The Debate

Smarter Diplomacy: Doubling Down on People-to-People

Citizen exchanges are an easy and cost-effective means for countries hoping to build influence overseas.

Smarter Diplomacy: Doubling Down on People-to-People
Credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream via Flickr

Last week, the U.S. government released its 2015 budget request for diplomacy efforts, ringing in at $46 billion. While this funding covers everything from AIDS prevention in Vietnam to peacekeeping in the Congo, there is one sliver of the budget that deserves more attention: the roughly $1 billion set aside for “public diplomacy” and “citizen exchanges.” Despite its lack of buzz, this funding – which amounts to only around 1/500th of the defense budget – figures to be one of the most important investments in expanding U.S. global influence and innovation for years to come.

Across the globe, nations that invest in people-to-people diplomacy are better positioned to reap the awards of the information economy. With advancements in communications technologies, nations would be wise to bring their citizens into the fold, particularly through international exchanges in fields like entrepreneurship, science and technology.

If embraced, people-to-people diplomacy could unleash a new wave of innovation and economic growth. But while it sounds simple and easy (and it is), the problem is that most politicians don’t support it.

Connectivity, But Not Cooperation

Far from an economic silver bullet, the very tools that can be used to bring nations and people together can just as easily be used to grind government to a halt.

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Take, for instance, the polarization gripping Congress. People and politicians can communicate better than ever before, with little to show for it. No matter the proliferation of virtual town halls via Google Hangout – let alone faster correspondence via e-mail – U.S. lawmakers just closed out their least productive year ever. At the same time, the increasingly partisan and diverse media sector is driving people to sources that reconfirm biases and disseminate false information.

As a result, budding innovators are convinced that the machinery is stuck and are spurning careers in government. And with legislators increasingly unwilling to compromise either with each other or with foreign governments – see the recent “Law of the Seas” treaty debacle – it is clear that a new approach must be adopted to kick-start diplomatic and economic cooperation.

The right approach is simple: create avenues for people-to-people collaboration.

Throughout history, every nation has attempted to get greater influence abroad. But today, instead of doubling down on expensive 20th-century mechanisms of garnering global sway – like Russia’s approach in Georgia and now Ukraine – connecting citizens across borders is a far more effective (and cheaper) way of projecting power.

Instead of reinventing diplomacy for each generation, emerging and traditional powers can learn from each other, by building on the best qualities each bring to the table. In short, diplomacy must move from the hands of lawmakers into the palms of citizens.

Top-Down Taps Out

Hierarchy – once a defining element of both the public and private sector – is increasingly outdated. It stunts the seeds of innovation necessary to make companies and governments truly inclusive and responsive. The 9-to-5 of IBM has been supplanted by the remote work culture of Cisco. There’s a reason that Zappos – America’s largest online shoe retailer – is embracing a no-hierarchy model amid record-high profits.

Nowhere is the need for this more obvious than in the world of diplomacy, which used to be the exclusive domain of pinstriped professionals and statesmanlike leaders. Today, however, hoodie-wearing, digital-savvy millennials can be united by social networks in Brazil to Turkey, impacting their nations in the form of hash tags, posts and tweets.

But given the acceleration of the global scientific revolution, it is difficult to imagine, much less predict, what new transformative possibilities will emerge within a decade. But that’s precisely why exchange programs in science and technology should become a focus for both established and emerging powers. All countries want to attract, and engage with, top scientists, university research laboratories, and multinational technology companies. Facilitating connections between the brightest minds is the best place to start.

Across the international arena, you can name any sector, and technology is turning it on its head. Energy? Fracking technology is driving natural gas to an all-time high in supply and an all-time low in price. Banking? Mobile technologies are giving farmers in Africa a chance to check out real-time crop prices. And from national security to healthcare, every nation is looking for breakthrough innovations. They key, however, is to connect the talent inside their borders to like-minded minds abroad.

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Progress, But More Investment Needed

A cheaper alternative to costly R&D or defense spending, citizen exchanges will only grow in importance—and create a generation of citizen diplomats.

Organizations like Sister Cities International, which was established in 1960 by President Dwight Eisenhower, are at the forefront. Today, urban centers like New York, London, Istanbul, or Tokyo share more in common with each other than with their fellow compatriots in rural Kansas, Scotland, Konya, or Kyushu. And Sister Cities, which connects more than 1,900 cities—in 140 countries around the globe—enables citizens to be just a click away from their global peers.

At its core, Sister Cities’ successful approach reveals an underlying fact: the heart of people-to-people diplomacy continues to rest on human connections. And today, technology is the best avenue for doing that.

Whether these programs take the form of bootcamps for entrepreneur start-ups; or as regional youth leadership summits; or even as classroom-to-classroom Skype exchanges—the idea remains simple: empower private citizens and sectors to go global. Co-creating solutions with civil society and the private sector—not dictating solutions from national capitals—is the wave of the future given today’s new dynamics.

Yet, government does have a role to play. Together with our allies, America must be a “seed investor” of sorts, and fund ,pre exchanges of our best and brightest. (The new TechWomen initiative, which brought dozens of Middle Eastern and African women leaders in science, technology and math to Silicon Valley, is a great place to start.) And with a relatively tiny cost – the U.S. public diplomacy budget is, to be specific, 0.002 percent of our defense budget – any investment in these exchanges will be marginal in cost, but massive in dividends.

To be sure, some of the older generation of leaders will grow frustrated by the rising millennial generation, which is often disinclined to invest in traditional organizations. Yet, it is worth exploring ways to get the next generation leaders to focus their own entrepreneurial and scientific endeavors on the needs of a nation.

“Countries and people and leaders of countries act out of self-interest,” Secretary of State John Kerry once said, “Foreign policy is the art of finding those interests and seeing what serves your nation and trying to marry them.”

By getting like-minded innovators to collaborate, citizen exchanges reveal that despite differences in language, religion and culture, the world’s brightest young minds have far more common interests than most would ever expect. If the U.S. – or any ambitious nation – hopes to expand its global influence in today’s diplomatic arena, looking to its own people is the best place to start.

Dr. Joshua Walker is Director of Global Programs for APCO Worldwide. Daniel Gaynor is a Partner at Sweat to Solutions, an international non-profit consultancy.