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.
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.
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.
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).