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A National Parks Service employee closes the Lincoln Memorial.

A National Parks Service employee closes the Lincoln Memorial as a result of the government shutdown.

Photograph by Matt McClain, Washington Post/Getty Images

Tara D. Sonenshine

for National Geographic

Published October 5, 2013

Branding America just got a bit harder.

A government shutdown is not the ideal way to convey U.S. values and interests overseas. Closing the federal government—especially our national parks, America's signature attractions—undercuts the basic narrative that America is an open society, a tolerant nation, and a good partner in the world.

(See "National Parks: Shutting Down America's Best Idea.")

Now some might argue that a government shutdown, because it is a nonviolent act, reinforces U.S. values such as diversity of opinion, checks and balances, governing by a majority, and the right of individuals to disagree.

I don't buy it. In the branding business, whether you are a country or a corporation, you have to be visible and active to maintain your image and to advance, economically and politically.

That's because citizens are consumers—and citizen-consumers, increasingly, exercise power in today's economy.

Congress might study corporate America for a few lessons.

Big Apple

Take the recent news that Apple has topped Coca-Cola as the world's best-known brand. Apple just ended Coca-Cola's 13-year run at the top of a highly regarded annual list put out by Interbrand, a corporate identity and brand consulting company owned by the Omnicom Group, that has been compiling what it calls the Best Global Brands report since 2000. Others on the "top 10" list include Google, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, and Intel.

Apple ranked high this year because its products are well liked, its services are considered good, and people have come to value the company as practically a cultural icon of America—particularly with young people. Those characteristics are good for a company and good for a country.

But it is hard to deliver high-quality services and a good experience if you are not open for business—whether it is the National Zoo or the Grand Canyon. Both convey American values.

Citizens know good brands. And even when citizens express disdain for some U.S. policies, they often simultaneously praise our people, our values, and our brands, not to mention our colleges and universities. America consistently gets high marks in the world for its technology, culture, and power.

According to polling by the Pew Research Center, people in countries across the globe continue to embrace American culture, technology, and science, as well as the way we do business. And they like our innovation and our products.

Over five years, between 2007 and 2012, the number of people who said they admire American technological advances grew, as did support for American ideas and customs spreading to other countries—although the notion of a positive value placed on importing American culture is still a minority viewpoint in the world. And, yes, popularity varies with regions. (We still remain more popular in places like Europe than in the Middle East.)

A government shutdown is unlikely to make us a more popular place to do business or to borrow ideas from. It certain won't boost our tourism numbers.

Global Image

A government shutdown could have negative consequences for both our image and our economy. Indeed, it could lead to a perception that we are an economy that is globally falling, not rising.

Recent Pew findings suggest that other nations like China are rising in the perception game. According to public opinion, China's economic power is on the rise, and many think it will eventually supplant the United States as the world's dominant superpower. Overall, the U.S. has enjoyed a stronger global image than China—before this shutdown. Across the nations surveyed, a median of 63 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S., compared with 50 percent for China, but could that change?

One key constituency to watch over the next few months are young people and how they respond to this week's events. My own informal survey—asking my own high school and college-aged children—is that they are pretty turned off by Washington, and pretty turned on by their iPhones.

We all know about the "youth bulge" in the world today—there are more people under 25, many of whom are using technology and learning about the world through technology. (People under the age of 25 constitute 43 percent of the world's population. There are one billion 12- to 18-year-olds.)

Companies have figured out how to market to youth. Nations could learn a few things from corporate America about how to shape the ideas of young citizens across cultures.

Interestingly, that Pew study found that young people in both the U.S. and China express more positive attitudes about the other, a finding that is a part of a broad pattern in many countries where people under the age of 30 tend to rate other countries more favorably than other age groups do.

Mobile technology and digital diplomacy are excellent ways to educate people around the world. There are currently over six billion active cell phones in the world, and there will potentially be as many cell phones in use next year as people on the planet. Many of those users are young people. The newly released iPhone 5S sold a record nine million units during its first weekend, many of them to people under 30. And much of Apple's boost can probably be attributed to its growing presence in, guess where? China, where iPhones and other Apple devices are increasingly popular.

At the end of the day, the only possible positive impact of a shutdown on public perceptions of the U.S. could be that it proves that individuals triumph over systems. Some might say that if the majority of the House prevailed that might mean, in this case, more representative democracy—something we Americans often preach and a value that citizens abroad say they like about us. Not likely.

Public diplomacy should never be equated with corporate PR. One is a public good; the other is a bottom-line sell. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from both about the importance of being understood in a crowded global market. Apple, as a company and a symbol, is, well, as American as apple pie.

I'd vote for re-hanging a sign soon: "America: Open for Business."

