Posted by: ourvoicestogether | October 26, 2007

Former U.S. Ambassador: People-to-People Ties Can Build Alternatives to Terrorism

Former U.S. Ambassador: People-toPeople Ties Can Build Alternatives to TerrorismI have been a career Foreign Service Officer for over 35 years but I agree with the Council on Foreign Relations’ view that this is the most demanding strategic moment the United States has faced since the end of the Second World War. It is no exaggeration to say that the United States is stretched militarily and economically, and divided politically, making for a unique moment.

Internationally, some nations believe that U.S. actions have confirmed their worst historical myths about us – the implicit arrogance of Americans who, from their point of view, do not have to worry about anything, including what anything costs, and the soft bigotry of Americans who do not see other people as the same as themselves. They also do not see us as a collaborative partner.

The brilliance of the United States is that every person can constantly re-invent him or herself and, thus, re-invent the nation. Historical myths do not have to hold true for long. I grew up in Atlanta. I saw signs that said “No Colored Allowed”. I rode segregated buses and trains. We are not that nation any more. We have changed. We must continue to change. Fortunately for me, one of the nuggets learned by being old is the realization that, except for the purposefully evil, everyone does the best they can. So, how can each of us seize this unique moment and do the best we can?

Let me try to answer this question by focusing on my expertise in the Horn of Africa and briefly touching in my remarks on why Americans should be interested in the Horn of Africa, on what people-to-people activities in Kenya and Ethiopia I found helpful, on some of my favorite hobby horses, just because you are a captive audience, and then I will end by suggesting some actions we all might take to deepen bonds and strengthen people-to-people links.

Last month, on the 6th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on our nation, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton reiterated in a Washington Post opinion piece, a key and often overlooked recommendation from their 9/11 Commission report. They said: “America’s long-term security relies on being viewed not as a threat but as a source of opportunity and hope.” The 9/11 Commission report, in its chapter on global strategy, specifically recommends:

  • “We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors.
  • The U.S. should re-build the scholarship, exchange and library programs that reach out to young people and offer them knowledge and hope.”

As I experienced in the diplomatic world, and as the 9/11 Commission recognized, it is the people-to-people links that underpin government-to-government relations. I support more robust citizen diplomacy efforts as part of our nation’s counterterrorism efforts. You can make a difference. Don’t sit passively as the critical issues of the day pass you by. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, you may not have a global stage on which to act, but each of you has the diplomatic skills to positively influence family, community, local or national levels to foment dialogue that builds international understanding.

Why should you be interested in Africa? Let me try to answer by paraphrasing the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, who said, history is too often seen as politics, economics, military or social issues, and it is all of that, but it also has to do with the human heart. It is who we are and how we came to be where we are and the way we are. And, frankly, in my view, Americans are woefully ignorant of history – particularly the connections between Africa and America.

Mankind came out of Africa. The famous bones of Lucy, the earliest human found to date, are currently touring U.S. museums. The bones were found in Ethiopia which pinpoints the Horn of Africa and its Rift Valley as our collective original hometown. When the first African slave set foot in Virginia, Africans became connected to this soil. Our destinies have always been intertwined.

Yet, we operate from stereotypes about each other. Americans, in general, visualize the continent being just one country – called Africa – rife with starvation, famine, wars, disease, corruption and the like. Africans often see Americans as arrogant, condescending, unmotivated to work hard, anti-education, and overly acquisitive of material things. These are gross generalizations but you get my drift.

I was fortunate to be in Ethiopia during the time when both countries could celebrate 100 years of diplomatic relations. There is no other nation on the continent about which we can say that, except Liberia – and, as you know, the U.S. had a hand in the formation of Liberia. A U.S. diplomatic mission led by Robert Skinner went to Ethiopia in 1903 because the railroad between the port of Djibouti and the town of Dire Dawa had been completed. Being “Yankee Traders” we thought we would continue from Dire Dawa to Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa to negotiate a treaty of commerce and friendship. Thus began the formal diplomatic relationship.

In 2003, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister and I agreed that we should concentrate on celebrating people-to-people ties. In the 20th Century ordinary Americans had helped Ethiopia from the early years and ordinary Ethiopians early on had been educated in the U.S. and more recently have immigrated to become new Americans. African Americans, in particular, played key roles in Ethiopia’s history. Our official celebratory events included symposia, performances by American artists around Ethiopia, lectures, enhanced funding for HIV/AIDS and other programs, and mutual encouragement of deeper personal ties between our peoples. As U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, my mantra was that after 100 years there was no issue the two countries could not talk about; this mantra allowed us to raise any issue with the government, including human rights and other sensitive issues, and to talk to all strata of the population about their concerns. Twenty-first Century diplomacy could stand upon the shoulders of deep and abiding 20th Century people-to-people ties.

