Selling America

A year ago, then United States National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced that, “We are engaged primarily in a war of ideas, not of armies.” She was right, but it is a war that the US is losing, because it is regularly out-flanked by Al-Qaeda.

Rising anti-Americanism around the world threatens to deprive the US of the soft or attractive power that it needs to succeed in the struggle against terrorism. As Iraq has shown, hard military power alone cannot provide a solution. Poll after poll confirms that America’s soft power has declined, particularly in the Islamic world. Even in supposedly friendly countries like Jordan and Pakistan, more people say they trust Osama Bin Laden than George Bush.

Information is power, and today a much larger part of the world’s population has access to it. Long gone are the days when US Foreign Service officers drove Jeeps to remote regions of the Third World to show reel-to-reel movies to isolated villagers. Technological advances have led to an information explosion, and publics have become more sensitized to propaganda. The world is awash in information, some of it accurate, some misleading.

As a result, politics has become a contest about credibility. Whereas the world of traditional power politics is typically defined by whose military or economy wins, politics in an information age is about whose story wins. Governments compete with each other and with other organizations to enhance their own credibility and weaken that of their opponents. Unfortunately, the US government has not kept up.