The Best National Defense is Understanding

Residents gather water outside damaged houses in Tacloban city, Leyte province central Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. The city remains littered with debris from damaged homes as many complain of shortage of food, water and no electricity since the Typhoon Haiyan slammed into their province. Haiyan, one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded, slammed into central Philippine provinces Friday leaving a wide swath of destruction and scores of people dead. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The following article was originally posted on al.com on March 29th, 2017.

Why should we care if the State Department budget will be cut 37 percent? What if I told you an ongoing international program to defeat online radical extremism was introduced to the United States through a little known State Department program coordinated here in Alabama? 

What if I told you a typhoon and flood in the Philippines were successfully overcome, and lives saved, because of a Huntsville initiative to link community leaders? What if I said that same program inspired further training of foreign women medical technicians to identify breast cancer in Pakistan? This Tennessee Valley program also shared ideas with experts from many lands on social reconciliation plans that worked for them, and now for us. These ideas brought a sort of peace to places like Belfast, the mean streets of London, Warsaw, Selma, Alabama, and now even Ferguson, Missouri.

The International Visitor Leadership Program is a State Department program which brings future foreign leaders to Alabama and introduces them to our areas of expertise, woeful challenge, and measured hope. These visitors, carefully vetted by our embassies in their countries, come here in select groups to study common interests. Interests as varied as agriculture, citizenship and teaching English, high tech biotechnology, breast cancer research, juvenile delinquency, forestry applications, civil and privacy rights, government transparency, and combating violent extremism have been hosted here.

What they learn, of course, is much more than what they hear in presentations. They see and get to know average Americans, and how our values are reflected in reality. Each remarks on how truly hardworking Americans are; how time off is seldom a priority. They see us as we truly are: from Manna House where the utterly impoverished come and are cared for, to Twickenham, where the traditionally wealthy reside, and everywhere in between. They see us as human and at play; they completely enjoyed seeing an Alabama State representative play in a Blue Grass band and never once mention politics.

In completely frank and transparent discussions, they find all questions are on the table, the good, the bad, and even the embarrassing. Noteworthy as well, they see America is a land whose Declaration of Independence is a lively work in progress, not a dead sheet from the misty past. Each visitor appreciates, in a three week visit during which sites in Alabama figure for four days, that we are a vibrant, curious, happy, fearful, yet paradoxically unbelievably friendly and hopeful  country.  

The openness displayed by Americans is remarked on by everyone who comes here. We Americans have much to learn, but programs such as this show we also have much to give.

This and several other State Department programs are coordinated by Global Ties, Alabama (GTA). GTA is a non-profit which coordinates at tiny expense initiatives which have lasting value for the world, and especially our state. Just how does this work?

It becomes apparent to our foreign guests that we struggle constantly with our ideal of a fair nation of equal opportunity. Questions abound. Why, they ask, were there no white kids in some reform school programs? Why are prisoners not allowed certain private possessions? Why are there no mandated tornado shelters in Tornado Alley?

In totally packed days the guests, appropriate to their interest program, might visit ESL classes, prisons, government offices, business complexes, or non-profits. They may visit religious institutions, hear panels on religion in a secular society, and consider the way church and state function in our land. Several commented on how remarkable it has been we've suffered so little terrorism as we dismantled Jim Crow and Klan depredations.

We now combat bullying, gangs, violence and terrorism before it starts, through holistic projects from grade schools to neighborhoods, which seek to let all feel a part of our American nation. We've found any kind of racial, religious,  ethnic or other discrimination can be a seed of violence, and show our guests the projects which try to stop this.  

Alabamians the guests meet are extremely honest, too. We speak openly about our historical and present trials with racial matters, voting, and democratic practices in our state. For example, race relations in light of Selma, now Ferguson and what it represents, may seem intractable. Yet, acknowledging our attempt to correct this, a Serbian official showed great hope in our efforts. He noted as well that even centuries long hatreds can be overcome, as in his country. Indeed, recently Serbia arrested their former officials responsible for the greatest mass murder since World War II. A Belfast city councilwoman even offered the community policing plan which resulted in "The Good Friday Peace Accord" in her country, ending centuries of open combat. They see our attempts to surmount great historical conflicts, not hide them, as particularly praiseworthy.

Again, they credit American idealism and openness for the relative lack of bloodshed after the days of Jim Crow. Of course, we've miles to go before we have complete reconciliation but, as remarkable panels at our great Alabama universities, among which feature Oakwood and UAB, to name but two, have demonstrated we don't mind discussing how we can do better. The guests also remarked how open some of our District Attorneys are about the huge social miasma of dysfunction some Alabamians face. Thus our guests even seek to know us better, as the current initiative to make the University of Berlin and Alabama State University sister schools, the better to study social assimilation.

The GTA headquarters in Huntsville coordinates these State Department projects. This trio of tireless (Quite literally!  International time zones demand round the clock efforts) coordinators set up hundreds of meetings, receptions, presentations, and logistics for dozens of visits which come all year long. They are supported by a host of dedicated Alabama volunteers, university interns, businesses, academic and government organizations. Each offers the hospitality of time, tours, presentations, and sometimes home visits to these enthusiastic guests.

The visitors attend prearranged excursions to places like Hudson Alpha, UAH, Alabama A and M, exhibits such as the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, UAB, private wood processing companies, and non- profits like Manna House all day, learning about the real America. They see CEOs who don't live in suits and hair helmets, but are hands on, polo shirt attired, relaxed leaders. Our visitors help sometimes at the Downtown Rescue Mission, and are hosted by Rotary Clubs. Diversity of effort is this project's middle name, because it is who we Americans are. They visit companies, plants, hospitals and academic centers, all toward learning what we have, and sharing what they have as well. 

The United States, shortly before World War II, thought it a national security requirement to let future foreign leaders know the real America. They knew even then that media, at its best, could not capture the real personality of who Americans were. Such a program exists until today because for all these years our government understood that we the people are our best representatives.

Average Americans, inspired by a belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can best be seen and understood in their places of work, at ease at home, and in our sporting events. We are a good, democratically minded people, whose story can be told best by ourselves. An earlier young French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noticed some two hundred years ago when he visited this young republic, that "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." 

If you believe this too, then you'll believe that we should encourage other foreign guests to see us this way, as we really are, faults and all. To keep this program alive, we need to tell our national representatives not to slice away any more of this incredibly inexpensive program. I've done the math. This whole project, with Global Ties offices across the entire United States in dozens of cities, costs less than deploying a single Army combat company to a war zone. Better we allow others to know us personally as honest friends, faults and all, than have others tell them who they think we are.

Please call your senator or congressman and ask them to preserve US State Department funding for international projects which Global Ties Alabama supports. Oh, and you can volunteer to help, too. Call Global Ties.

 

 

 By John W. Davis, a member of the Global Ties Alabama Diplomatic Corps of volunteers. GTA is a non-profit that coordinates several US State Department programs for foreign guests who visit various places throughout Alabama in pursuit of their and our interests in commerce, law, medicine, agriculture, government and education

 

 
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