When I served as U.S. Ambassador in Kenya in the mid-1990s, I would hear over and over from Kenyans about the critical importance of one of those deep and abiding people-to-people ties that had happened forty years earlier. Has anyone here heard of the Tom Mboya-Kennedy African Airlift? In the 1950s and early 1960s, when Kenya was on the cusp of independence from Britain, Kenyan labor leader Tom Mboya wanted American education – not British – for the generation of Kenyans who would soon be running their new nation. His request was repeatedly turned down by the U.S. government. Tom Mboya visited then-Senator Kennedy who arranged for his family’s Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, established in the memory of his brother who was killed in World War II, to finance the airlift.

Through the efforts of Tom Mboya and the African-American Student Foundation, 81 students from Kenya initially were granted scholarships in the United States and a plane was chartered to bring them here. Later, students from Uganda and what are now Tanzania and Zimbabwe were included and flew to the U.S. for undergraduate and graduate degrees. They returned home to help run their newly independent nations. Eventually, the State Department expanded its own African scholarship program. Many of East Africa’s government and private sector leaders of my generation and older were U.S. educated and remember how it was the people of the U.S. who gave them their opportunity.

Let me bring my remarks back to each individual present tonight and to what actions you personally can take to deepen international bonds – bonds that counter terrorism more effectively than war or other alternatives.

I know from my experience as a diplomat that when Americans are seen as acting in accord with our values and beliefs, foreigners use us as a role model. These values and beliefs are in our founding documents but they also are represented in our present day actions. Proliferation of people-to-people ties can help build alternatives to terrorism, although we should never fool ourselves that terrorism will be completely eliminated. The history of mankind shows it always present but terrorism can wane with concerted effort by like-minded citizens.

Now I am going to ask for a show of hands – if only to make sure I have kept you awake! How many of you have a valid passport? How many of you have used it to visit a country outside of Europe? Travel can liberate you from the “either/or” trap of looking at situations and place you in the more expansive “and/also” way of viewing the world. We need a national “Dr. Phil” moment. We need to let go of fear, let go of fortress America, let go of being de-sensitized, let go of the focus on “me” and re-balance the weight we give to individual versus collective responsibility, let go of the fear of the different. Your generation can then claim, as the former President of my college, Spelman, stated, “We are for difference, for allowing difference, for learning to understand difference, and for respecting difference until difference doesn’t make any more difference”.

Specifically, I suggest that you students study abroad sometime in your college career. Recent graduates, professors and working adults could consider joining the Peace Corps, which carries out grass roots community level projects around the world. We might consider teaching or working in another country with a non-governmental organization (NGO) to help redress the brain drain of educated people, especially in Africa. Women have been left behind worldwide, including in Africa, and Americans can promote a policy that all African or other nations’ women should have the opportunity to matriculate through an educational system, including to the professional ranks. Americans should demand that our citizens learn the nuances about and languages of foreign nations in our early education system to be better global citizens. Americans have the shortest timeline of almost every other nation; we think a year is long term and six months is medium term. Most countries think short term is several decades and long term is certainly beyond that. We are out of synch with the speed, change may happen in other cultures which can throw off our actions/reactions – so we need more realistic expectations of how long it might take to see results from our efforts. We need to be in this for the long haul, not get weary, and not falter.

So what can you do today?

  • Reach out to visiting foreigners – show the welcoming open face Americans used to have before 9/11; volunteer to open your homes to host foreign visitors. Visit (National Council on International Visitors.) Practice listening and learning about others and look for the subtle cultural cues that can bind a friendship.
  • Apply for internships with the Department of State; visit for information.
  • Visit to find out what others are doing to reach out internationally, as one response to terrorism.
  • Promote events on campus focused on international education or diversity; some colleges have a Diversity Week or International Education Week.
  • Communicate with your Congressional representative, your Senator, your Cabinet members, and the President of course, on what you believe the U.S. foreign policy should be and how you want the U.S. to act in the world; consider advocating expanded foreign assistance, HIV/AIDS, education programs and the like that can positively affect many people. Foreigners know us by how we care for the least among us – at home and abroad.
  • Finally, vote in U.S. elections on every level.

— Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal, Diplomat-in-Residence, Howard University
Atlanta League of Women Voters and Agnes Scott College
“Safer, More Compassionate World Forum”
Teasley Auditorium, Mary Brown Bullock Science Center
October 22, 2007


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