Over the past decade numerous reports and recommendations have been made regarding needed changes in America’s foreign policy; as this election year comes and goes, there will no doubt be more.   During the same period of time, although somewhat unnoticed but no less important, there have also been a series of meetings and reports on what role Americans can or should play in foreign relations. These meetings involved selected groups of international experts hosted by the Johnson and Gilman Foundations and more than 10,000 leaders of U.S. international NGOs, universities, local governments and businesses who participated in community based summits on citizen involvement in foreign affairs in over 70 U.S. cities. In February of 2007, a U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) was formally established in Des Moines, Iowa.  In November, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, the USCCD held a U.S. Summit on Global Citizen Diplomacy attended by leaders of more than 650 U.S. international citizen diplomacy, primarily volunteer organizations involving participants from 39 states and 41 countries.

All these efforts strongly endorsed the concept that citizen engagement in international relations is indeed an important element of how our country defines itself to the rest of the world and is critically important to our economic well being as well as national security.  The result is that today U.S. leaders in academia, business, and the international non-profit world are more frequently using the term citizen diplomacy and referring to it as an important component of U.S. relations with the world.   What is citizen diplomacy?  What is the difference between citizen diplomacy and public diplomacy? Who is a citizen diplomat?  Why is citizen diplomacy important as a critical component of how the U.S. interacts with the world? What are the 21st century challenges that must be addressed to make citizen diplomacy a more significant part of our country’s international agenda?

Since its founding, the USCCD has defined citizen diplomacy as, “the engagement of individual citizens in programs and activities primarily in the voluntary, private sector that increase cross-cultural understanding and knowledge between people from different cultures and countries, leading to a greater mutual respect.” Furthermore, the USCCD maintains it is every American’s right if not his or her responsibility to be a citizen diplomat of the highest order for our communities, states, country and the world. USCCD defines public diplomacy as, “promotion of positive and credible perceptions of a country generally and of a country’s foreign policy specifically through activities and programs carried out primarily under the auspices of the federal government.”

As Ursala Oaks, Senior staff at the Association of International Educators states, “Citizen diplomats listen to others with compassion and an open mind; learn about history, culture and ways of life and thinking different from their own; respect peoples rights to views and approaches other than their own; explore other cultures and places with curiosity and openness; act to understand, engage, and work with people from around the world; and embrace a role as someone who can connect and make a positive difference in the global community.” In so doing, Americans are not only citizen diplomats, they are global citizen diplomats.  Why is being a citizen diplomat important?  Because, as a nation, it is in our own self interest.  Americans understand we live in a world that is exploding with information, completely interconnected and interdependent; trends that will only increase.  However, what we do not yet fully comprehend is that in the 21st century the very nature of our responsibilities as a citizen need to include being globally literate.   If, as a society striving to compete in an interconnected world, we are ignorant of the world around us, we threaten our very economic competiveness and national security.

Fifty-five years ago on September 11, 1956, at the Red Cross building in Washington, D.C., President Dwight D.  Eisenhower spoke to a gathering of American leaders in business, the arts, education, religion, sports, humanitarian aid that included the Boy Scouts, National Council of Churches, Chair of the Board of American Express, chief executive officers of General Electric and General Mills, and the President of the Motion Picture Producers Association. “If we want peace,” he said, “ then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments, if necessary to evade governments to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”

In that simple statement, Eisenhower, a military leader of WWII, shared his deep personal commitment to the power and importance of citizen engagement in foreign affairs.  He strongly believed government alone could not be responsible for our standing in the world and that Americans as citizens needed to reach out to the world and, in mutual respect, share their ideas, values and beliefs with others especially those who were not like them.   The 1950s were a different time and our country faced different threats than we face today. Nonetheless, Eisenhower’s message is no less appropriate for our 21st century world.

That day-long meeting resulted in the founding of Sister Cities International, Project Hope, People to People, and the Business Council for International Understanding, among several other non-profit international groups. They still exist today, faithful to Eisenhower’s message. In the ensuing years other Presidents shared Eisenhower’s views and acted on their personal commitment to citizen to citizen international service and engagement.  President Kennedy founded the Peace Corps. President Carter, the Friendship Force, and later Habitat for Humanity.  President Reagan founded the Points of Light Foundation and President Clinton, in his post presidential years, established the Clinton Global Initiative.  President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have both openly stated their commitment to citizen diplomacy in numerous speeches including the President’s famous speech in Cairo. 

Today there are an estimated 8,000 non-governmental U.S. based organizations providing opportunities for Americans, primarily as volunteers to be involved in international programs and services in a wide range of sectors, including amateur sports, K-12 school programs, university study abroad and exchange programs, volunteer youth organizations,  community based exchanges such as Rotary International, Sister Cities, and Partners of the Americas, performing and visual arts organizations and others that address  the environment and global  health. The nature of these activities includes study and educational travel abroad and partner school programs, opportunities to study foreign languages, host international guests and volunteer humanitarian aid and technical assistance. These opportunities are primarily voluntary in nature, available to Americans of all ages and backgrounds and take place both abroad and at home.

