TO: Bruce Wharton, Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Affairs
FROM: Bureau of Public Affairs
SUBJECT: Revitalizing the U.S.-German Relationship through Cultural Diplomacy
From the earliest days of its existence, America has striven to serve as an inspirational example to the world. The ideals of the Founding Fathers, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, have guided and defined our public diplomacy efforts for the last two centuries. The presence of American troops in Germany post World War II presented a unique and unprecedented opportunity for the dissemination and promotion of our cultural values. Even before the war’s end, the U.S. Army began establishing U.S. Information Centers that became part and parcel of the culture and information policy of the U.S. in Germany. These information centers eventually became known as the “Amerika Häuser” (America Houses).
The Amerika Häuser represented many things to many Germans, but to the U.S. State Department, they were Germany’s windows on the United States and its policies. What exactly the Germans saw through these windows was a scene very carefully staged to win the hearts and minds of a people who had been intellectually imprisoned for years. Hardly consistent or monolithic, the political emphases of these cultural centers changed swiftly, first from denazification to democratization, from reorientation to Westernization, and then from anticommunism to education. They eventually became bridges between two worlds, hosting an endless stream of public events that brought people together to discuss literature and politics, the popular (and unpopular) ideas, and the contentious issues of the time. Not only did the open space concept of the Amerika Häuser inspire visitors to freely explore on their own, but the proximity they provided between people who wished to exchange ideas and views was crucial in facilitating a deep transatlantic bond.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 marked a critical turning point in both the sustainability of the Amerika Häuser and the future of U.S. cultural diplomacy in Germany, as our fixation on ideological security was overshadowed and distinctly replaced by a much stronger focus on military security. With the implementation of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA) and increasing reliance on the Internet to obtain information, most Amerika Häuser were either forced to close their doors to the public or were co-located on embassy or consulate compounds. Their removal from major German cities to more remote locations or restrictive spaces has, in turn, denied German audiences easy access to American officials and reliable information, allowing narrative alternatives to flourish.
American political scientist Joseph Nye once remarked that “credibility is the crucial resource” for diplomacy to function in the global information age. In this unpredictable and turbulent political environment, fraught with disinformation campaigns, anti-American stereotypes, and a deep mistrust of the U.S., especially within Germany, how can we establish credibility for our foreign policies when our narrative is being defined by others? Isolationism is certainly not the answer. Instead, we need to begin offering compelling, truthful narratives abroad again.
To legitimate our policies, a three-pronged cultural diplomacy approach needs to be designed that engages German and American audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and reframes conversations on contentious transatlantic issues.
First, our isolationist tendencies need to be carefully balanced with our mission of foreign public engagement. The Atlantic Expedition’s policy memo “A New Narrative for the Transatlantic Relationship in the 21st Century,” suggests that “governments should strive to engage more with their citizens, to ensure that government is open and responsive, and to create public spaces for engagement and debate.” Therefore, except in cases of extreme threat, Amerika Häuser should be reestablished in urban locations and should be kept separate from U.S. embassies to remain open and accessible to all. Ideally, under such a policy, the cultural department currently housed in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin would move outside of the compound and back into the public eye. This change would allow for people-to-people interactions and greater civic participation, demonstrate the value of transparency, and rebuild trust with our key audiences in Europe.
Second, until they are reestablished as fully functioning Amerika Haüser, the current so-called “American Spaces/Corners” should work in close collaboration with the Goethe-Instituts, Germany’s equivalent cultural institution, to offer informative and stimulating programming to its visitors. In a globalized world, we share many of the same fears with Germany: extremism, rising powers, political party cleavages, and unprecedented technological advances. Since many of our concerns are interrelated, we should jointly put in place an “exchange-of-ideas” mechanism via our cultural institutions to articulate these mutual fears to scholars, academics, and students who are committed to the alliance and finding innovative solutions. After all, the essence of a cultural program is reciprocity, and a collaborative cultural diplomacy scheme, by building resilience within civil society against shared threats, would enhance cooperation and security on both sides of the Atlantic.
Third, this collaborative cultural diplomacy approach needs to specifically target young German and American audiences if we want to strengthen our narrative. Much like any other democracy, we want to see our youth succeed, and it should be our responsibility to prepare them adequately for the challenges ahead. Unfortunately, the youth is most vulnerable to fall for false narratives in news and politics. By offering youth-related activities at these cultural institutions, however, we can attempt to lift the youth out of the comforts of their echo chambers, supply them with differing perspectives, and shape more open-minded transatlantic leaders for the future.
Despite the fact that the transatlantic community remains a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy and the most important pillar of German foreign policy, the relationship cannot be taken for granted. No matter how strong this relationship may be in terms of its political and economic arrangements, it remains quite precarious if it is not underpinned by a friendly and favorable public opinion. Cultural relations are one of the most important means for attaining such a public opinion. Therefore, it is imperative that the we start thinking about our cultural programs, not so much in dollar terms, but more so in deep personal connections and relations. After all, to achieve loyalty at home and influence abroad, and “to win the war of ideas, we should wake up each day with more friends than enemies.” Boosting our cultural diplomacy efforts within Germany will not only immensely benefit the interests of the U.S., but will bolster the foundation of the transatlantic partnership for generations to come.