A vigorous debate has erupted in recent days about the state of American leadership on the global stage. The recent attacks on U.S. embassies in Muslim countries have moved this issue to the front of the presidential-election debate.
Republicans and neocons argue U.S. leadership is waning and the solution is an even stronger and more aggressive military. They believe the U.S. must be feared in order to maintain its leadership. The current Democratic administration argues that more multilateralism, soft power, and leading from behind are the solutions. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu recently wrote a brilliant essay arguing that leadership can’t last long if the followers view it as immoral.
The neocon foreign policy approach of the last 20 years has been an unmitigated and loony disaster for U.S. interests, its leadership position, and the world at large. But how does America realize the motherhood policy objectives of multilateralism, soft-power and leadership morality? Take morality: While theoretically there’s a universally shared baseline definition, in the real world, different groups often have conflicting views on what is moral.
The answer is multi-dimensional engagement and communications at many levels. Today, America’s understanding of the world is abysmal. Likewise, the world’s understanding of America is woefully inadequate.
One example of a remarkably effective institution for addressing these issues is the loose network of American overseas schools. Every day, these schools facilitate engagement and communications between Americans and foreigners, including leaders of the current and next generations. In this context, the term “leaders” refers to members of the diplomatic corps and overseas business executives (such as me) as well as their spouses and children.
My son, a 6th grader in Poland, attends the American School Of Warsaw (ASW). This is a world-class institution. Several years ago when my wife Bogusia and I were considering schools for our son, ASW invited us to spend a day on their campus. The facilities and organization were breathtaking. But what struck us was the faculty’s confidence, openness and willingness to engage.
Unprompted, various teachers would invite us to sit in on their class. Others skipped their lunch to share projects of their own initiative. While ASW is certainly not like a typical public school in America, it’s the living personification of American ideals and its can-do attitude. These aren’t myths, and we found them an ocean away from home. When we got back to our car, Bogusia and I were overwhelmed with positive emotion. She began to cry and smile at the same time.
ASW currently has students from more than 50 countries — its capacity is 950 pupils. Polish students are limited to 25% of the seats, while Americans have unlimited priority for available seats and currently make-up about 28% of the student body. It’s a fantastic melting pot that includes families from Muslim countries, from Israel, and every other imaginable combination.
The vast majority of the faculty and administration team is American. The Board of Trustees has 12 members, with the chairman and vice chairman selected by the U.S. Ambassador. The school and its culture are unquestionably and distinctly American.
The administration has cleverly succeeded in building a vibrant community around the school. The campus has state-of-the-art security. However, once inside, the parents, children, faculty and administration are encouraged to roam around and mingle. There are many parent organizations and activities. The social interaction and activism is more typical of a community center than a traditional school.
In short, ASW created a distinctly American environment that is loved and celebrated every day by children and parents from more than 50 different countries.
At $22,000 per year, it’s an elite school with high standards. The graduates regularly matriculate to prestigious universities. Undoubtedly, many of these students will go on to be next-generation leaders in their chosen fields; just like many of their parents are leaders of the current generation.
For the non-Americans, both generations will always carry with them the great memories, American culture, values and “way of doing business” that they experienced in the ASW community. And for the Americans, both generations will carry away great memories of friendships and skills for cooperating with our brothers and sisters from many far away cultures.
The American overseas schools are building soft power that pays long-term dividends to America. We should look to expand this formula.