As the US prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, thousands gathered in the streets of Minneapolis to protest the war. Almost 9 years and a destroyed country (Iraq) later, many here have become even more disillusioned with American foreign policy. In response, Minneapolis residents have attempted to take matters into their own hands with "city" and "citizen" diplomacy.
In 2009, Minneapolis residents worked with the city council to approve a "sister city" relationship with Najaf, Iraq. A sister city relationship is about building peaceful relationships between the people of two cities. President Eisenhower launched the idea in 1956, when he called for massive exchanges between Americans and people of other nations.
Since 2009, Minneapolis residents have hosted seven delegations from Najaf for professional training and friendship-building, sent unarmed individuals ("citizen diplomats") to Najaf, and helped provide clean water to tens of thousands of students and hospital patients in the Najaf area. Projects and partnerships have developed between academics, businesspeople, artists and others in the two cities.
This February, six Iraq Ministry of Culture staff persons from Najaf will visit Minneapolis for training on event and festival management, coordinated by Meet Minneapolis: Official Convention + Visitors Bureau. Invited by the Governor of Najaf Province, a large delegation from Minneapolis plans to travel to Najaf in 2012.
As a staff member of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP), the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that manages the sister city relationship, I had the opportunity to travel unarmed to Najaf last summer, carrying with me a letter of friendship from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to the people of Najaf and the governor of Najaf Province. Hosted by Sami Rasouli, the Iraqi-American director of IARP's partner organization in Najaf, the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), I helped teach English classes and visited local families for five weeks.
My thoughts after returning to Minneapolis were similar to those of a Najafi physician after he participated in a medical delegation to Minneapolis: "I am so honored to gain your friendship. Meeting with you made a great difference in my life and thoughts. Thanks for all that you did for me. Hope to see you soon."
These are small-scale efforts, but they offer an alternative to the narrative of American domination and superiority often present in our country's foreign policy. In fact, it is in part because they are small-scale that "city" and "citizen" diplomacy can see past the rhetoric and positioning of nation-based international relations. Our country and our foreign policy need the occasional, or frequent, reality check that we are dealing with people and not ambiguous entities called, "nations."
The relationship between America and Iraq (and America and the world) depends not only on our nation's actions, but also on the actions of our nation's communities. The Minneapolis-Najaf sister city relationship is a model of alternative diplomacy -- with a peace-building impact that would make President Eisenhower proud.