Travelers As Diplomats?

On Thursday night I attended the launch of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy’s National Initiative* at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The crowd was typically Washington, D.C. (if you’ve ever lived there, you’ll understand). PhDs, former diplomats, the NGO community, and graduate students were all represented.

So how did I end up there?

I was trying to answer the question: “Do travelers like us offer any value to America’s public diplomacy efforts?

A Life of Diplomacy

I’ve spent much of my life with one foot in the world of public diplomacy – from growing up as a child of a State Department diplomat and a USIA diplomat to serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia (two of the three goals of Peace Corps’ misson actually have something to do with public diplomacy) and later working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a private, yet U.S. government-funded, international broadcasting organization. My path wasn’t the result of a strategic career plan, but a reflection of the kind of organizations to which I am attracted.

Come to think of it, this current journey is one of the few times in my life where I haven’t been part of a government-sponsored or formal program of public diplomacy. There is no office to which we can retreat or organizational credentials upon which we can depend. It’s just us out there. But the link between our journey and public diplomacy becomes more pronounced with every step we take.

Sharing Our Country, As We Travel

The reactions of ordinary people – on the bus, in the market, on the street – to us as Americans has been genuinely positive during this journey, despite the anti-American sentiment that stewed worldwide over the last few years. Many people we’ve spoken to have explicitly differentiated between us and our government and even suggested that meeting us has changed their outlook on America.

Woman Tying Head Scarf - Tolkuchka Market, Azerbaijan
Getting a helping hand in Turkmenistan.

As we wrote last year in a piece entitled Living at the Intersection of Travel and Citizen Diplomacy, published in the Fall/Winter 2008 edition of Kosmos Journal:

…Through travel, we seek to even the equation by interacting with people in public contexts like the local food market or public transport. In these environments, we impact the people who normally fall outside the range of formal diplomacy and intellectual exchanges.

…Perhaps the interconnectedness of today’s international travelers can help close the gap between formal programs and the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Does this mean we carry an American flag, an encyclopedia of American statistics, and an American foreign policy manual? Well, no. But it does mean that when we engage with local people – which for us happens to be a simple pleasure of travel – we are open to answering substantive questions about our home country. For most people living outside of America, their image of America is shaped by news broadcasts and Hollywood movies. But a curiosity regarding the lives of ordinary Americans remains.

So our interactions are two-way exchanges: we learn about the people and culture of the country we’re visiting, and in return, they learn a little about us.

No rocket science here. This is something most travelers do naturally. Some people call this acting as an ambassador for your country (read this article by Julie Schwietert Collazo on how learning the local language helps you become a better ambassador). Others call it being a citizen diplomat.

Hard to Quantify

While we believe each traveler plays a role in representing his country, it’s difficult to quantify the collective impact. Keeping track of travelers and their exchanges is not quite as easy as tracking students and professors in exchange programs.

Dan and Pamiri Old Man - Ishkashim, Tajikistan
An encounter at a market in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

But failing to recognize and capitalize on the role that travelers play in public diplomacy strikes us as a missed opportunity. Traditional diplomats and traditional public diplomacy are critical, but maybe it’s time to augment the set of tools in our country’s diplomatic toolbox.

In other words, it’s not either/or, it’s and.

Travelers as Citizen Diplomats

At the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy event, my Uncornered Market name tag was an attention-grabber. Several people approached me, curious to find out what it meant. Although what we’re doing through our journey and website stand in contrast to more formal and established exchanges and diplomacy efforts, most people I met responded positively as I shared my feelings regarding traveler-led organic diplomacy.

When I encountered bewilderment, I re-grounded the discussion with mentions of my work with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Peace Corps – known quantities that most people in this audience could relate to professionally. I was thus transformed from an aimless traveling hobo into someone with relevant professional experience, knowledge and context.

I’m not certain everyone grasped it, but a few did.

What Role for Travelers?