The United States is the only country in the world with such a wide variety of citizen diplomacy oriented organizations that provide so many options for citizens to be internationally engaged. They are an invaluable and unique resource for our country as we face the challenges of a highly competitive, interdependent world. By participating in them Americans have endless opportunities to become globally literate and active global citizen diplomats.  However, these organizations receive relatively little national attention from the media, most lack any substantial funding or are endowed, and most are totally dependent on limited private sector contributions, competitive grants through foundations or corporations or limited government support.

Given the breadth of opportunities, how many Americans are actually engaged today as citizen diplomats? How many of us attempt to learn a foreign language, much less become fluent in another tongue?  How many of us possess a passport, host international students, visit with international guests in our communities, offer our services and talents to those less fortunate in another country or participate in an international exchange program?  A sampling of statistics gathered from the Hudson Institute, the Institute for International Education, the recent U.S. census, and research at Washington University, does not reflect a society that is striving to become a nation of citizen diplomats and building a globally competent society.

For example there are 308 million Americans but only 0.27% volunteer abroad and 0. 1% volunteer in international organizations at home. 22%  have passports, but only 9% speak a second language. Fewer than 1% will ever meet any of the 3 billion people who survive on less than $2.00 a day. 1.3%,, or 270,000 American college students, studied abroad in 2009-10 compared to 1.27 million Chinese students. Only 3000 U.S. high school students studied abroad that same year. Less than 1% of the federal budget supports educational and cultural exchange programs, and only 5% of all private sector charitable giving supports international programs and services.[RR1]

There are more startling statistics on the low level of knowledge our K-12 students have about the world.  However, these numbers alone indicate that our country faces a serious challenge if we are to truly become a nation of citizen diplomats, globally competent and ready to compete in a complex, globally connected and interdependent world. These problems are not unique to our country, but the United States falls behind most nations when comparing ourselves to these same categories.  Yet the United States still remains a country that is viewed by many people throughout the world as a country they envy and admire. Although not true in all countries of the world, how many times have those of us who travel abroad or hosted an international guest, heard our international companions say, “I do not agree with your government but I love Americans.” We need to appreciate that the most powerful asset our country has is its people. As comforting as these comments may be, if we are not cognizant as a society of the need for all of us to be more globally literate and understand the power of citizen engagement  as a resource to promote world peace, this admiration will eventually vanish.

What are the 21st century challenges for the U.S. in obtaining a greater national recognition and understanding of the importance of citizen diplomacy, increasing the number of Americans who participate in the many opportunities available to be citizen diplomats and building a nation that embraces the concept of global citizenship? The longing for a world without conflict is universal. Although our military and official government-to-government relationships are critical to our national security, they will never be the sole solutions to building a more peaceful world.  Citizen engagement in the unique infrastructure of U.S. organizations that involve Americans as citizen diplomats is a powerful tool our country should aggressively support to achieve world peace.  Why?  Because people to people engagement addresses the root causes of unrest that breed war and terrorism long before guns and bombs or formal diplomatic negotiations are necessary.

Citizen diplomacy, implemented in cooperation and partnership with people of other nations, builds wells for villages in Africa, helps young entrepreneurs start businesses in South America, assists young women in Pakistan to attend school, shares homes and hospitality with foreign visitors, contributes to eradicating polio, AIDS and malaria world-wide, exchanges artists, musicians, entertainers, and sports teams with other countries and welcomes international students to study at our schools and universities.  This kind of activity is well documented, with stories that save lives and build long lasting personal relationships and international good will all over the world.  But as the statistics bear out, there are not enough Americans engaged and too few Americans of all ages are taking action to be more globally literate.

A major campaign is needed to create a national movement that raises the consciousness and changes the mind-set of our society so that the responsibility of being a global citizen diplomat, actively engaged in citizen diplomacy work, is part of our national culture.  We must build this movement in spite of a society that is embroiled in a troubled economy and coping with high unemployment, Congressional stalemate and an all-time high budget deficit are concerns that are driving our country toward isolationism at the peril of a stronger and more competitive country in the future.  The Coca-Cola Foundation understands the importance of this issue and granted $100,000 to the USCCD to launch a national campaign to double the number of citizen diplomats by 2020.  But more support is needed to make any serious impact to increase the number of Americans engaged as global citizen diplomats and virtually change the mindset of our country toward a new definition of what it means to be an American citizen in a global world.

Second, the United States can take pride in having the largest number of international NGOs that provide services and programs in a wide array of sectors of any country in the world. But the work these organizations are doing cannot make the total impact needed  to share our culture in the arts, education and sports,  aggressively diminish the spread world-wide of disease,  work against the denial of human rights, help develop civil societies, assist less developed nations  in providing greater access to education for women or fight  contamination of the environment when less than one percent of the U.S. federal budget and only five per cent of private sector giving supports citizen driven international activity. This must change through advocacy efforts from the organizations themselves and through grass roots advocacy both at the state and federal level in spite of a troubled economy. Our country is losing out on the most inexpensive opportunity to guarantee our standing as a world leader and make significant contributions to the saving of the planet.

