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Did US Public Diplomacy After 9/11 Actually Work?

- July 23, 2009

bq. Have U.S. public diplomacy efforts during the post-9/11 period successfully improved foreign publics’ appraisals of U.S. foreign policy? We examine this question by estimating the effects of U.S. high-level visits to foreign countries on public opinion in those countries…we show that the effects of such visits were initially significantly large and positive, but weakened once the war in Iraq began and international media started reporting negative aspects of the ‘‘war on terror.’’ Most interestingly, we find some evidence that high-level visits eventually exhibited a backlash effect.

That is from this new paper by Benjamin Goldsmith and Yusaku Horiuchi (gated; ungated). The data come from surveys in 61 countries conducted between September 11, 2001 and 2006, each of which asked questions about how respondents viewed the US. Goldsmith and Horiuchi then determine whether respondents surveyed in the wake of a high-level visit from American officials had more positive or negative views of the US.

Right after September 11th, public diplomacy worked. Compared to respondents in countries with no visit, respondents in countries who had just experienced a high-level visit gave 8% more positive responses and 16% fewer negative responses when asked their opinions of the US.

In the period between the beginning of the Iraq War and the Abu Ghraib scandal, high-level visits had no significant effect on positive responses but were associated with 17% _more_ negative responses.

After Abu Ghraib , high-level visits made responses made things even worse, driving down positive responses by 9 points and driving up negative responses by 20 points.

The lesson, say Goldsmith and Horiuchi, is that diplomacy depends on credibility:

bq. A U.S. leader perceived as credible abroad, even to the somewhat limited extent that this was so for George W. Bush or Colin Powell before March 2003, can have a substantial impact on public opinion about the United States and its foreign policy in the country he or she visits. As that credibility is diminished, however, our findings clearly show a loss of influence and indicate the potential for negative backlash.

In my own words: it’s hard for sweet talk to overcome an unpopular reality, which is what the Iraq War and certainly Abu Ghraib (inter alia) were in many other countries.