Foreign Policy Blogs

American Citizens: More Effective than Diplomats in Engaging Foreign Publics?

Pakistan’s small university population is one of that nation’s most outspoken communities, particularly in their opposition to U.S. involvement in the region.  I recently participated in a panel at the International Islamic University (IIU) in Islamabad, and the students expressed their sentiments on this matter quite bluntly.  “Why is the U.S. killing Pakistanis?” they wanted to know.  They also repeatedly referenced” lack of respect” for Pakistani sovereignty by the U.S.

The United States is winning no popularity contests in Pakistan.  Only 17 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. in a favorable light.  Obviously, the U.S. State Department has a long way to go on the public diplomacy front.  One of the most promising ways State is trying to engage foreign publics with unfavorable perceptions of the U.S. is through citizen diplomacy.

U.S. citizens can be a tremendous asset in promoting American ideals and values.  By sponsoring delegations of American professionals to countries where the U.S. is held in low esteem, the State Department hopes to spark development of mutual respect.

Often the grantees selected for these exchanges by the State Department are not foreign policy gurus.  The advantage to this is that, when asked specifically about the U.S. government’s intentions, citizen diplomats often don’t have an answer.  Yet their mere presence makes up for this lack of insight.  Sending Americans amid hostile populations gives audiences an opportunity to vent their frustrations and make them feel like their voices are being heard by the U.S. government.

I believe this system works.  Doubtless some IIU students likely left the seminar room frustrated or wondering if they had learned anything from the discussion.  But others eagerly sought business cards and photo ops.   In U.S. diplomacy, it’s not always the content of what one says that matters, it’s showing up.

At a luncheon honoring the National Council for International Visitors’ 50th Anniversary last February, Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale stated that “presence demonstrates something very important about the changing nature of diplomacy.”  Simply giving foreign audiences an opportunity to engage with Americans—be it to vent frustrations on U.S. policy or to converse at a personal level—is a crucial element in public diplomacy. Foreign publics can more readily relate to other private citizens—grantees traveling in an unofficial capacity—than to diplomats.  This provides foreign audiences with a broader and more complete understanding of the United States and its people.