US Public Diplomacy: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Muslims

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US Public Diplomacy: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Muslims

Two key developments took place last week which may have direct bearing on the future of our relationship with the Muslim world. The first was a poll released by the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, indicating a dramatic drop in Arab support for President Obama’s foreign policy. The second was an announcement by Senator John Kerry, introducing legislation to create a two-way professional exchange program between the US and Muslim-majority countries.  The future of our relationship with the Muslim world is likely to be impacted for years to come depending on which of the two sentiments prevail.

The 2010 Arab Public Opinion survey, conducted by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland in collaboration with Zogby International found that Arabs are growing increasingly wary of President Obama’s policies in the region. This is a significant shift among Arabs and Muslims who overwhelming supported the president after his monumental speeches in Ankara and Cairo. A key finding in the annual survey of 3,976 people in six countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, found that while early in the Obama administration, more than half (51%) of those polled expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East; the poll taken last month, shows only 16% were hopeful, while a majority, 64%, were disappointed.

Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced his intention to introduce legislation to improve ties between the US and Muslim-majority countries through a two-way exchange of professional fellows. The legislation, known as the “International Professional Exchange Act of 2010” is intended to promote career development and cross-cultural understanding for young to mid-career professionals through a three year pilot program to help build professional capacity, strengthen civil society and contribute professional skills to local communities .

Senator Kerry urged his colleagues in the Senate to unanimously approve the historic legislation just as Senator J William Fulbright did in 1946, which led to the creation of the Fulbright Program. In his announcement Senator Kerry harkened back to that period by saying, “After World War II, leaders such as Senator J William Fulbright recognized the value of building bridges through academic exchanges. While the program began modestly in 1946, today some 300,000 men and women proudly call themselves ‘Fulbrighters’, including 40 Nobel Prize winners and 20 heads of state. The International Professional Exchange Act builds on the legacy of the Fulbright program by emphasizing the next step: exchange programs for young professionals.”

A major motivation for Kerry to push for an exchange program is that it reflects the importance of building “mutual understanding” between people from different cultures. The idea is premised on the notion that a greater appreciation of other points of view can only contribute to a reduction in sources of conflict and a belief that there are universally beneficial results from the interdependence of peoples and the interchange of ideas, goods, and services.

As the image of the United States plummeted across the globe and in particular in the Muslim world during the Bush administration, there was a similar effort to increase support for the Fulbright as a means to improve US public image abroad.  In its mission to win hearts and minds across the Muslim world, the US redoubled its commitment to the Fulbright Program by increasing the budget from $215 million in 2001 to nearly $255 million for which congressional appropriations for the US Department of States also increased from $113 million in 2001 to nearly $150 million in 2004. Yet despite these budget increases, the outlook for the future at least if one believes the 2010 Arab Public Opinion poll does not look good.

Senator Kerry’s desire to establish a Professional Exchange Program as part of the country’s public diplomacy effort is noble goal and should be commended. Yet the question is whether it will succeed in winning the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. In order to answer this question one should bear in mind that much of the hatred towards the US in most Muslim societies has less to do building understanding and much more to do with our foreign policy. As the author of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion poll concludes, the deciding factor in shift of opinion toward the U.S. is disappointment in Obama’s policy in the region in general and on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in particular. In this case, it is probably very unlikely that Senator Kerry’s initiative will have much long term impact.  Since any positive achievement from the exchange with the Muslim world would be severely curtailed by American misguided foreign policy. Kerry would be well advised that his exchange program is not likely to succeed, unless a reevaluation of US foreign policy is also incorporated into the mix.

Farid Senzai the founder and president of the Center for Global Policy. He is a fellow and the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), as well as an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University. 

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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