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International Visitors: Citizen Diplomacy as Public Diplomacy

IVLP Alumni: Margaret Thatcher, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, Ted Heath, Morgan Tsvangirai and Tony Blair- Image Credit: BBC

Last month BBC New Magazine ran a curious story (here) about the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), calling it “a little-known scheme run by the US State Department [that] has demonstrated an uncanny capacity to pinpoint these leaders-in-waiting.”  Despite the BBC’s assertion, the IVLP is quite well-known and highly regarded.

The State Department says the following about the program:

The International Visitor Leadership Program annually brings to the United States approximately 5,000 foreign nationals from all over the world to meet and confer with their professional counterparts and to experience America firsthand. The visitors, who are selected by American Foreign Service Officers overseas, are current or potential leaders in government, politics, the media, education, the arts, business and other fields. Among the thousands of distinguished individuals who have participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program since its inception almost seven decades ago are more than 290 current and former Chiefs of State and Heads of Government, 2,000 cabinet-level ministers, and many, many other distinguished leaders from the public and private sectors.

But the article notes that some see something sinister at play here.  Specifically, there are those who claim that the IVLP is used by the US Government to jump start the careers of those selected  to participate:

Conspiracy theorists warn the scheme is all about an imperial power meddling in the affairs of sovereign regimes, seducing their future political leaders and moulding them into Washington-approved candidates.

And this:

Not everyone views the programme so benignly, however. Intelligence expert Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster magazine, accepts it is likely that all the beneficiaries of the project’s largesse would have risen to the top anyway.  But he argues that the notion of a major power courting the future elite of another nation state offers cause for alarm.  “I’m concerned because I think Britain should be independent,” he says. “I think the idea of a foreign country interfering in our politics is worrying.”

While being selected to be part of an IVLP delegation to visit the US is a nice perk it is hardly a make-or-break career move for an aspiring leader.  Rather, it is an attempt by US embassies to identify important leaders (and leaders in the making) in a wide variety of fields (arts, libraries, politics, environment, education, museums and others) and find a way to connect with them.  Is it good for the US? Yes, in most cases, but the benefits are not immediate or certain.  But it is worth doing for many reasons.

Following a dinner I hosted for a Ugandan IVLP delegation, I wrote about how this program has benefits to Americans above and beyond the confines of traditional diplomacy:

These visits are worth gold to US public diplomacy. Not only do they allow for visitors to meet their peers in the US (and hopefully remain touch with many of them) and gather important programmatic information they can take home, the IVLP is also an important way for Americans to meet people from parts of the world they are unlikely to visit themselves.   The US population remains woefully uniformed about international affairs and this has serious implications for foreign policy and funding for foreign assistance- as well as the ability of Americans to appreciate and participate in globalization.  The IVLP makes these issues less a matter for the New York Times and more a conversation over a dinner table, a small meeting in an office and a friendship begun that might last for decades.  Yes, high-level diplomacy has its place and it requires trained professionals to carry it out.  But it must be underscored by the engagement of non-professionals who can meet and exchange views in informal settings that defuse the intense politics that often dominate official meetings.  US foreign policy cannot live on Track II diplomacy alone, but it also can’t live without it. As the conversations over my dinner table last week proved, serious issues can be addressed in informal venues and all involved are the better for it.   Citizen diplomacy is good for diplomacy – and for the citizens who engage in it.   This is quiet and unheralded work but it deserves the continued (and increased) support of the US Government.

We could use more schemes like this.


A group of International Visitors from the Sichuan (China) Mountaineering Association celebrating a successful rescue exercise during their visit with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Colorado – Image Credit: US Embassy, New Zealand



James Ketterer
James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement