Citizen Diplomacy

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Citizen diplomacy began long ago, and later was defined and explored in Citizen Summitry: Keeping the Peace When It Matters Too Much to Be Left to Politicians (Jossey-Bass, 1986). Mainly concerning what were then the two superpowers, this volume outlined a role for citizens in international relations, especially for those who are outside governmental roles and who have the freedom to travel, to share their findings, and to receive guests. It has been a hallmark of citizen diplomacy to honor local intiative and ingenuity and to ask, “why not?”

Citizen diplomacy works in part by showing the sides to each other not as potential threats, but as a collection of humans who eat, go to school, dance, fall in love, start families, work, fix up houses or apartments, watch TV, receive guests, play games, go on vacations.

It was President Eisenhower who observed that governments are better at making war and building defenses than at creating peace. Part of the job of a national regime is to imagine “worst cases” in order to guard against them, a task that is necessary but that develops a kind of occupational paranoia.

Who focuses on the possible “best cases”? A popular motto in the citizen diplomacy movement is “when the people lead, the leaders follow.” Thus, citizen diplomacy is not to be confused with the official practice, directed by those leaders, called “public diplomacy.”

Relations with the former USSR were in some ways a special case, more challenging than many other relationships, but also, in some ways, surprisingly workable under Gorbachev. For example, once travel became easier, physical safety was not an issue. Because relations had been so distorted, citizens on both sideds were astonished by simple human warmth and hospitality in the other society. Under conditions of “glasnost” (or openness), it was possible to reach a wide audience in both countries. The sides put forward warring ideologies, but both countries had a cult of bigness and an overriding belief in economic development as a dominant source of human happiness. The relation was uniquely consequential: nobody else had more nuclear weapons. Not being adjacent, the two countries had no border disputes.

On the other hand, many opportunities for citizen diplomacy exist today, under somewhat different conditions. Like the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, many pairs of countries understand each other badly, or think the worst of each other, or try to exploit the other, or all three. In any case, people everywhere (other than homicidal or suicidal terrorists) respond well to respect and a desire to learn.

Just by deep listening, a traveler can show a degree of empathy that has been missing from a relationship. JFK in his classic American University speech observed that if the U.S. had been attacked as the Soviet Union was in World War Two, the enemy would have occupied territory from the Atlantic coast to the outskirts of Chicago. This simple example of seeing an event as it appeared to the other side was welcomed in the USSR and remembered for decades--an act of empathy echoed by many citizen diplomats.

There is a way that citizen diplomacy, like the Peace Corps, may serve as propaganda for an American empire of trade and bases, in effect softening the edge of what local people may see as a harsh system. In some cases, Americans are irrelevant to local quarrels, though we tend to regard ourselves as a universal solution.

However, citizen diplomats can contribute not only by exemplifying their own culture and being open to others, but also by mediating when invited and serving as a kind of buffer and even as honest brokers.

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Author: Craig Comstock