Shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a delegation of high-level media executives, including the heads of every major studio, met several times with White House officials, including at least once with US President George W. Bush’s former top strategist, Karl Rove, to discuss ways that the entertainment industry could play a part in improving the image of the US overseas.
One of the central ideas was using “soft power” by spreading US television and movies to foreign audiences, especially in the Muslim world, to help sway public opinion.
There were few tangible results from the meetings — lesser ways of supporting the war on terrorism like public service announcements and packages of free DVDs sent to US soldiers.
But since then, the media companies have gotten what they wanted, even if the White House has not. In the last eight years, US pop culture, already popular, has boomed around the globe while opinions of the US itself have soured.
The television program CSI is more popular in France than in the US. Hollywood movies routinely sell far more tickets overseas than at home. A Russian remake of the TV show Married With Children has been so popular that Sony, the producer of the show, has hired back the original writers to produce new scripts for Russia. Even in the Muslim world, US pop culture has spread.
But so far, cultural popularity has not translated into new friends. The latest data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released in June, shows that the image of the US remained negative in the 24 countries in which Pew conducted surveys (although in 10 of those the favorability rating of the US edged up slightly).
Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the phrase “soft power” in 1989 to refer to the ways beyond military muscle that the US influences the world, said that “what’s interesting about the last eight years is that polls show a decline in American attractiveness.”
He added: “But then you ask the follow-up questions and you see that American culture remains attractive, that American values remain attractive. Which is the opposite of what the president has said — that they hate us for who we are and what we believe in.”
Jeffrey Schlesinger, the head of international television at Warner Brothers, had a simpler explanation for the popularity of US entertainment: “Batman is Batman, regardless of if Bush is in the White House or not,” he said.
And Batman will still be Batman with US president-elect Barack Obama in the White House. The issue of the US’ image abroad was a campaign platform for the president-elect, who said in a foreign policy speech in April, “We all know that these are not the best of times for America’s reputation in the world.”
With the curtain closing on the Bush presidency, pollsters are left to wonder about the long-term effects on the US’ standing. Steven Kull, the director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, said that before the election, his data suggested a slight improvement in the US’ image abroad after a long decline.
“It’s turned a corner, but it’s not anywhere near positive territory,” he said.
Kull says he was surprised to find that in pre-election polling, less than half of those polled in 22 foreign countries — 46 percent — said relations between the US and the world would improve if Obama became president.