How the United States engages with other nations is changing, increasingly encouraging the engagement of citizens, and networks of individuals to participate more fully in formal and informal diplomatic activities. Why?
Largely due to digital technology, citizens around the world are playing an increasingly important role in foreign relations. Today, one blogger has the ability to reach more people globally in a day than the BBC or Voice of America could 30 years ago. Given the explosion of new platforms for engagement, citizens are having a profound impact on domestic and international affairs around the world. In the past two decades, there have been 40 transitions to democracy around the world as a result of a massive emergence of civilian-led efforts. The relationship between citizens and government is fundamentally changing. Governments—particularly historically repressive governments—can no longer ignore the publics they serve.
When Secretary of State John Kerry visits other countries, he makes a concerted effort to engage with citizens to seek their input and advice on how to improve bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships. Yet, many factors limit the ability of traditional diplomacy to meet the growing and evolving need to engage foreign publics. In a world of seven billion people, the State Department’s 13,000 foreign service employees, who staff 265 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions all over the world, have neither the people power nor the budget power to engage international audiences with the frequency today’s digital world demands. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), on average, the United States spends less than the annual advertising budget of some multinational companies to communicate America’s vision to the rest of the world.
In addition to the practical realities of people and financial resource constraints, engaging citizens in diplomatic activities makes good sense because citizens are arguably better at creating authentic connections. According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project many countries rate their opinion of Americans higher than their overall opinion of the United States and/or the Unites States’ consideration of their nation’s interests. If we want to strengthen relationships between the United States and other nations, we need to lead with one of our strongest assets, our people, putting our citizens front and center in our nation’s diplomatic activities.
In his best-selling book, Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes: “Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend—or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet—understands this implicitly; you can learn as much—or more—from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face.”
People around the world need to see America’s bookshelves and medicine cabinets, our kitchens, classrooms, and boardrooms, no matter how messy they may be. These places highlight the real face of America, and they provide insight that can overcome huge barriers to cooperation at the lowest and highest levels of society.
The opportunities to develop these authentic connections are easier than you might think. During the 2013 school year, nearly 820,000 international students attended American colleges and roughly 250,000 Americans studied abroad. There are close to 300,000 high-school and professional exchange participants in the United States every year and one out of every eight people living in the U.S. is a foreign-born immigrant. Each encounter with an individual from a different country presents an opportunity to build relationships between nations. Individuals often fail to seize these opportunities, not to speak of failing to consider the benefit such connections can yield.
International exchange programs, many of which are either supported by or sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and other foreign governments have, for decades, encouraged individual citizens to connect, collaborate, and experience first-hand the authenticity of a people and a nation. Programs that bring and send leaders, scholars, students, and professionals to the United States and abroad were once considered laudable, but on the periphery. Now, according to leadership at the State Department and the National Security Council, they are central to U.S. foreign policy, national security, and economic development priorities.
Global Ties U.S., previously known as the National Council for International Visitors or NCIV, has been a non-profit partner to the U.S. Department of State for over 50 years. Global Ties U.S. sustains a network of over 100 organizations in 44 states and 13 countries that connect local government, non-profit, business, and academic professionals with their international counterparts. Global Ties U.S. provides its members, who engage over 40,000 local leaders and volunteers, with training, support, and connections to help them be as effective as possible.
The organization’s new name communicates the value and importance of international exchange programs, speaking to the outcomes we seek to achieve —building enduring relationships between individuals and nations. Our language speaks to the direct link between relationship building that is accomplished through exchange programs and peace, prosperity, and national security.
Early this year, Global Ties U.S. will convene its National Meeting of the diverse range of organizations and individuals engaged in this important work. Later this spring, Global Ties U.S. will host Discover Diplomacy, offering citizen diplomats across the country a unique opportunity to gain an insider’s view of the world of diplomacy in Washington D.C., better understanding the important role citizens play in the process.
Every day, people have opportunities to look outside their status quo. There are simple ways to change your view of the world. Global Ties U.S. seeks to encourage individuals and organization around the world to engage their stakeholders—whether they are host families, volunteers, or business partners—to encourage them to recognize and embrace their role as citizen diplomats. Each one of us can help shape foreign relations through the everyday connections we make with citizens from around the globe.
The work of the citizen diplomacy community is not just a nice thing to do; its repercussions have far-reaching implications. Future global prosperity, peace and stability are dependent upon increased international cooperation, collaboration, and mutual understanding. You, and every citizen, can be a part of that future.
Jennifer Clinton, Ph.D., is the president of Global Ties U.S. (formerly NCIV). She has spent her career in the fields of international education and business because of a deep passion for connecting people and cultures in order to build a more peaceful, prosperous world.