When a CIA-planned drone attack kills a Pakistani child and when US troops stand by while museums in Iraq are looted of its national treasures, backlash on the United States' image follows. Instead of being looked at as the harbinger of freedom and democracy, the country is often seen as the root of all problems.
What measures can be used to reverse the perception of the United States as a bully in the Middle Eastern region?
A symposium held Thursday and Friday arranged by students in the public diplomacy graduate program aimed to tackle that question. The symposium, titled "Building Bridges: The tools of public diplomacy," invited noted experts to flesh out how the tools of public diplomacy, such as fine arts, humanitarian aid, international media and public relations, can shorten the gap of cultural understanding between the United States and Middle Eastern countries.
Michael Otterman, freelance journalist and author, spoke about how humanitarian aid is often militarized. Building schools and hospitals in Afghanistan may win more favor than providing weapons to its army, he said. Tangibility is key, and the Afghans need to know that the American people still care. For example, Otterman pointed to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and how the donations of the American people changed the way the United States was viewed for a brief period of time.
Critics argue that Pakistan receives huge amounts of military aid from the United States, but Otterman said that is a prime example of the militarization of humanitarian aid. A school in a village is more beneficial to the local community than weapons that they will never see, use or have any use for, he said.
Richard Roth, CNN’s senior international correspondent to the United Nations, said the the cultural divide is lengthened by American's failing to realize that the common man in Pakistan and Afghanistan worries about getting food on the table and educating his children before he worries about the political workings of the region.
The international media panel spoke - at some points bickering - over the message the United Stated inadvertently sends out when its representatives to foreign countries appear on foreign news channels and speak in broken Arabic or evade questions. Osama Khalil, assistant professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University said, "you should respect your audience," and as such get to know the local people.
Khalil said though it may be easy to disparage Al Jazeera, an Arabic news channel that serves the Middle East, it is a voice that millions of Arabs trust and listen to. Instead of labeling the network as evil, the United States should be listening and trying to understand the mood on the ground level in Arab states and act accordingly, he said.
Khalil and Roth brought up the prevailing interests of the American youth, and how Snookie from the Jersey Shore was more entertaining and popular for people to watch than the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The disconnect that the American people have is "their own choice," Khalil said. Roth agreed and said all the material is out there but "it's up to the consumers to go and look for it."
"People should have their meat and potatoes and then for dessert watch some entertainment shows," Roth said.
The power of public diplomacy, or "soft power, that wins the hearts and minds of people," as Meghan O’Keefe, a program officer at public health consulting firm John Snow, Inc., said, will always be debated and argued. But the symposium opened up channels of communication between experts in the field and students.
Mike Mclean, a public diplomacy graduate student, said he believes symposiums such as this open up the eyes of the student body and show the limitless possibilities and power of public diplomacy.
"I think the United States needs to show people that we still believe in our values of freedom and respect for the people," he said. "We seem to have forgotten these values. We have lost focus of the important thing - communication and understanding is the key to building better relations."