America needs a new message

America needs a new message
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During the recent trip to Ukraine that Secretary Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHouse postpones testimony from key Pompeo aide about IG firing The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Pompeo pushes back on Russian bounty reports MORE embarked on, the State Department chose to bar a journalist from traveling with him. This move appears to be in retaliation for an interview done by a different journalist, during which he was asked tough questions about his defense of State Department employees during the impeachment investigation. In retaliating against a critical media outlet, the State Department is sending a wrong message to the world about how to uphold our basic American values such as freedom of the press. This damages the credibility of the United States precisely during an international conflict over information.

We know our country is a force for good. It has advanced democracy and freedom, sacrificed lives, and bolstered prosperity around the world. Yet many people outside of the United States do not seem to be appreciative of these efforts. Unfortunately, rectifying this is not as simple as figuring out the right message to convince people otherwise. Convincing anyone to change their mind is incredibly difficult, and any actions by the United States that damage its own credibility do not make it any easier overseas.

The values enshrined in the founding documents of the United States have served as a model for the world. Values like equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state are incredibly powerful, but they cannot be taken for granted. They are currently in danger, and the world has taken notice.


Because of what is happening at home, Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States 48th in terms of press freedom, while Freedom House ranks the United States 33rd in terms of political rights and civil liberties. We have seen increases in the number of people who view the United States as a threat to their country, including nearly half of the people in some of our strongest allies like Germany and France, and a majority in Mexico and Japan. A median third of people around the world look at American leadership favorably, comparable to both Russia and China.

What is being done to fix this? The answer is not much. While the State Department staff work tirelessly to build our relationships overseas and improve American influence abroad, these efforts cannot, on their own, make up for the core issues plaguing the credibility of the United States. Similarly, organizational fixes are not the solution. While creation of the Bureau of Global Public Affairs at the State Department might increase organizational efficiency, it will not address the wider credibility issue.

Although the agency is partially intended to help combat disinformation, the United States will not be able to do this effectively without addressing the problem at home. Many Americans today are fundamentally unable to discern the difference between truth and falsehoods. Combined with the unprecedented volume of falsehoods distributed from the White House, the United States cannot position itself as a credible purveyor of truth.

But all hope is not lost. A recent report by the American Security Project identifies steps the United States can take to rebuild the credibility of its message. The United States needs to close its “say do gap” by keeping its word, making only those promises it can keep, upholding its diplomatic agreements, and undertaking actions consistent with all its principles. It must also listen to the world to generate value for and receive buy in from those who see the United States as entirely interested in advancing itself.

Additionally, the United States needs to recommit to the truth, because the facts are necessary to formulate effective policies, and the truth will separate it from the Russias and Chinas of the world. Choosing to reject falsehoods and stick to the truth will help establish the United States as a dependable source of information among way too much disinformation.


Moreover, the United States needs to maintain its leadership in science by committing to a strong culture of science at home. It should try learning more from the world by sending more Americans abroad to bring the best ideas and perspectives back home. It needs to enable its diplomatic corps with the resources it needs. It must support the freedom of the individual across all its domestic diversity. It needs to set an example for the world on how to treat migrants and refugees. Caging children and separating families makes it challenging to call out Chinese human rights violations.

This will be a year of choice for Americans. Regardless of the outcome of impeachment or whoever wins the election, we must hold ourselves and each other to the highest standards consistent with our founding ideals. If not, we may as well give up convincing the world why we are exceptional and not just like every other country in the pursuit of their own greatness.

Matthew Wallin is a fellow in diplomacy with the American Security Project.