- The US global image has been deeply damaged by Trump and decades of skimping on diplomacy.
- In order to rebuild America’s image, the government needs to be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars.
- Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
International influence isn’t something that comes cheap – even when you’re a super power.
America’s badly blemished brand will only begin to get better if the government dedicates a massive amount of money to addressing the challenge. This is not even a one-billion-dollar problem. We are talking tens and probably even hundreds of billions. Despite the considerable price tag, it is both necessary and worth the extraordinary expense.
Rebuilding costs money
The US has long taken for granted its soft power. Because of the country’s economic dominance, educational excellence, and scientific successes, many argued America simply did not need to spend large sums to promote the country’s values policies abroad.
In fact, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the US shuttered many of the American cultural centers and libraries overseas, the government called it part of the “peace dividend” that was being returned to taxpayers.
The US normally spends about two billion dollars a year on public diplomacy programs. These range from government-sponsored international media channels like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe to foreign exchanges including the famous Fulbright scholarships. It also covers salaries for American diplomats and their staff to work at home and abroad in communications and cultural offices.
At this particularly perilous point for our nation, we desperately need a massive infusion of funds into our public diplomacy programs, increasing the budget to at least $10 billion per year. That would still be less than the cost of our newest aircraft carrier.
More military equipment will not return the respect we lost under President Donald Trump. In fact, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis put it, if State Department funds get cut, “then I need to buy more ammunition.”
Public diplomacy also happens to deliver dividends directly to the American worker, ensuring we can secure better trade conditions and fewer tariffs. Lastly, as the world has tragically witnessed in the past year, less pressure on China and other countries to deal with their own public health issues can have serious implications for our safety.
It’s time to put the money where America’s mouth is
I was shocked by how little money was available when I worked in our embassies as a press attaché and later ran the public affairs office.
When entertaining foreign officials, we would literally bake homemade cookies, because there wasn’t enough to pay for store bought pastries. Hours were spent searching through discounted books on Amazon, so we could stretch our bare bones budget. I even had to resort to asking family and friends for donations. This is a pretty pathetic way for the most powerful country in the world to manage its strategic promotion and persuasion programs.
Our international influence efforts have been stuck on autopilot for a while. The current budget, adjusted for inflation, is actually less than what we were spending in the early 1990s. This, despite the fact that the threats we are facing have multiplied and the policies our diplomats are asked to defend are much more unpopular in many more places.
I run a public relations firm now. If a client did not increase their budget for three decades, no matter what we did, the results would undoubtedly be disastrous for their corporate reputation. It would be malpractice for us to continue running those programs, expecting to have much of an impact, especially following multiple major crises.
President Barack Obama worked to increase funding for public diplomacy in his first year, but it again got cut as budgets tightened throughout his term.
President Joe Biden and most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill have railed against the damage done to the country’s standing on the world stage under former President Donald Trump. They’ve mentioned less the money it will take to rebuild our reputation. With the party in control of both the executive and legislative branches, now is the time to do something about the problem.
I continue to sadly believe that there is no restoring the United States to its former global glory. That does not negate the need to repair and try to rebuild America’s image and influence. Even a small amount of progress would pay big dividends. But, the public and our leaders have to be clear eyed about the considerable destruction done and more importantly what it will take to regain a modicum of the trust and credibility we used to enjoy.
It is time we finally started getting serious about protecting our national brand and promoting our foreign policy interests. Without a major infusion of new resources, we will remain badly out gunned on the global information battlefield. The sad, sorry state of our reputation and lack of respect for our country is truly a national emergency. It is one that merits being treated and funded as such.