Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has reportedly penned a "searing critique" of efforts to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world via "strategic communication." According to the New York Times, Mullen argues that "we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate."
Sounds right to me. Like most great powers, and especially dominant ones, the United States tends to believe that its motives are pure, that its noble aims are apparent to all, and that other peoples ought to be grateful for its self-less assistance. (Never mind that U.S. foreign policy is mostly driven by perceived self-interest, even if we don't like to admit it to ourselves). If people overseas are mad at us, this must be due to a some sort of misunderstanding. If we just explained it to them a little better, they would support whatever it is we are doing, even if it involves reorganizing their way of life, helping select who runs their country, supporting various allies even when they are mis-behaving, or sending Predators or cruise missiles from afar to blow up suspected terrorist sites on their soil. And if anti-Americanism isn't just a misunderstanding, it is because some misguided people "hate our values." Whatever it is, it's never our fault.
To his credit, Mullen appears to be acknowledging that U.S. actions really do have consequences--including negative consequences--and maybe we ought to think about them differently. This isn't the first time that the Pentagon has said smart things about the sources of anti-Americanism, by the way. A 1997 study by the Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States," and a 2004 DSB study on strategic communication concluded that "Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom," but rather they hate our policies." It also observed that in the eyes of the Muslim world, the "American occupation of Aghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering." The Pew Global Attitudes Survey reached a similar conclusion in 2002, observing that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically."
Of course, one can still debate whether a given policy is the right one or not; sometimes policies that are in the U.S. interest will annoy or anger other people. That's just life in the international system: conflicts of interest inevitably arise and foreign policy isn't a popularity contest. Given America's privileged position, however, one of our main foreign policy goals should be to try to minimize the amount of global irritation we face, and to go to some lengths to make sure we don't generate antipathy unnecessarily.
The key point to bear in mind is that there are real limits to America's ability to improve its global image simply by improved "messaging," "spin," or even by electing a black President. And there's an important lesson there for Obama, whose rise to power was elevated in good part by his remarkable communications skills. The lesson is that an eloquent, learned, and well-delivered speech-like the one he gave in Cairo--is just a first step, and the effects wear off quickly. To bring about genuine change, lofty rhetoric needs to be accompanied by policies that will actually address the legitimate concerns and grievances of his listeners. You know the old line: talk is cheap. And here's another old saw: actions speak louder than words.
In the end, what will matter to people around the world is what the United States actually does with its vast power at its disposal. If it is seen as both competent and committed to morally defensible aims and broadly benevolent purposes, it is likely to be viewed as a positive force by most people (though the sheer magnitude of U.S. power will still make many nervous, and there will always be some who cannot be won over). If it is seen as bumbling, venal, cruel, or deeply hypocritical, however, then no amount of clever packaging is going to fool the world for long.
P.S. Mullen's article is due to be released today in Joint Forces Quarterly. It wasn't on-line when I was writing this, so my discussion is based solely on the Times story. I'll read the article as soon as it's available, and will let you know if my thinking changes after I read the whole thing.
(Editor's note: Mullen's article is now available on ForeignPolicy.com)
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.