Ryan J. Suto's Blog

04 January 2012

Part II: Long-term: Exchange-based public diplomacy


Part I

Exchanges between states have the greatest potential to create lasting relationships between people. While they often impact a limited number of people, the impact is real and can spread more reliably by word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer communication than mass messaging can. Exchange-based programs, then, focus more on depth than breadth. Traditionally exchanges most occur in the educations setting; high school and university students from the Middle East and North Africa would come to the U.S. for a period of time while our student would go to that region, as well. While both of these directions, a cash-strapped Department of State should concentrate more on sending American Students to the Middle East and North Africa than bringing their students here. While this may sound unbalanced, the reasons for this emphasis are sound.

First, when the U.S. sends an American abroad, that American will come into contact hundreds of citizens in the host state. Each citizen with which that student interacts will have meet an American, and would thus have first-hand experience of what an American is like and how Americans act. Each citizen may then communicate this experience to others, and such experiences will be trusted as genuine. In contrast, when those from abroad visit the U.S., they too come into contact with hundreds of Americans, none of whom are selected for any required cultural sensitivity of meeting an individual from the Middle East or North Africa. In the end, if any one of these interactions is unpleasant, it could sour the entire experience for our guest, as negative impressions have stronger impacts on the human mind than positive ones. Even if the experience is a positive one, when our guest returns home, there is only one person who has first-hand experiences with Americans. While the word-of-mouth transmission is the same, there are fewer sources in this scenario. Thus, sending Americans abroad is more cost-efficient; the U.S. government would pay less money for each first-hand impression that those abroad would have with an American. Of course, these Americans are public diplomats of the highest importance, and should be selected carefully to ensure those are sent abroad who can shoulder such responsibility.

Second, sending Americans abroad will educate our own people about the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. While public diplomacy is ultimately about ‘selling America’, America must first be worthy of sale. Today the U.S. is exporting culture and images around the world. Young people in Egypt, Tunisia, and even Iran are familiar with American music and movies. What is also visible in the Middle East and North Africa is the obvious lack of understanding and knowledge that Americans have about them. How many Americans have heard or seen music or movies from any state in the Middle East or North Africa? Very few. This cultural communication is not two-way. As such, sending Americans abroad to experience other cultures will introduce our people to different worldviews and lifestyles. This is greatly important because for each Katy Perry song which is sought out in Lebanon, a headline about an American burning the Quran is read. For every Brad Pitt movie seen in Turkey there is a story of racial profiling in American airports. And, as noted above, since negative stories resonate more than positive ones, these instances create serious and long-term harm to America’s image abroad. By sending Americans abroad the U.S. can educate its own people, creating a much more informed and value asset to ‘sell’ to the Middle East and North Africa. Relatedly, by sending more Americans aboard, foreign language acquisition will be encouraged. Learning the language of another people is key to understanding that people, and by encouraging a more understanding American people, fewer knee-jerk reactions to foreigners will occur and be depicted around the world. While it certainly is important for people of the Middle East and North Africa to learn English in order to understand the U.S., we as Americans must show initiative by learning Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, etc, instead of expecting the people of the Middle East and North Africa to take the time to learn about us.

Lastly, sending Americans abroad is more politically palatable for legislators at home. In times of tight government budgets both at home and aboard, attention must be paid to the economic and political realities of policies when proposing new or altered agenda. Cash-strapped constituents have increasingly been holding Congressmen and women accountable on votes for new spending. As such, this policy would be mindful that it would be easier for a congressman or woman to say ‘I voted for a bill which will pay to send Americans abroad’ than ‘I voted for a bill which will pay to bring foreigners here’. This is because the first statement will feel much more like a benefit for those sent abroad, whereas the latter sounds like the taxpayers are bestowing a benefit on the foreign traveler. While the American people are generally generous, this would likely be a less popular allocation of tax dollars.

The reasons for sending Americans to the Middle East and North Africa are strong. Classic educational opportunities for study and research abroad give Americans incredible opportunities to discover other cultures and discuss and exemplify American values in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the U.S. Department of State should not limit such programs to classic educational exchanges and study abroad. In the wake of the Arab Spring North Africa has seen historic elections in both Tunisia and Egypt. More elections are planned in Egypt, and soon Libya should be joining in holding elections. The U.S. has a clear opportunity to offer to these states individuals with years of experience running elections to help in the logistics and implementation of free and fair elections. The U.S. can also send professionals to the Middle East and North Africa, such as lawyers, journalists, public administrators, and civil society support. Along with the research mentioned above, the U.S. Department of State should seek out the needs of the states in the region and offer each state American human capital to assist in their pursuits, courtesy of the U.S. government. Such programs would help both formal and personal relations between the U.S. and states in the Middle East and North Africa.

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