Professional diplomats are, in some ways, a cursed lot. Often endowed with creativity, commitment, ambition, and in-depth knowledge, they all too often find themselves bound protocol, policy, and bureaucracy. After two or three years, right when their networks and country specific insight are maturing, diplomats find themselves transferred to new and even more taxing assignments. Citizen diplomats, however, know no such constraints.
Where diplomats must keep their mouths shut, citizen diplomats speak their minds. Where diplomats must toe the line of their government, citizen diplomats present a mosaic of opinions which more accurately represent their communities. Where diplomats must be risk averse because of the nature of bureaucracy and the knowledge that they operate under the microscope of international media, citizen diplomats take chances and have faith that through their everyday encounters with other citizens, the overall effect on visitors will be positive.
Of course, citizen diplomats will not—nor should they—take the place of professional diplomats whose conduct is dictated by their role as official representatives of the state. The well-choreographed dance of official diplomacy would be ill-served by diplomats from one country singing different tunes. But the underlying goal of diplomacy—to ensure positive relations while advancing the interests of a country or community—is shared by both professional and citizen diplomats alike.
Citizen diplomacy has its roots in the people-to-people exchanges promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1956 summit, during which he declared that “peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals.” At the urging of President Eisenhower, Sister Cities International was founded, and in turn over 2000 sister city partnerships between U.S. communities and communities abroad have been created. These partnerships have been the vanguard of people-to-people relationships, from the 1980s when U.S. cities formed relationships with the Soviet Union, to today with representatives from Fort Wayne, Indiana in the process of developing the first partnership with Burma.
These partnerships are sometimes erroneously dismissed as “feel-good” partnerships with little substance beyond arts or cultural exchanges. While culture and arts remain pillars of citizen diplomacy today, cities across the U.S. are organizing trade delegations, municipal exchanges centered on policy and management, cooperative educational programs between high schools and universities, and development projects.
Whether it is universities in Columbus, Ohio and Hefei, China applying electric vehicle technologies to urban planning and conservation efforts, or firefighters in Riverside, California training their counterparts in Cuautla, Mexico, the trend is clear: international relations are increasingly taking place at a sub-national level. With the ease of modern travel and communications, and the expansion of sister city activities across sectors, citizen diplomacy has matured into community diplomacy, with municipalities forming long term partnerships that result not only in individual exchanges, but also in the creation of institutional partnerships throughout respective communities.
Behind all these partnerships, at the micro-diplomatic level, are the engines of activity: personal relationships between citizens. Personal relationships are the link between disparate networks that allow organizations to find new opportunities. Personal relationships create the good faith that allows people to take risks. Personal relationships create champions who advocate for more engagement in their communities. The means of creating a citizen diplomat is no secret: a long-term exchange or multiple trips abroad. Young people who travel abroad invariably describe it as a “life-changing experience,” and are more inclined to build skills needed to be successful today and to travel later in life.
There are concrete steps that local and federal governments can take to support this new infrastructure in international relations. First, local governments must realize that international engagement is not something that can be done by adding a new task to an existing employee’s portfolio. It requires reorganization, the commitment of resources, political will, and long-term commitment across departments. Second, government at all levels must realize that exchange funding is a combination of educational investment and civic R&D. Connections take time to mature, and while the effect on individual exchange participants is immediate, the overall effect of exchanges on communities has a longer but just as profound arc. Third, despite the widespread use of new communication technology, face-to-face interaction is required to form long and lasting relationships with officials abroad.
Finally, national governments must move out of the mindset that the goal of citizen diplomacy or “soft power” is to convince foreign publics to accept or promote a particular policy. Those that promote this view confuse its purpose with that of professional diplomats. Foreign populations are receptive to policy when it appeals to their own interests or cultural values, not because they have a personal relationship with the person promoting a policy.
Citizen diplomacy from a national perspective is strategic, not tactical. Its goals are to create new opportunities, develop mutual interests, and cultivate communities with international and cultural competence. It offers governments a chance to diversify their portfolio of international relations. National governments will always need a professional diplomatic corps, but today what is more urgently needed is for governments at all levels to foster more citizen diplomats, and more community diplomacy.
Adam Kaplan is Membership Director for Sister Cities International, the national association for U.S. sister city programs. Prior to joining Sister Cities International he worked as an ESL instructor and teacher trainer in Italy.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s July/August 2013 print edition.