film as “a universal language [that] lends itself importantly to the presentation of America’s plans and purposes,” the export of popular culture has been considered both good business and good public diplomacy.
But is that still true?