Paving the Way for Citizen Diplomacy

Talyn Rahman-Figueroa, CEO of Grassroot Diplomat, discusses how everyone is a diplomat in today's globalised world. 

The old stereotype of diplomacy is that of an elderly and dignified gentleman who is engaged in negotiations with men of similar calibre. Diplomacy is not just negotiations and secret disclosures but a formal representation of a recognised nation. Back before globalisation, sending diplomatic envoys to foreign lands was the only way to ensure international engagement at a face-to-face level. Nowadays, the era of the internet, satellite TV and cheap flights has made it easier for people to become more mobile than ever. 

Students are no longer restricted to undertake studies in their own countries but are encouraged to explore the language, culture and activities of other nations. In fact, foreign governments everywhere are using cultural exchange programmes to engage individual citizens to promote cross-cultural knowledge and understanding with people of other countries. This concept is known as ‘citizen diplomacy’ and it is a developing phenomenon that is being used to complement official diplomacy. 

Think of the last time you travelled abroad. What was the first question you were asked by local people? If the answer is, “Where do you come from?”, then you were unofficially engaging as a representative of your country. Citizen diplomacy is an emerging concept which suggests that individuals have the right to engage in foreign relations. 

In a society where cheap flights and travel information are abundant, it has become easier for ordinary citizens to engage with the rest of the world on a more personal level. An increase in human mobility has meant that we have become less dependent on diplomats to tell us what to expect of foreign countries and are better informed through our own experiences. 

Travellers tend to be more empathetic and can help to change the image and perception of their country, simply by engaging with local people on a personal and emotional level. Face-to-face contact is a powerful tool of communication that brings credibility and ordinary citizens are more likely to sell a positive image than a government broadcast. 

Governments understand this power and have demonstrated the force of citizen diplomacy through constructed programmes. Through exchange programmes for example, citizen diplomats are able to cultivate relationships with every country. At a university setting, it is no accident that you are likely to meet citizens of every continent. The visa process is lenient for international students looking to study in another country as it means increasing capacity to foster common value and mutual national interest. 

Student exchange programmes epitomise the concept of citizen diplomacy. The Japanese government, for example, uses its JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) to advance and promote international exchange and respect between Japan and other nations. JET is popular amongst international students as it is one of the easiest routes in obtaining a work visa in a country that is otherwise shut to foreign workers. As a programme backed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, JET helps to promote and establish Japan as a nation that is open to all foreigners.  

Similarly, the American summer scheme Camp America is advertised at secondary schools across the United Kingdom to strengthen the US-Anglo special relationship. By attracting British students to an American exchange programme, British students learn to dismiss any anti-American sentiment they may have by increasing cross-cultural understanding and knowledge of real Americans they work with. In July 2011, the British government has also extended a bid to attract 10,000 Brazilian students into British universities to strengthen diplomatic ties with Brazil, whose economic strength is rapidly increasing. 

Citizen diplomacy is not only demonstrated by individuals but is also practiced by non-government organisations too. For instance, American NGO World Meets US involves itself in citizen-level diplomacy by translating foreign articles to connect Americans with the rest of the world and informing them about global perceptions of their nation. Likewise, independent diplomatic agency Grassroot Diplomat makes its mission to bridge the gap between civil society and political leaders by connecting both groups of any nation for one joint cause. 

Despite the power of citizen diplomacy, it may not always be a force for good. According to online travel provider Expedia, foreigners have labelled Britons as the worst tourists abroad. As a nation that has a history of colonialism, it is detrimental to Britain’s image that their citizens make the least effort to speak the local dialect and can be disrespectful to a foreign environment when abroad. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi long stated that tourism could be useful to boost the image of her country but added a note of caution to how they could use the information they learn about. In her speech, Suu Kyi stated that “Tourists have to be careful not to deceive themselves; if they want to see the country, they can find all sorts of excuses for doing so…but what they have to understand is how far their visits really go to help the people”. With all this said, it is important for tourists and students alike to quietly observe and absorb the culture and norms of a foreign society they have decided to visit to bring about mutual respect and understanding. 

As official envoys for their country, diplomats are controlled seekers of information and have special training to collect, transform and utilise information into intelligence sources. As ordinary citizens, information that travellers obtain tends to be linked to their own experiences and emotion, and may not necessarily reflect well for the country they visited. Diplomacy is a delicate art of persuasion, negotiation and building ties and it has become more vital than ever for governments to rely on their citizens to establish better links with foreign allies. So the next time you meet a foreign visitor or you travel to a new destination, think of how your words and actions influence the image of the country you are from.