US foreign policy these days seems centered on the Middle East - the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the eternal Palestine-Israel question - while financial news is often about Asia and the fast-growing Chinese and Indian economies.
By contrast, relations between the US and Europe seem old hat. The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union has disbanded; threats to peace and prosperity appear to lie elsewhere. But, as the German Marshall Fund of the US (GMF) argues, many of the solutions to such threats lie in having strong relations between the US and Europe.
Created in 1972 - through a gift from Germany to provide a permanent memorial to the US Marshall Plan following WWII - GMF is a grant-making institution with a DC headquarters and six European offices. It provides money and other assistance to academics and public policy experts studying US-European relations, and produces its own research.
To strengthen transatlantic relations, the organization sponsors reciprocal visits between US and European lawmakers, academics, and businesspeople.
Senior communications officer William Bohlen notes that the various activities of his organization - grant-making, exchange programs, research, and conferences - at times make his team's job overseeing the group's awareness efforts among journalists, policymakers, and public policy experts difficult.
"It is our burden that we are hard to explain," he says. "People know what Brookings is, people know what AEI is. The German Marshall Fund - we sound foreign, unclear; we're doing so many different things. It sort of muddles a clean and easy image of what the GMF is."
But the five-person communications department, with four staff members in DC and one in Brussels, has had great success of late in promoting transatlantic issues through an annual survey of "transatlantic trends," which is cited frequently in the press to illustrate European attitudes toward President Bush, or to convey shared US and European concerns, such as city congestion, climate change, and immigration.
The annual Brussels Forum - now its third year - brings together about 300 high-level public policy experts, businesspeople, and politicians for panel discussions on an array of topics. The Davos-style conference has built new ties between Europe and the US, and has attracted extensive media coverage, Bohlen notes.
As with any public policy group, the Internet is of increasing importance. So the GMF plans to relaunch its site within a year, to better showcase both the research on transatlantic relations that the GMF funds, and that it creates itself. Blogs are also seen as a good way for the group to strengthen its profile, though Bohlen says getting academics to think and write with a bit more immediacy on breaking news is a challenge.
"There's a niche we can fill through blogging - a collaborative blog with postings from say, Brussels, then Paris, then Turkey, that gives a fuller picture of what's happening on the ground," he says. "It's not a problem for GMF as a whole. But an issue for [the] blog is that these people aren't journalists, so their first instinct is not to write about what they're seeing or hearing."
Key for the organization is media outreach. Ironically, the same year the GMF gave a prize to the Boston Globe's Colin Nickerson for transatlantic reporting, the newspaper closed its Berlin bureau and brought Nickerson home - following a trend toward cutting overseas-based reporting.
"There's still a desire for foreign coverage, but they have no means to do it," Bohlen says. "This is a gap we can help fill. They can call an expert here. We sponsor journalism trips to look at issues on transatlantic agenda, and we're evaluating what else we can do to help fill this need."
The benefits of research to transatlantic relations may not always be immediately apparent, but GMF executive vice president Karen Donfried notes that exchange program participants form personal or professional ties and an appreciation for US-European relations that last a lifetime. Former GMF exchange students now hold important jobs throughout Europe, with alumni including politicians in countries ranging from Portugal to Bulgaria.
US-European relations may have frayed following the US invasion of Iraq, but newly elected leaders have taken office in Germany, France, and elsewhere who have strong commitments to positive US relations. This can be reinforced by GMF's work to facilitate transatlantic communications that address pressing economic and political issues worldwide.
At a glance
Organization: German Marshall Fund of the US
President: Craig Kennedy
Headquarters: Washington, DC
Key publications: Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune
Operating budget: $27 million
Comms budget: $150,000, excluding salaries
Comms team: William Bohlen, senior comms director; Elizabeth Boswell Rega, Brussels-based communications officer
PR firm: Weber Shandwick (for past projects)
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