Citizen Diplomacy and the transatlantic relationship
On March 3, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted Rick Steves for a discussion on citizen Diplomacy in the United States and Europe post 9/11. Mr. Steves produces a weekly public radio program, is the author of over 30 books on European travel, and hosts Rick Steves' Europe, a television show on PBS. Mr. Steves has substantial experience as an American traveler in Europe and presenter to American audiences. He offered insights on the current transatlantic relationship, the American view of Europe, and potential lessons the United States can learn from Europe.
Mr. Steves began his presentation with an overview of U.S.-EU relations, suggesting that many Americans view Europe as a utopian, socialistic, "hippy" place. What Americans who stay isolated within the U.S. may not realize, according to Steves, is that Europe is in fact a strong economic and political force, very similar in size and scope to the United States. He asserted that Europeans are coming to terms with their triple identities, including those that are regional, national, and continental. Steves referred to an increasing loyalty to the EU as it has recently spent substantial funds on regional projects.
Mr. Steves argued that citizen travel can be an extremely effective tool to broaden Americans' perspectives and he hopes his speaking tour can be one such catalyst. Travel can eliminate fantasies about Europe and create a basic understanding of what is foreign, examining concepts such as cultures, attitudes, and systems. Employing this broader perspective in communities around the U.S. can then act as a form of diplomacy to increase positive relations between the U.S. and Europe.
One of Steves' most potent claims was that "terrorism is overrated," but that travel can help Americans cope in an age when the idea of terrorism is pervasive. He stressed that, "if you care about terrorism, you will travel more." Instead of staying home to be safe and changing value systems as a result of small incidents, Americans need to realize that terrorism actually affects a statistically small number of people. While bombings like those in Madrid and London should never keep someone from traveling, they do. He noted that Americans contradict themselves on this idea of safety by staying home because of terrorist acts while each year 70,000 people die on our roads and 15,000 are killed from guns.
Another reason to continue traveling, Steves contended, is the idea that Europe is anti-American. He claims the feelings aren't "anti-you and me," they are "anti-U.S. foreign policy." An ugly American, defined by his or her ethnocentricity and close-mindedness, will be treated like an ugly American, but an open-minded and flexible American can have a great experience despite resentment toward the U.S. government. He urged people to understand that the rest of the world is not striving for the American Dream, but working towards the "Dream" of their own country. Mr. Steves also discussed the shaping of his own opinion on a variety of policy issues through traveling, and he continually encouraged other Americans to experience these influences. He noted that, "smart people have different solutions," to similar problems and Europe has had different solutions than the United States, many of which should be considered by Americans as real possibilities, not just foreign practices. Policy issues that Steves brought up included a range of issues from big government and junk mail to drug policy and prostitution. The best way to recognize successful practices is to visit the places they have been implemented and to explore these in depth.