Perhaps there is an opportunity here to leverage the people-to-people interactions and collective knowledge of travelers and incorporate them into America’s public diplomacy framework. However, I also wonder whether doing so would draw a restrictive box around it, and thereby diminish the beauty of what travelers just do naturally while on the road.

Your Thoughts?

I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on this topic. Please leave a comment below or send me an email.
——
*The initiative, entitled Call to Action, aims to quadruple the connections between American citizens and their counterparts overseas by 2016. The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy has appealed to President Obama for his support (read the letter here; the petition begins February 9).

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Comments

  1. says

    The impact that travelers can have is incredible. I’ve been told, when stopping to help an old man in a small northern town, that he had never expected anyone from “the city” to take time out to help. When you go to other countries, the impact can become even greater.

    I’ve been asked about towns thousands of kilometers from where I live – but since it’s the same country, people just assume I’d know. And for the most part, I’ve been able to answer a lot of their questions.

    These are some of the reasons I think it’s so important to see your own country before you ever go overseas.

  2. says

    Travelers like you do offer value to America’s public diplomacy efforts. You put a face to America, which is a diverse and often misunderstood (if not just stereotyped). You humanize a country that is often an object of desire, hate, envy and criticism. As people meet you—and especially as you develop a relationship—it creates some healthy cognitive dissonance for them the next time they make a categorical statement about the US.

    For me Australians are a great example of citizen diplomats. Who hasn’t met an Australian while travelling and probably had a positive experience.

    p.s. Audrey you are certainly not an aimless traveling hobo. I have always considered you an ‘aimful’ traveling hobo :-)

  3. says

    Regarding your article: Travelers as Citizen Diplomats:
    In 2006 I returned to Viet Nam on a successful M.I.A. Mission with a friend of mine who is a decorated combat veteran of the Viet Nam war. He had buried a PAVN (NVA/North Vietnamese commando) in an unmarked grave in the jungle after a fierce battle near Dak To, Central Highlands during the TET offensive of 1968.
    After locating the soldier’s remains we notified the Vietnamese government. To say that they were very grateful would be an understatement. They are reciprocating by helping to locate our M.I.A.s.
    Before returning to New York we decided to visit Viet Duc University hospital in Hanoi, where we met with the staff and offered to provide critically needed donated medical equipment to their hospital.
    In addition, we arranged through our local Rotary Club in Lindenhurst, Long Island, NY to sponsor two surgeons from the hospital to come to Good Samaritan hospital in West Islip, Long Island for two months in June 2008 to observe its’ state-of-the-art EMS (Emergency Medical Service) Ambulance response system so that they can set up a similar system in Viet Nam.
    During their visit the doctors had the opportunity to learn about our history and culture and what Americans are really like. They returned to their families and friends in Hanoi with this knowledge and with positive memories about Americans that will last a lifetime.
    This project didn’t cost our government one dime. It just required a little effort on our part, as Citizen Diplomats, to reach out to our former foe.
    Semper Fi
    Dermot McGrath and Colonel Robert Etherson
    Lindenhurst, Long Island, NY

  4. says

    Travelers like you most definitely foster diplomacy as you mention on a grassroots one-on-one level. It goes both ways. When Americans travel, we see other countries, learn other cultures and begin to see the world in a less US-centric way. That alone leads to better understanding.

    But my best travel moments have been when I forget who is from where, who speaks what language, and I’m able to just sit in that moment with another person or family. I’ve found having a child bridges the “culture gap” in ways almost nothing else can.

    xo from one aimless hobo to another

  5. says

    @previously bitten: You make a very good point about taking the time to explore your own country. I had barely traveled in my home country until I traveled across the States after University. I learned so much about the diversity and sheer size of America from that journey – this helps me today when answering questions about different parts of the country.

    @Steven: We always try to explain how different America can be from one place to another – New York City is not representative of all of America. I completely agree about how meeting a person from a place humanizes that place and provides a different perspective. We see that with ourselves – our connections with countries has changed because of the relationships we have made with local people. Glad you consider me an aimful traveling hobo!

