Mapping the World of the Mittlers: Mediating Organizations in Public Diplomacy

March 31, 2013

Last week I reflected on why the field of International Relations has paid little attention to Public Diplomacy and argued that one of the reasons is that the conceptual fragmentation of the field obscures the volume of foreign public engagement.  Thinking about this question a bit more I would also add that the organizational fragmentation of foreign engagement also tends to hide the volume of activity.

Particularly in cultural relations countries have relied on operating agencies outside the foreign ministry to actually conduct their work.  Some of these organizations have quite a high profile and are relatively close to government (The British Council) but many others are much more obscure and much more distant – to the extent that we may be talking about a private organization that is providing services to a government programme or a government programme  funding the activities of a private organization.

It would useful to have a term to cover this universe of organizations.  We could call them operating agencies or for the sake of sounding exotic we can borrow the German term mittlerorganisation. This is normally translated as the British quango – quasi autonomous non-governmental organization – something that looks like an NGO but actually has authority devolved from government.  My German English dictionary tells me that the sense of ‘mittler‘ is actually mediating so I’m going to apply the term mittlerorganization to any of the organizations that stand between policy and the publics even if the they are not technically a quango.*

Let’s look at a few cases to illustrate the variety of mittlers.  Firstly, the UK is unusual among the big PD players because it has so few of them.  The British Council offers a broad range of services that in other countries are done by multiple organizations.   Having said this the scope of the BC’s work isn’t fixed in stone: the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships are now managed by a private company.  If we look at France there’s a movement towards a British model with the French Institute as more of centralized quango but this a recent development.  Historically the picture is much more complicated.  Just to take one example between 1922 and 2006 the Association Francaise d’Action Artistique,  the operating agency for music, theatre and the plastic arts, mounted tens of thousands of activities but was little known even in France.  The author of a history of the organization (Piniau 1998) complains that few records that remain and suggests that it suited both the Quai d’Orsay and the artists concerned to keep their sponsorship discrete. In Germany the Goethe Institute coexists with the DAAD, the Alexander Humboldt Foundation  and the IFA not to mention the network of German schools (Maaβ 2009).

In the US there is a network of organizations that grew up in the area between the private sector and government.  To take two examples the Institute of International Education is a private organization established in 1919 to develop international education relationships but which over periods of a decades was closely connected to the development of American cultural relations work.  Another example is IREX, originally set up in 1968 by American universities to manage exchanges with the Soviet Bloc today it operates all around the world.  (In a later post I’ll look at another set of American ‘mittlers’ that revolve around the National Endowment for Democracy).

The world of the mittlers is does not have neat boundaries some are simply extensions of government, for others government sponsored work may be a minor part of what they do.  Many will provide services to private or non-profit actors not just government.  They will also do work for government agencies that is nothing directly to do with advancing foreign policy.   Also priorities evolve over time as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago external cultural policies (and higher education activities) may have originally been seen as tools of national projection but have become more important in their own right.  A necessary step will be develop a typology of mittlers classifing them in terms of legal status, funding, control, proportion of government work in order to provide a basis for a structured comparison.

Scholars of the cultural cold war (eg Laville and Wilford 2006) have argued for the importance of state-private networks but when you begin probe the world of the mittlers you see that this kind of hybrid activity has been pervasive in lots of places.

States have used mittlers because cultural relations work requires the mobilization of expertise, artists, scholars and hospitality within their own society and that have links with foreign countries and this is seen as easier to do by organizations outside government. Sometimes the organizations have been created at the behest of government other organizations existed anyway and have been brought into partnership.  To some extent this mode of working may have hidden government sponsorship from the foreign publics but it has also had the effect of reducing the visibility of this activity to scholars.


*Of course ‘mediating organization’ would do the trick.


Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2012) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Maaß, K.-J., ed. (2009) Kultur und Außenpolitik: Handbuch für Studium und Praxis. Nomos Verlagsges.Mbh + Co.

Piniau, B. (1998) L’Action Artistique de la France dans le Monde. Paris: L’Harmattan.



  1. …And, in the small confines of a small state, where the networks are even smaller, people with important know-hows move from one structure to the other, from the public to the private and vice-versa, these “mittlers” can be very important indeed. Thank you for that!

  2. Also the Dutch international cultural policy depends a lot on these ‘mittlers’ and with good results. The state creates the conditions for the cultural field, these organisations provide the actual content, manage projects and distribute a part of the cultural budget through independent funds.

    • Thanks Bas – I think that this post was partially inspired by reading about Dutch cultural policy – it’s a very different model from something like the British Council – and it made me think that we need to do a better job of recognizing the variety of models at work in this area.

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