Sunday, September 11, 2005

One would think that better times are ahead for those of us Germans that still refuse to hate the United States. After all, Karen Hughes is finally on the job as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and a new U.S. ambassador has just arrived in Germany. Surely, the new “propaganda czar” paired with a fresh pair of boots on the ground in Berlin will help to win back at least a few stubbornly skeptical Germans, right? Unfortunately, I doubt it.

For one thing Mrs. Hughes has other priorities. Her focus will be on winning over the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world. But I hope she remembers that it was the hostile hearts and minds of (old) European voters that cost the United States a considerable amount of potential international support and legitimacy in recent years. Public-opinion trends in Germany, once a stalwart ally, should be a particular concern in future U.S. public-diplomacy efforts.

A quick reminder of how things stand here: A poll presented this week by the German Marshall Fund finds that a majority of Germans continues to have an unfavorable view of the United States. In fact, China stands in higher regard, according to a Pew poll from earlier this year. Germans yearn for someone to rival the United States militarily, preferably the European Union. This might be due to the fact that they consider the United States a bigger “threat to world peace” than countries such as Iran and North Korea, as a EU study found in 2003. So, don’t count on us supporting German politicians that are openly friendly to you.

And don’t think that you can simply sit this out until 2008. No doubt, Germans will never love George W. Bush, due to his style and his policies.

But the erosion of trust in America will not automatically be reversed under a new U.S. government. In fact, the same Pew poll finds that, among Germans, the image of American people has worsened since 2002, independent of their views of Mr. Bush’s administration.

“If I had the opportunity to say just one thing to people throughout the world, it would be: I am eager to listen,” says Mrs. Hughes. Good idea. She will discover that America-friendly voices are practically drowned out in the German public debate.

To get an impression, take a look at David’s Medienkritik, a Web log in English dedicated, among other things, to exposing biased reporting on the United States in the German media. Be it stories about the war in Iraq, the conduct of U.S. soldiers abroad, American reservations regarding the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court or even the Katrina disaster, more often than not the German public is presented with a distorted picture. There are laudable exceptions. But generally the blows are low, and the public is left to form its opinion base on half-truths and false analyses.

Faced with such a hostile environment, surely the president is sending his most apt campaigner to the arena? Enter William R. Timken, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany. His appointment is a reward for generous contributions to Mr. Bush’s presidential campaigns. We are not fond of this fact, but we understand that this is a long-standing tradition and part of the American system.

However, in today’s fast-paced battle of information and ideas this is a practice the United States can no longer afford. As the natural focus point for the media, the ambassador should be thrown into the public debate. But Mr. Timken is a successful businessman, not a proven intellectual combatant. He does not speak German. I fear he is likely to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, who, as far as I am aware, never appeared on Germany’s most popular political talk show reaching a weekly audience of five million. What a wasted opportunity.

The German case is symptomatic for failure on a greater scale. At a time where its foreign policy lacks the legitimacy that a broad coalition of democracies could provide, the American contribution to fostering pro-American sentiment is feeble.

Granted, some policies can never be made palatable, and some might not deserve the effort. But arguably it wouldn’t take much to make a difference. For a start, consider taking the campaign abroad as seriously as your campaigns at home. Look for ways to explain U.S. policies in our language and in a style that resonates positively over here. In the meantime, give it your best shot, Mr. Timken. I hope you surprise me.

Julian Knapp is a senior program officer and transatlantic affairs analyst at the Aspen Institute Berlin

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