This snafu brought to you by the letter ‘S’

The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.

I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.

I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.

I’m glad to hear that State’s money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they’d develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.

I’m not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don’t know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.

More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won’t mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.

The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America’s dominant world role isn’t impossible, but it’s not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children’s TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others’ interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.

Ironically, Obama’s first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don’t always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren’t completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn’t going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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