With anti-American sentiment at unprecedented levels around the world, Americans worried about their country's low standing are pushing a grassroots campaign to change foreign perceptions of the United States "one handshake at a time."
The idea is to turn millions of Americans into "citizen diplomats" who use personal meetings with foreigners to counter the ugly image of the United States shown in a series of international public opinion polls. They show widespread negative attitudes not only toward U.S. policies but also toward the American people and, increasingly, even American products.
To stem the relentless decline of America's international standing -- a dramatic change from the almost universal sympathy for the country immediately after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington --leaders of more than 30 civic organizations formed a "Coalition for Citizen Diplomacy" two years ago.
The coalition, a loose alliance of national, state and community groups, held its first national summit in July in Washington, where speakers deplored the sorry state of the U.S. image but expressed hope that individual action and international people-to-people exchanges could go a long way toward improving things.
"Citizen diplomacy is the concept that the individual citizen has the right and the responsibility to help shape U.S. foreign relations one handshake at a time," said Sherry Lee Mueller, one of the coalition's leaders.
"Whether you are student sitting next to a foreign scholar at your university, an athlete playing abroad, an elected official welcoming counterparts, a rock star or a business representative overseas, you are a citizen diplomat and can make a life-changing difference."
Not even the most optimistic delegates to the Washington meeting, billed as the first of its kind, thought citizen diplomacy could soon reverse a trend that has accelerated sharply under President George W. Bush, many of whose foreign policy decisions have been criticized as unilateralist and arrogant.