Cultural Diplomacy 2.0: Citizen Diplomacy
A new form of citizen diplomacy is reshaping transatlantic relations. As national governments adapt their international diplomatic efforts to meet the new challenges of the Age of Trump, the future of transatlantic relations increasingly rests in the hands of leaders and regular citizens who step across national lines—be that in person, through business and educational collaborations, or through social media. Previous generations have defined “citizen diplomacy” largely within the framework laid by the cultural and other exchange programs built after WWII. While these structures remain crucial, the new frontier of citizen diplomacy rests with individuals and groups using these established frameworks to foster concrete policy collaboration and innovation. These informal relationships comprise citizen diplomacy, and it is through these efforts that the tattered transatlantic relationship can be girded and trust rebuilt among citizens to weather this period.
“Citizen diplomacy” refers to the idea that all citizens, regardless of their professional position, can function as representatives of their nation to the world. A citizen diplomat can include any citizen who seeks an audience abroad and aims to represent their home country, including business people, students, athletes, and artists. The concept first gained currency at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, as scientists like physicist Robert W. Fuller and artists like Arthur Miller and other prominent individuals traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries as representatives of the United States. Scholars subsequently began to trace the roots of this effort back in time, pointing to citizens as early as the First World War who advocated for peace and reconciliation at the international level. In the past decade, with the explosion of social media and alternative platforms, citizens can represent their country abroad without leaving home—and indeed, can assume a range of functions previously controlled by professionals. With this shift, “citizen” has been appended to a range of functions, leading to the rise of the citizen journalist and the citizen entrepreneur amongst others. The U.S. Department of State itself has embraced this profound shift in public diplomacy, urging U.S. citizens to view themselves as citizen diplomats.
It is clear that we live in the age of citizen diplomacy. Where should we look for exemplars? The German Marshall Fund and other organizations are functioning as conduits for inspired and energetic leaders who are stepping across national lines to innovate policy reform and reshape diplomacy. John Boerstler (MMF’11), for example, has traveled from Texas to Denmark to discuss veteran affairs, and has returned to the U.S. and shared information gained to reshape U.S. efforts to assist and track the transition of soldiers from active duty back to communities in 2017. Since that time, this work of U.S. and European veterans has now assembled a transatlantic working group of veterans affairs specialist working with their Ukrainian counterparts to design the services offered to soldiers returning from the Donbas Front. Boerstler represents just one of many recipients of GMF Alumni Leadership Action Grants. Georgia Public Broadcasting journalist Rickey Bevington (MMF ’14) has similarly ventured to Europe to discuss shared challenges to news media in the face of “fake news” and growing distrust of mainstream outlets. Romanians Madalina Mocan and Anamaria Vrabie have come to the U.S. to discuss urban governance. In the business sector, the corporate-sponsored Pyxexa Global Center for Citizen Diplomacy aims to create a meeting space for organizations, ranging from corporations to universities to civic organizations, to gather and share best practices to recast their leaders as citizen diplomats at the frontier of global engagement.
While the frameworks established to advance citizen diplomacy are currently protecting the international liberal order when political leaders like Trump step away from leadership around shared values, it is important not to simplify or reify this form of engagement. The Arab Spring, the struggle of Chinese dissidents, the Green movement in Iran, the global Occupy Movement, anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain, building labor and environmental side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement—all have made headlines in recent years as examples of mass movements of citizen efforts that have directly influenced policy innovation, both domestically and abroad. Yet similar channels and organizing efforts are also being used to counter liberal values, for example in the case of anti-Islamisation groups in Germany and extremist groups in the U.S. It is precisely because the well-established channels and tactics of citizen diplomacy are being used for illiberal ends that transatlantic leaders must take heed of diplomatic efforts that fall outside traditional channels. Support for citizen diplomacy is best offered by providing resources to key actors, with brokering alliances across borders, and with spotlighting innovation and partnerships that advance collaboration around liberal values. Citizen diplomacy is moving beyond the traditional idea of exchange, with new forms evolving—now is the time for leaders to act to invest in efforts that undergird the transatlantic relationship.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.