October 16, 2004

Democracy as a Brand: Wooing Hearts, European or Muslim

Museum of German History

It is a time of war, and an implacable enemy seeks to sully America's image, destroy its way of life and undermine its allies. Sound familiar? But the time in question here is not the present and the enemy is not Al Qaeda. This is the cold war, fought against the Soviet Union and played out against the backdrop of shattered post-war European societies vulnerable to the utopian chimera of Communism.

In such a critical struggle all means are good. Propaganda is central, victory begins in the mind and the heart is ever vulnerable to seduction. This push to win over European sentiments - call it public diplomacy if you will - was the central theme of a series of movies called "Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan 1948-53," shown this week as part of the New York Film Festival.

The 25 films were long hidden from Americans because of laws, now changed, that barred the government from using tax dollars to propagandize its citizens. So the movies fill a historical gap. They also appear at a time when the need to devise means to improve America's tarnished international image, particularly in the Islamic world, appears pressing.

By turns blunt and beguiling, menacing and mawkish, the films beg an overriding question: Why, with this experience behind it, has the United States failed so conspicuously since Sept. 11 to bolster its image in another region it seeks to transform, the Middle East?

After all, the expertise is here, on Madison Avenue, in Hollywood, at Foggy Bottom. So is unsurpassed technology. Freedom may be what America is about, but building a global brand is not far behind. These 50-year-old films illustrate that by taking something as potentially stultifying as former Secretary of State George C. Marshall's economic plan for Europe and turning it into the Marshall Plan brand, one with real razzmatazz, capable of washing those invasive Reds out of Europe's fabric. Yet now, attempts to reach out to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims flounder.

Perhaps one of the films in the festival program, "Me and Mr. Marshall" (1949), offers a clue to the reasons for today's public-relations debacle. It was made by the American occupation authority in Berlin, a body known as Omgus. The aim is straightforward: to humanize the economic vision for Europe first set out by Marshall at Harvard on June 5, 1947, in the hope of reinforcing a nascent West German democracy and binding it to America.

The chosen vehicle is a German miner laboring in the bombed-out Ruhr region, a man who introduces himself as: "Hans Fischer, age 26. Profession: optimist." He has gone to work because he needed a roof over his head, even if it was the 386-foot roof of a mine. But something deeper is at work in Fischer, who has been trying to figure out the reasons for Germany's plight and how the country can escape a destructive spiral.

Mr. Fischer knows, and scenes of destruction illustrate, that there is a real danger that "Europe might just go kaput." He has also concluded that "when people get hungry enough or cold enough or hopeless enough, they start to look for the easy answers - uniforms and slogans and violence and barbed wire." Regimented German figures in a menacing landscape reinforce these somber reflections. Not that again, please.

But, he has decided, there is an alternative: the American aid offered by Marshall - over $12 billion was disbursed between 1948 and 1951 - which will allow Germany to acquire machines to turn out goods that the world will buy, put food on tables and place money in citizens' pockets. Simple. Mr. Marshall's words unfurl across the screen: "It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of Europeans."

In other words: We'll give the money, you provide the initiative and over to you, Mr. Fischer. An American spark for a German engine is what is on offer. The young German leaps at the opportunity and concludes: "Name: Hans Fisher. Profession? Just call me a Marshall Planner."

This is scarcely rocket science, but there are elements here that merit reflection. The message is one of empowerment, not American domination or even tutelage. The hero is a citizen of the country that America seeks to influence. The film is made in Berlin; others were made by the Paris-based European Cooperation Administration set up to administer the Marshall Plan. They are the creations of Americans living in the region and immersed in its problems.

The path to liberal democracy is laid out in terms simple and personal, rather than ringing and abstract: a job, money, security, freedom. The title of another one of the movies, "It's Up to You," made by Omgus in 1948, amounts to a distillation of the American propagandists' theme.

Contrast all this with the post-9/11 efforts of the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, a position created at the State Department to promote American values. The main target was now the Islamic world, and the job was initially entrusted to a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers. But the films made, focusing on Muslims in the United States and their claim to have encountered no prejudice in American society, were widely regarded in Islamic countries as unconvincing, patronizing and ineffective.

These were videos whose main characters were in America, not the region concerned, and whose main message was the extolling of American values and society. Our system is great, they seemed to say; you Muslims can live like us, too. But surely there is a contemporary Hans Fisher out there - call him Ali Said - a young Arab trying to make his way amid the conflicting pressures of Iraq or Saudi Arabia, a hero who could be a far subtler vehicle for America's quest to instill openness and freedom in the Islamic world.

Of course, the analogies should not be pressed too far. Germany was defeated; in Iraq, conflict rages. The Internet and a plethora of 24-hour television networks, including Al Jazeera, mean that any American public diplomacy now faces much competition. Images of violence - in Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - militate against all American efforts to change perceptions: Gaza and Falluja merge in the Arab mind. The post-war State Department was full of Europeanists; this is far from the case with Arabists today. Where the Marshall Plan enjoyed bipartisan domestic support, no plan does today.

"Today there is so much noise and so little lucidity," said Sandra Schulberg, the co-curator of the film series. "But what you see in these films is a very concrete, very lucid approach to winning the peace in Europe, treating everything from hard-core economics to elusive concepts like optimism and hope. What they provide, with great specificity, is a guide to the ingredients of civil society."

Nowhere was civil society more threatened in the post-war years than in Italy, where the Communists came close to taking power. "Struggle for Men's Minds," made in 1952, traces the struggle to keep Italy in the West. After grim footage of Communist demonstrations, the movie cuts to more hopeful scenes: coal arriving from Pennsylvania, wheat from Illinois, machinery from Detroit. Communism, a narrator suggests, thrives on misery. The American assistance helps break its hold on Italians, who see that democracy "could actually achieve the good things that Communism could only promise."

A strong feel for central values of Italian life - family, community, church, land and sport - is evident in the movie. As the specter of Moscow's totalitarianism recedes, peasants laugh, old men play boccie, priests extol the values of freedom and kids gambol in village streets. Italians understand they can "pursue happiness in peace and freedom." Subtle it is not. But the film's American creators have grasped something essential about the society they seek to sway.

Throughout these movies, a simple message prevails: jobs bring money that opens possibilities enjoyable only in a free world - and best enjoyed in a uniting Europe. American economic aid is also political persuasion; it is timely because the threat from Moscow is real.

That threat is felt most vividly in "Without Fear" (1951), a riveting Technicolor animation that imbues the Communist peril with all the baleful menace of a monster in a children's story. In a totalitarian society, the narrator notes, "we could still walk in the sun, but we could not talk in it, because in a police state words are dangerous."

Where is the movie that treats the totalitarian jihadists of today, nihilists bent on the destruction of America, with a similar irrefutable directness? Yet Al Qaeda is more an ideology than a cohesive movement, a child of the Internet age bouncing its murderous ideas around the globe. The need for a nimble intellectual response and strong propaganda to counter it is great.

Ms. Schulberg, whose father, Stuart Schulberg, was responsible for making some of the films, has tentative plans to show them in Los Angeles and Boston next year, and possibly also in a New York commercial theater. "At this time," she said, "it is critical that they come out of the vaults." Not least, it seems, because they would bear wide scrutiny in Washington.

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