Tuesday, July 19, 2005

"American House," Local Ownership


In "American Public Diplomacy: Some Lessons from Germany," Hady Amr describes how lessons the U.S. learned in reconstructing Germany following World War II might be applied today:

... Jakob Kollhofer, the director of the German-American Institute in Heidelberg for the past several years, put it this way: It's about creating institutions that promote face-to-face dialogue. After the war, the Americans created several such German-American Institutes—then called American Houses—across the country. Coming up on their 60th anniversaries in 2006, these institutes were first funded and run by the U.S., but then turned over to Germans in the 1980s when they became local NGOs. That's 40 years under direct American management, and now, 20 successful years as independent entities.

Here's Kollhofer's premise: "If they are talking, they are not shooting." Here are his secrets to success: Talk about the issues that the people want to discuss and don't shy away from the tough issues. In other words, the lesson is: If the Iraqis want to talk about democracy, talk about democracy. If the Arabs want to talk about Israel, talk about Israel.

Of course, following World War II the U.S. had big incentives to engage average Germans; two major wars had created a sense of urgency about keeping a finger on the German temperament.

But with the exception of 9/11 itself, it doesn't feel very much like the U.S. has "lost" anything major to Muslim or Arab terrorists, or is in danger of losing anything. In fact, the war on terror, which seems to focus almost exclusively on deterring Muslim fanatics, hardly seems to affect the average American's life outside of military towns. Regaining the post-9/11 sense of urgency in the absence of another big terror attack is the major challenge facing public diplomacy right now.

Amr's piece is worth a read for its take on how the U.S. might create escape valves for any pressure that might be building up in Muslim countries. In a nutshell: Invest heavily to create cultural-exchange enterprises and civil-society organizations in host countries—then turn them over to local management as a visible sign of the respect the U.S. claims to have for other countries' sovereignty and people.

(Thanks, per usual, to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

1 comment:

Dexter Anderson said...


As recalled, the institutions described in the article were referred to in German as "Amerika-häuser" and in English as "America Houses" -- not American Houses.

This may seem like a small thing, but the version I recall emphasizes that they were about America, not that they were American.

Whatever they were called, they were effective and worthy of emulation. I recall an exhibit at USIA headquarters in Washington, shortly before USIA was wrapped into the Department of State, featuring a library book that had been checked out by an East Berliner from what I assume was an Amerika-Haus in West Berlin, shortly before the Wall went up. In true librarian fashion, the date by the book was to be returned was stamped in the front -- perhaps a couple of weeks following the check-out date. The book was in fact returned decades later, after the Wall came down. I doubt that the America-Haus levied a fine.

Dexter Anderson

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