On Monday, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump selected Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state. As I've previously explained, Tillerson presided over an appalling reputation management strategy at the helm of Exxon. And if confirmed as the nation's chief diplomat, he will face a problem he won't be able to singlehandedly solve: The election of Donald Trump has damaged America's reputation around the globe.
The French newspaper Liberation has called Trump the "American nightmare." The German newspaper Der Spiegel characterized Trump's win as an abdication of America's leadership of the West. Mexico's La Jornada predicted that Trump will reverse 50 years of social progress. Canada's National Post described Trump's win as confirming that "America is a bedlam of partisan hysterics" and proposed that Canada therefore distance itself from the U.S.
Citizens around the globe agree. Just one percent of Greeks, four percent of Germans, and five percent of Swedes have confidence that, when it comes to world affairs, Trump will do the right thing.
Writing in Foreign Policy, the renowned Harvard Professor of International Affairs Stephen M. Walt warns that the damage Trump has done to America's reputation abroad "could be insurmountable." He's wrong. Despite whatever actions Trump may take, individual Americans can improve our country's standing in the world on our own.
According to Simon Anholt, one of the world's leading experts on country reputations, a government's policies are just one of six elements that influence a nation's reputation. America's brands, business climate, cultural products, the behavior of ordinary U.S. citizens, and the experiences of tourists also affect how our country is viewed abroad.
This means that citizens and groups besides Trump will have major influence over how the U.S. is perceived around the world over the next four years - and can counteract some of the damage done by the president.
One of the best ways for individuals and groups outside of the government to help restore America's reputation abroad is by organizing exchanges between U.S. citizens and their international counterparts. This is because, as former NATO information officer James Thomas Snyder notes, research shows that people who get to know individual Americans - or even have family and friends who know Americans - are more likely to like both Americans and America.
U.S. universities can send their students and professors abroad and invite foreign students and researchers to visit their campuses. Museums can organize interactions between artists and international exhibitions. Media organizations can initiate exchanges among journalists. Civil society groups can arrange contacts between activists.
Of course, these types of exchanges come with some risk. For example, University of Leiden professor Giles Scott-Smith notes that when the Egyptian civil servant Seyyed Qutb came to the U.S. to study our educational system, he found Americans to be immoral and grossly materialistic, and returned home to become a key voice in the Anti-American fundamentalist movement. However, such cases are rare.
Since people's impressions of America are profoundly influenced by their encounters with ordinary Americans, our country's reputation will also be improved if individual citizens treat locals with respect when they travel abroad and are friendly to the foreign tourists they encounter at home. "Americans take 60 million trips outside the U.S. a year," says Keith Reinhard, President of Business for Diplomatic Action. "Sixty million trips is 60 million chances to make an impression. And they can be good, or they can be bad."
The organization has published a guide with 25 tips for how Americans can represent our country well when traveling abroad. The first suggestion? Be humble. "In many countries, boasting is considered very rude," the guide explains. "When Americans meet each other for the first time, our job (and implied status) is a key part of 'who' we are, and how we introduce ourselves. This is less important elsewhere, and can be perceived as braggadocio."
Thanks to the Internet, international exchanges can also happen remotely - and on a shoestring. For example, after studying International Relations at New York University, Kayvon Afshari created The Mideast Show, a comedy program similar to The Daily Show which uses humor in an effort to promote understanding and bonds between people in the West and the Middle East.
The business community also has a huge role to play. Reinhard argues that American businesses should stop pretending to be global. "The goal should be dual citizenship - a company proud to be American and proud of its informed and respectful worldview," he says. "An American company that hides its national identity denies itself the opportunity to represent the best of American values to the world."
Reinhard says companies should also practice corporate social responsibility, provide cultural sensitivity training to their employees who interact with partners abroad, and educate employees on how America's standing in the world impacts their long-term business prospects.
Hollywood and Madison Avenue also play a leading role in our national reputation. (I once told a taxi driver in New Delhi that I was from New York. He informed me that he had been there many times, and then started naming all the movies he had seen that had taken him to Manhattan). So, for example, while Donald Trump has proposed banning Muslims from the country, Hollywood can tell the real-life stories of Americans who are offering their homes to Syrian refugees. While Mike Pence has argued that women don't have a place in the U.S. military, our cultural industries can highlight the powerful women - from Marissa Mayer to Nancy Pelosi - who are reshaping American business, politics, and society.
In fact, there is a growing recognition among public diplomacy scholars that exchanges initiated by ordinary people might be more effective at improving a country's reputation than official government initiatives. For example, one study of college students in five Arab nations found that the more they listened to Radio Sawa and Television Alhurra - U.S. government-run stations which broadcast the news from an American perspective - the less favorable their views towards the U.S. became.
The author of the study speculated that the reason for this was "the very knowledge of being manipulated, of knowing you are being manipulated, can really backfire."
As a result, over the past several decades, America's public diplomacy initiatives have moved from such forms of what is essentially propaganda to promoting greater exchanges between citizens of the U.S. and other nations. Often the State Department will hire outside organizations to manage such programs so that the government is seen as being at arm's length.
Thankfully, the government doesn't have a monopoly on such initiatives. They can just as easily be organized by ordinary Americans. Since our president-elect has managed to alienate the outside world before even taking office, I suggest we get started now.