    @Dermot: The efforts that you described are exactly the type of connections and people-to-people relationships that make all the difference and what citizen diplomacy is all about. It does make a real difference. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your work.

    @Leigh: I’ve found that sometimes to get there we have to go through the sharing bit first until everyone realizes, “Hey, we’re all just people here!” I do agree that some of the best travel moments and interactions are when nationalities don’t matter.

    I was just telling a friend today about how traveling with children can open up all sorts of wonderful experiences with local people. We’ve observed this repeatedly in our travels, whether it was the line of Uzbek women waiting to take care of a French infant or Cambodian and American kids playing together. I’ve told this story a lot, trying to convince my friends that traveling with children can open new doors.

  6. says

    I enjoyed reading your post. I fully agree that travelers serve as some of the best ambassadors for their countries. As you mention, it is difficult to quantify the impact travelers have as citizen diplomats. The Institute of International Education has been tracking student and scholar mobility since 1948 but there continues to be important methodological concerns as we know we are not capturing all of the students and scholars in our data collection efforts. Consulting the data and reports found on the U.S. Travel Association website and the passport statistics found on the U.S. Department of State website can also be helpful in quantifying the number of U.S. citizens traveling internationally. These methods, however, only give us an idea of the number of travelers and does not address the question of impact that these international travelers have as citizen diplomats. Much more research needs to be done in this area to develop a methodology to measure the impact that international travel, study and research has as a diplomatic tool.

  7. Don says

    Thanks so much for your wonderful and timely article. Hillary are you listening?
    It is interesting to note, sometimes with a bit of humor, the results of a health care study that confirms what we have known intuitively and applied for a long period of time. Perhaps somewhere down the road a study will be commissioned to exam the impact of the citizen diplomat, but lets hope in the interim that we trust that inner voice when it tells us that simple things like less expectation, humility and mutual respect have a profound impact as we engage others throughout the world. Just the smiles alone that greet your camera lens speak volumes about some of the mutual joy that must be part of your daily interactions with very diverse peoples
    throughout the world. You have taken some difficult steps presenting
    dimensions of our culture that many may have thought were non existent
    because of some of our controversial government policies. We now seem
    almost giddy and rightfully so over renewed emphasis on formal government diplomacy with other nations. If we have renewed confidence in the value of diplomat to diplomat, is it not time to vastly expand the diplomacy process to include citizen to citizen.

    So Audrey and Dan, keep the message front and center about how
    citizen diplomacy, one small step at a time, can change the world. One
    door held open for another to enter; some greetings and thanks and
    interest in the other language; some respect for local custom; and again
    some humility. Simple but important things.

    You have lived it and have seen it work. So tiring as it may be, keep
    spreading the word about the worderful contributions that the citizen
    diplomat can make. Who knows; perhaps in time we will even have
    a study that says so.

  8. says

    @David: Everyone seems to agree that travelers, exchanges and other citizen diplomacy efforts help diplomatic efforts by fostering relationships, but we just don’t know much they contribute. You’re right, research is needed to develop a methodology to measure the impact from these people and programs. Do you know of any PD-related organizations or academia looking into this?

    @Marilyn: I had a friend visit us in Prague, Czech Republic about five years ago who really wanted to go to a supermarket with us. He explained that this was one of ways he learns about a place and culture. As we travel, visiting local shops and markets is one of our favorite activities, too. It really does tell a lot, not only by what’s offered but by how it’s organized and what takes top priority.

    @Don: Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Don’t worry, we’ll keep at our efforts to develop relationships and people-to-people interactions on the road! You mentioned humility, which I also agree is very important in order to engage with local people through openness and genuine curiosity. The experiences we have and the stories I heard the other day at the Center for Citizen Diplomacy launch convince me that people-to-people interactions, although they sound small, really can make a difference.

  9. says

    Audrey ~ I don’t know of any organizations or academics currently researching how best to measure the success of international travel and international acaemic exchanges. I’ve been considering this for my dissertation but not sure if this is the direction I will go in the end.