Tara D. Sonenshine is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She is currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

17 comments
Jl Wallace
Jl Wallace

The GOP has been negotiating with a gun to their own heads, the heads of their constituents, and the heads of the American people. They are economic terrorists threatening indiscriminate destruction unless the president accedes to their demands. And, yeah, they have given all the power to the president. At this point he has the power to end the shutdown, etc., if only he'll let the idiots off the hook; show them some mercy, so they don't have to commit suicide and take the rest of the world down with them. What Republican genius thought this one up

Jl Wallace
Jl Wallace

Our countries policy has always been never to negotiate with terrorist. When an organization tells the president of the United States if you do not meet our demands we will destroy the United States of America is an act of terror. No one will call this for what it is the Republican Party has been high jacked by terrorist in the form of the Tea Party and if any Middle Eastern organization pulled this same criminal act we would hunt them down for terrorism plain and simple.

Gianni Baylo
Gianni Baylo

may be it is worth to read again the  "Soft Power" from Joseph Nye!

John C.
John C.

Harry Reid drags his feet on alleviating the financial anxiety of hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers, and he's refused to bring to the floor seven continuing resolutions, all passed by the House, all passed by wide and fairly bipartisan majorities (all or almost all of the Republicans, and another 20 or so House Democrats):

  1. Authorizing military chaplains to do their duties during the shutdown;
  2. Continuing appropriations for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children for fiscal year 2014 (food stamps).
  3. Continuing appropriations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  4. Continuing appropriations for veterans benefits.
  5. Continuing appropriations for the National Institutes of Health.
  6. Continuing appropriations for National Park Service operations, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  7. Continuing appropriations of local funds of the District of Columbia.

Not a single one of those resolutions says anything about Obamacare.

We know why Harry Reid isn't bringing them to the floor. If he did, they would pass. Senate Democrats wouldn't be able to vote "no" on any of those priorities without providing fodder for attack ads next fall (maybe the District of Columbia). And if they pass, the pain of the shutdown is mitigated in part.

Harry Reid doesn't want to minimize the pain of the shutdown. He wants to maximize it.

John C.
John C.

Harry Reid has refused to bring to the floor seven continuing resolutions, all passed by the House, all passed by wide and fairly bipartisan majorities (all or almost all of the Republicans, and another 20 or so House Democrats):

  1. Authorizing military chaplains to do their duties during the shutdown;
  2. Continuing appropriations for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children for fiscal year 2014 (food stamps).
  3. Continuing appropriations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  4. Continuing appropriations for veterans benefits.
  5. Continuing appropriations for the National Institutes of Health.
  6. Continuing appropriations for National Park Service operations, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  7. Continuing appropriations of local funds of the District of Columbia.

Not a single one of those resolutions says anything about Obamacare.

We know why Harry Reid isn't bringing them to the floor. If he did, they would pass. And if they pass, the pain of the shutdown is mitigated in part.

Harry Reid doesn't want to minimize the pain of the shutdown. He wants to maximize it.

Joamber Hart
Joamber Hart

Its amazing to me that the public sees the entity known as "the government" as some magical necessary component to solve any problem.  We tend to forget "the government" supposedly acting for the people, is comprised *THE PEOPLE*.  If we, *THE PEOPLE* arent behind what the group of people we now call government are doing, we can fix it without them.  Its not as if one group of *the people* is more magical than the next.  Mad the parks are closed?  Well if enough people are willing to put their money where their mad is, can't we fund them ourselves?  Upset that some of the food programs for the poor have stopped?  Stop waiving your fists at the internet and ranting and start connecting with others upset about the problem and find a way to resolve it!  Our government wants to play like children, lets let them and show them that unless they shape up they wont have jobs to come back to because the people have realized their true power.

David Hoffman
David Hoffman

Sorry, but US law says we cannot spend money on operations that are not funded by the US Congress. The reasons we have not had a smooth budget process for decades are many and varied. The US Senate's unconstitutional filibuster cloture rules.  The ridiculous gerrymandering of US Congressional districts by Republicans and Democrats. There are others.  The US National Parks, while wonderful, are not a critical function of the US government.  Air traffic control, US Coast Guard operations, national defense, and some others are operations that need to be operational and at least minimally manned. There are state parks that are still open.  There are private parks that are open. There are still options for tourists.

As far as Apple goes, they build plenty of junk MagSafe electrical power adapters that fall apart within 2 years of use. It seems to be a major profit center for them, as they have not corrected the design flaws since the introduction of the MagSafe design concept several years ago.

W Paez
W Paez

The first thing - and I mean THE FIRST THING - Steve Jobs did when he was asked to return to Apple (recall that previous, traditional managers and Boards had driven the company to within 60 days of bankruptcy with their traditional, "every product for everyone," mindset) was to eliminate scores of confusing products.  He made Apple smaller and much more focused.  Apple went from 20 different Macs and different platforms (Newton… they even had a gaming platform), to just four - two for pros, two for home users.  