Another challenge is that while U.S. international organizations are doing extraordinary work with diminishing funds, they tend to work separately rather than take advantage of combining their resources or work across sectors. Greater collaboration and cooperation between and among U.S. international NGOs is needed, a major reason for the formation of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy.  Although in its formative years, the USCCD is evolving into a U.S. Association for Citizen Diplomacy, an umbrella organization that promotes, educates and honors the work of citizen diplomacy and the organizations that enable Americans to participate as citizen diplomats, but encourages and supports collaboration and more efficient use of resources.

Both the U.S. Department of State and USAID attempt to utilize important resources that international non-profits can offer to address numerous training, educational, technical assistance and humanitarian needs around the world. However, all too few of the some 8,000 or even the 1800 organizations that are either vetted or being vetted for placement on the U.S. Center website are actually engaged in federally funded programs.   Most of the federal support granted to U.S. non-profits are given to a small number of typically large, well staffed D.C. based contractors or NGOs.  A larger pool of talent and expertise is overlooked. There are several reasons why. In most instances the government agencies are simply not aware of the vast resources available, the process of applying for federal grants is overwhelming for smaller organizations and there is a lack of confidence that smaller non-profits are able to deliver quality programs or services.

More recently, the U.S. Department of State has begun to recognize the value of the well organized and vetted  NGOs currently on the USCCD website. Several Department of State offices have reached out to USCCD to provide them with greater access to these organizations. While this collaboration is in the very early stages of being developed, the USCCD is working hard to make sure that the government is more aware of the underutilized U.S. international NGOs that are ready and willing to provide excellent services and programs at extremely reasonable costs. Due to extensive use of volunteer professionals rather than highly paid consultants, the fees charged to the government are extremely cost effective.  Given major budget cuts at both State and US
AID, it behooves the government to reach out to a largely neglected resource of talent and expertise.

Last, no one country today, including the U.S. with its 8,000 NGOs, can by itself, even with increased financial resources, meet the global challenges we all face together as a human race. A recent survey and report by the British Council concluded that while there are numerous regional coalitions of various cultural, educational and volunteer service organizations particularly in Europe and Asia, the U.S. has been absent. The U.S. has not been well represented with other broad based, national cultural, educational and humanitarian coalitions that have already formed to collaborate and leverage their resources.  There is also growing recognition that the non-profit world of educational and cultural organizations in the U.S. and world-wide must work more closely in partnership with business and governments both within their own countries and on an international level.

As a result, the U.S Center for Citizen Diplomacy has joined with the British Council and other leaders of non-profit international organizations, business and government from throughout the world to explore the potential of forming an International Alliance for Global Citizenship. While the concept is in its formative stage, the goal is to begin a truly worldwide international movement for global citizenship, dedicated to addressing the critical issues facing the planet in the next 20 years and beyond. Although primarily led by civil society organizations such an alliance would recognize, as Carne Ross states in his book, The Independent Diplomat, that “the private corporate sector, civil society, and governments must all act in concert together in order to be effective in bringing about change that is good for all of the earth.”

In summary, in order to build a nation of global citizen diplomats, our country needs to: embrace a national campaign to raise the consciousness of the American public about the importance of citizen diplomacy; organize a national advocacy effort to urge greater financial support from both the public and private sectors; promote the value of collaboration among U.S. organizations for more efficient use of scarce resources; encourage the U.S. government to better utilize the vast NGO resources available to them to address international needs; and join the international stage with other nations also committed to citizen diplomacy in concert with business and governments throughout the world.

Parag Khanna, in his book, How to Run the World, states, “We must load new software in to our global networks called mega diplomacy which requires a jazzy dance among coalitions of ministries, companies, churches, foundations, universities, activists and other willful enterprising individuals who cooperate to achieve specific goals. Mega diplomacy is about creating unity across communities to manage our collective space.”  Perhaps this is the 21st century version of Eisenhower’s words, 55 years ago.

The primary mission of the U.S Center is to educate Americans about the importance of being engaged  “global” citizen diplomats and promote the numerous ways to do this not only as individuals but through some 8,000 organizations that are part of Khanna’s jazzy dance. Mega diplomacy may well be the next step we must take in full partnership with business and governments throughout the world to effectively manage and solve the 21st century challenges facing our collective space.  Hopefully we can accomplish this in less than fifty-five years.  I am confident we will.

Ann Olsen Schodde is the President and CEO of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy, based in Des Moines, Iowa. Throughout her career, Schodde has held various leadership and consulting positions with higher education and international non-profit organizations, as well as more than 21 private foundations, professional associations and government agencies. She has worked with embassy staff from over 60 countries. She holds a double major degree in Political Science and Speech from the University of Wisconsin and a M.Ed. from Cornell University.