  10. Cori says

    Travelers have the ability to do exactly what you have mentioned in your entry. I saw this when my boyfriend and I spent a year traveling. We enjoyed getting to know others along the way and answering their questions as best as we could. The US elections were not that far away so you can imagine how many people wanted to know who we were voting for and how out election process works. The world was watching. Many we spoke to were just as excited about this election year those here in the US. I hope I was able to leave a positive impression on just some of the people we met along the way. In some cases, we were the first US citizen they had ever met.(a lot of pressure)

  11. says

    @David: In the last few weeks I’ve seen more attention given to citizen diplomacy and the role of travelers and exchanges in creating better ties across nations. Rick Steves is about to release a new book called “Travel as a Political Act,” which I think will push this topic more into the mainstream. I heard that Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times recently gave a speech to students at SMU about the importance of travel and studying abroad. So, maybe now is the right time to pursue this topic. I’d be curious to hear what you eventually decide.

    @Cori: The recent US elections did seem to mesmerize the world – everyone seemed to want to talk about it, in a good way. We had German and Canadian friends pouring over US news for hours each morning. Being yourselves – open to and interested in new cultures and happy to engage with local people – is the best way to represent America, both at home and abroad.

  12. says

    @Allegra: It’s really funny you mentioned the Rick Steves article in Salon – I literally read it this morning about an hour before your comment came in. It’s great to see him so passionate about his trip to Iran and speak out about the educational and personal growth aspects of travel.

    I’ve been connecting more with the Peace Corps community since participating in the Inaugural Parade, which has brought forth some interesting discussions. Peace Corps Connect was kind enough to let us guest blog about our journey. I’ve also asked for NGO contacts in Central and South America on PC Connect and have gotten some great replies. I’ll try and find you now to connect : )

  13. says

    Thanks for the travel inspiration! You two make me want to follow in your footsteps & not sell short the travel experience for more mainstream pursuits. Thanks!

    It’s great to hear the perspective of fellow American travelers that value the impression 1 person can make in their travels. I’ve been grilled by people, although generally other travelers, about politics, international policies, our health care system, and generally the ideology of Americans, and I love the sharing of ideas. There are so many images around the world that often distort our country’s priorities. In my opinion, there’s a lot of good that can be done, one open traveler at a time.

  14. says

    @Bessie: Glad we helped serve as an inspiration to take a non-traditional approach to life and travel! The more we see of the world, the more we see our own country misunderstood on so many levels. There’s a whole slew of reasons for these perceptions (e.g., media, Hollywood movies, etc.), but I still believe that making connections on a one-to-one basis and sharing personal knowledge about your country can make a difference. Not only may this change the person’s perception of your country, but the exchange of ideas and experiences is fulfilling for both parties.

  15. says

    Your experience mirrors mine. After inviting a Kyrgyz student to live with us while she completed her graduate studies here in the US, my family and I traveled with her to Kyrgyzstan last summer for a 3 week trip.

    It was the trip of a lifetime for us and for our teenage boys. It was also a precious opportunity to cut through the media hype and political rhetoric on both sides and have individuals from diverse cultures and backgrounds interact on the most basic and fundamental level: as individuals.

    It also ignited a fierce desire to travel and see the world in both my boys. The world is so much more than most of us ever understand from our narrow viewpoints. Being able to experience a different way of life and to see it as valid and authentic even when it is different than your own, is invaluable.

    I hope I can have the opportunity to act as ‘citizen diplomat’ again, because in the end, it enriches my life beyond measure.

    Best regards,
    Lisa Cohen

  16. says

    @LJCohen: Thanks so much for sharing your story of hosting Kyrgyz student and then going to visit Kyrgyzstan with your family! The timing of this is also important as the image many people have of Kyrgyzstan right now is not very positive because of the recent protests that turned violent. Yet it’s such a beautiful country in regards to its people and landscape. We write about media and bias related to this here: http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2010/04/thailand-and-kyrgyzstan-travel-media-fear/.