Apple became smaller.

So, if the USG should learn anything from Apple, it should learn that it needs to focus on its core responsibilities - which are specifically enumerated in the Constitution, not all the garbage that's been added in since FDR.  It needs to eliminate much of what it does now.  

Who will pick up the slack?  This is America.  Americans will innovate and be the entrepreneurs they've always been.  They'll offer the same or better services, with much more diversity and much better response to the consumers' needs.  How can I be so sure?  Because businesses have  incentives to perform better: profit and their very survival.  Government has no such incentive, only a cattle prod with which to tax us.


Nancy Smith
Nancy Smith

every new generation (ever higher in numbers) will make changes to the demographic and socioeconomic's of this planet (the size remains the same).  the existing old fogies will strain in their diapers to retain the ugly arrangements they have devised to protect their ever ignorant perceptions. animals do the same thing, humans will too.   mass communication defies the 'control structures' that have been created by the old fogies, and i'm not talking about Vatican Mass either. each powerful religion (as well as the powerful Religion of The US Constitution) will attempt ugly, human sacrificial conflicts in attempt to retain their vain, yet oblivious positions. don't pray for those who prey on others, expose them for their deceits, lies and devaluation of life.  it could be the last and only act that you will be remembered for.

DD78D06C

Robert Strahlendorf
Robert Strahlendorf

Here is the brand: The U.S. government is the first moral government in the history of mankind because it's main function is to protect individual rights. That has not been shut down. It is also the brand that the world knows except for many of our intelligentsia like Tara. 

Gary Conn
Gary Conn

To:  Tara D. Sonenshine

(See "National Parks: Shutting Down America's Best Idea.")

Heartbreaking news, to say the least.

Tara this opinion was speedily posted, well thought and carefully put together  —  just the kind of rhetorical action I like to see out there in the press.

An announcement to close shop, leave work, quit the premises; like the other messages I typically read posted to glass encased bulletin boards in the company foyer where I work  —  adjacent to the breakroom vending machines, washrooms, and the timeclock. 

Rank and file employees know who sign and write these mysterious 'official' postings as they are friends and co-workers.  However, we never know whence they arrive as we never are allowed to their boardroom or any executive meeting.

Tara, just one correction:  What does a real UnitedStates democracy bode for the world inspiteof a temporary Federal shutdown?

— GaryConn

Mary Waterton
Mary Waterton

The whole premise behind this article is NUTTY. We should end the shutdown and continue the TRILLION dollar deficit spending insanity for the sake of "brand loyalty"? So the Federal Reserve will continue buying our "brand" of Treasuries? So we can continue the Ponzi scheme? So the politicians can buy our votes with ever increasing amounts of FREE stuff?

If Apple did business the way the Federal Government does business, they would have long ago sought bankruptcy protection and Steve Jobs (if still alive) would be sharing a cell with Bernie Madoff.

John C.
John C.

You must be a member of Occupy Wall Street, sounds like the same babbling rant.

Daniel Kane
Daniel Kane

@Mary Waterton It is difficult for me to continue to listen to the unfounded premises that people like you continue to voice.  The deficit, at the moment, is NOT the problem.  (Yes, it will be, but it isn't now.)  We are currently in a liquidity trap--there is no demand for the goods we produce.  Cutting taxes won't work; it simply increases the number of goods available in a saturated market place and pushes jobs overseas because the only way to compete is to cut costs.  The federal government does not run by the same financial rules your household does.  The lack of suitable employment for our young people is the problem.  Investment in our infrastructure while interest rates are historically low is the only way out.  Making bullets, as we did under Bush, won't make a lasting economy--only investing in ourselves by educating and employing our youth will.  Your unwillingness to acknowledge this will be our undoing.  If you must force us on the austerity path, at least provide us funding to learn Chinese.  They will be our future leaders.  

John C.
John C.

We tried that for 4 1/4 years, Obamanomics. Where did it get us? The top few percent were force fed trillions of dollars by The Fed and Obama administration and became richer. The middle class was demolished. There's been a 59% drop middle wage jobs and 60% increase in low wage jobs since he took over. One out of four American workers now make $10 hr. or less. Meanwhile, government has become more bloated with the national debt sure to double by the time his 8 years are up. More spending on infrastructure? That's what Japan did, and it got then nowhere. "Austerity"? You mean a decrease in the rate of increase in government spending. The slowest recovery on record, destruction of the middle class and unending recession for all outside Wall Street and Washington are Obama's legacy. But as liberals say, if it doesn't work do twice as much of the same.

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