To Win Hearts and Minds, Get Back in the Game

By Richard G. Lugar

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 US-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.

Winning that competition has been a top goal for US policymakers since September 11, 2001, but it hasn’t been easy. A recent poll in 21 countries showed that 43 percent of respondents had a negative view of the United States. Late last year, the US Government Accountability Office listed “improving the US image abroad” as one of the most urgent priorities facing the new Congress and administration. When publics feel unfriendly toward the United States, the seeds of anti-American extremism can more easily sprout.

Reaching out to the man or woman on the streets of Jakarta or Caracas or Cairo is the practice of public diplomacy, and the United States does it in a number of ways, from the Peace Corps to the Voice of America to the Fulbright program. But the United States doesn’t have a worldwide equivalent to what Britain and France have, namely, facilities in major world cities with libraries, reading rooms, outreach programs, unfiltered internet access, film series, lectures, and English classes that enable people to meet with Americans of all walks of life and hold two-way conversations on issues of mutual interest.

Not just America’s friends, but America’s opponents, too, are wielding this public diplomacy tool: Iran has spread a broad network of cultural centers, including many in the same Muslim countries that the United States is trying to reach.

The old American Centers had a good record of success. They attracted young people as well as community leaders, journalists, and policy experts who were the opinion shapers and future leaders of their countries.

But after the Cold War, the United States prematurely declared victory in the battle for hearts and minds, terminating the US Information Agency, which ran the centers, and cutting the State Department’s public diplomacy budget. Many thought the internet and global satellite TV would render irrelevant the people-to-people exchanges fostered by the centers.

Separately, US diplomatic facilities overseas became more isolated. Following the 1998 bombings by Al Qaeda of two US embassies in Africa that killed 12 Americans and more than 200 Tanzanians and Kenyans, the United States embarked upon a major construction program to build new embassies protected against terrorist attacks. Many embassies are now far from city centers and impose time-consuming security procedures upon all visitors. Additionally, most US civilian employees are required to work within the embassy perimeter.

Those security upgrades were necessary, but the result has been less day-to-day interaction between US diplomats and locals. Stripped-down outreach facilities, now called Information Resource Centers (IRCs), are often located within embassy compounds and open to the public by appointment only. State Department statistics show that IRCs within embassy walls in the Middle East received only one sixth as many visitors as those off-compound. Clearly, reaching a wider audience will require creative adjustments to the United States’ security approach, keeping in mind that the safety of US personnel must be paramount.

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 US-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.

America’s best players in public diplomacy have always been its people and its ideas. The United States should get them back into the game instead of standing on the sidelines.

Richard G. Lugar is a US senator representing Indiana. This article first appeared in first appeared in

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