    And, you are so right when you say that travel allows one to see parts of the world different from your own and relate as individuals, in that universal human way. Travel also makes one challenge your assumptions about your home country and the rest of the world. I am sure you will have many more opportunities to be a citizen diplomat – once you start, it’s hard to stop!

  17. says

    Yes–I originally found your blog via that post on Kyrgyzstan and Thailand and travel. And I’ve now subscribed to it on my RSS reader. (Found you via Ben Young from Global Travel Health, a friend we met in our travels).

    I’ve been very frustrated about the kind of coverage Kyrgyzstan has gotten in the media and blogged about it here, in a series of posts: http://ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com/search/label/kyrgyzstan

    My poor readers have probably been confused, since 90% of my posts are about fiction or poetry writing. :)

  18. Tania Nesser says

    What a wonderful, well-written post.

    Yes! I believe we (travelers)do play a big role as informal diplomats through daily cultural exchanges. I am at the end of 3 1/2 years of independent travels after serving 12 years in the Air Force (seven years spent overseas). I am getting ready to return to school and one of my admissions essays was about the importance of being an informal goodwill ambassador abroad and at home.

    My views have changed enormously as someone who was once a part of the U.S./NATO foreign policy machine, but now identifies as an independent backpacker/citizen diplomat. Mark Twain cleverly said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” which accurately expresses how I’ve evolved through traveling.

    While in Burma, I met a monk novice who had never heard of the U.S. My mind was blown to have met someone who had no preconceived notions about the country I am from. Have you had a similar cultural experience?

    Tania

    p.s. Thank you for following me on Twitter otherwise I may have continued to miss out on your wonderful site. As a travel blog junkie, I’m shocked I’ve never stumbled upon it before. Thank you!

  19. says

    @LJCohen: Just realized that we never responded to your comment – don’t know how this slipped through! When you visit a country, the place (and more importantly, its people) sticks with you. You have context for understanding the news and realize that often what is presented is only a small fraction of the total story.

    @Tania: Thank you so much for connecting on Twitter with us and for leaving such a long comment. Apologies for the delay in responding – we’re just now catching our breath after our visit to Jordan.

    It’s interesting to hear how your views have changed since being part of the military and US/Nato foreign policy machine. Having grown up as a kid of diplomats and also working for a public policy organization, I also had certain views that have changed since traveling independently.

    I’m not sure that we’ve ever met someone who had never heard of the US, but we have met people who really had no idea about the country or its people. Kind of refreshing and nice to be the first American fact that person meets.

    Good luck with your return to school and thanks for following along with our journey!

  20. says

    Compared to some of your other commenters I’m simply a person who loves to travel and a career adjustment at the beginning of the year means that I get to enjoy it even more. With that being said, I believe that the idea of travelers as diplomats applies not just to bringing a better understanding of the majority of the American public to cultures whose experience with the US is typically limited to whatever is read or seen on TV but it also applies the other way round. We as travelers also get to bring the exposure of other cultures back to our home towns. We’re allowed access to a different way of life and have the opportunity to dispel the myths that those at home may have of the countries we visit. One of my favorites? That the French are notoriously un-friendly and calloused to the American public even though my own experience has led me to believe otherwise (that they’re wonderfully hospitable). With all that, we as travelers are not just diplomats for our home countries but we’re also diplomats for the countries we visit.

    I think that made sense…. I tend to ramble sometimes.

  21. says

    @Brandon: I couldn’t agree with you more on this. And yes, you made sense! It’s so important to bring back the story & be “diplomats” of the places you visit. We’ve nicknamed it “two-way storytelling” – telling the story of your own home while sharing the story of the place you’ve visited. It’s one of the goals of this blog to share stories of countries and people who are often misunderstood or who only show up on the news when political strife or violence occurs. In this, we’ve tried to bring a personal view and more nuanced understanding to regions like Central Asia or Central America and countries like Iran or Bangladesh. These are areas that people often equate with dangerous or inhospitable, but our personal experiences have been anything but that.

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