The Magazine

The Picture of America

To see ourselves as others see us, diplomatically.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Martha Bayles, one of the great unsung critics of the baby boom generation, has written a book that is unusual for her. This is a brisk, how-policy-has-gone-wrong-and-what-to-do-about-it book, which conceals in its pages something more: a brilliant and courageous meditation on the difficulty of communication between modern and traditional societies. These difficulties, in turn, suggest that the values we regard as universally desirable may not be universal, or even desirable—and we certainly aren’t living by them. 

Louis Armstrong arrives in Milan on a USIA tour (1959).

Louis Armstrong arrives in Milan on a USIA tour (1959).

everett collection / mondadori portfolio / mario carrieri

The argument is simply told. Public diplomacy is vital to American foreign policy. It wins us friends in the world, explains our ideals to skeptical foreign audiences, and shows that we are serious about those ideals. Ever since the United States entered World War I, we’ve conducted public diplomacy with varying levels of finesse, funding, and commitment. 

Unfortunately, funding and commitment withered away with the passing of the Soviet Union. The Clinton administration, in its first term, proposed cutting the budget for Radio Free Europe. In 1999, the United States Information Agency (USIA) was shuttered altogether by legislation designed by Senator Jesse Helms, Vice President Al Gore, future vice president Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The act distributed the functions of USIA, like fragments of Orpheus’ body, among lower-level officials.  

Martha Bayles’s argument is that defunding public diplomacy in the 1990s didn’t halt our image-making activity; it merely privatized it: “The entertainment industry [took] over the job of communicating America’s policies, ideals, and culture to a distrustful world.” But the entertainment industry had changed since the 1940s and ’50s, when it had worked hand-in-hand with Washington to produce an image of America that was noble, heroic, and disinterested. 

Communications technology has changed from broadcast to satellite to Internet, and the post-USSR target audience has changed as well. It is located in different countries and has different problems. What’s happened in Hollywood is obvious. The creative output of America’s movie studios and television producers is of dismal quality: vulgar, sexualized, and violent. When it has a political message, it is usually anti-American; when it doesn’t, it is casually cynical about the motives and honesty of people in business, government, science, and journalism. 

The entertainment industry doesn’t necessarily intend to broadcast an image of American society that is devoid of culture, faith, and morality, and inhabited by deracinated, materialistic hedonists. But allowing the entertainment business to assume the job of communicating our image to the world has been a disaster for foreign policy. When a president speaks about freedom, Martha Bayles asks, what does it suggest to a foreign public? “The political wisdom of the American Framers? The giddy personal freedom expressed in a movie like Convoy?” That was a late Sam Peckinpah CB/trucker/road-revenge film that happened to be the first American movie the Communist party permitted into China in 1978—and it was a huge success.

American image-making was once a scarcity: Voice of America broadcasts had to evade jamming to reach their listeners—neighbors could denounce neighbors for listening—and Levi’s and 45 RPM records sold at black-market prices. But technology and private enterprise have made it a drug on the market. Each episode of Friends—which Bayles finds epitomizes American civilization in the eyes of the world—has been seen 17 billion times, counting illegal downloads and DVDs. A taxi driver in Warsaw teases a professor of American culture: “A contradiction in terms!”

 In the 1950s, George Kennan joked that, because the United States had no ministry of culture, the job fell to the CIA. Dwight Eisenhower had no André Malraux at his side, but we did send cultural assets abroad: Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn. Americans have always had an uneasy feeling about highbrow culture—and pop culture as well. Art historians have been lecturing about Abstract Expressionism as a Cold War weapon since I was in graduate school, but Harry Truman nixed an exhibition of American painting that would have brought Jacob Lawrence to Europe as too advanced. When Ronald Reagan appointed Charles Z. Wick to head the USIA, an old hand declared that no one who had once been an arranger for Fred Waring should ever hold that post.