I have written here from time to time about the harm the United States has done itself by failing in recent years to practice the cultural diplomacy that did it so much good for decades following World War II. After the Berlin Wall fell and European communist totalitarianism followed, the Clinton administration dismantled the United States Information Agency. The USIA’s functions, we were told, would be taken on by the State Department, but State has done little with them during a period when the US has been in crucial need of international good will. The Bush administration began taking down the Voice of America. It appears that the VOA has little chance of regaining its extensive international outreach which, of course, included a major component of jazz broadcasting.
When people the world over want to learn French, they typically go to the local Alliance Française, a French language and culture center run by the government of France. To explore Germany’s rich culture and take some German classes, they might stop by one of the German government’s Goethe-Instituts. But for English, where do they go? They usually head to an outpost of the British Council, not to a U.S.-sponsored cultural center.
Why? Because nearly all of the popular “American Centers” that spanned the globe, attracting throngs of students and young people who immersed themselves in American publications and ideas, have been closed or drastically downsized and restructured thanks to policy decisions, security concerns, and budget constraints. The unintended result is that in the global contest for ideas, the United States is playing short-handed.
Lugar argues that despite security concerns and tight funds in economic hard times, new versions of those centers should be created.
The United States should not abandon this part of the public diplomacy field to others. Iran, for instance, has opened some 60 Iranian cultural centers in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe that offer Persian language courses and extensive library resources-and a platform for anti-American propaganda.
As part of a broader overhaul of its public diplomacy effort, the United States should reinvigorate the old American Centers concept-putting, when possible, new ones that are safe but accessible in vibrant downtown areas-support active cultural programming, and resume the teaching of English by American or U.S.-trained teachers hired directly by embassies. That would help draw people to the centers and ensure that students got some American perspective along with their grammar.
What Senator Lugar recommends would be one element of a revitalized US cultural diplomacy policy, a good beginning. To read all of his article and an assortment of opinions about it from Foreign Policy readers, follow this link. Your comments are always welcome here. Please also send them to your senators and congressmen and to the White House.