Youth Diplomacy: the long-lasting effects of international exchanges for the U.S.

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by Gabriel Ortiz-Barroeta

International exchanges have been taking place for a long time. Yet few people understand the impact this sort of public diplomacy has. As a matter of fact, international exchanges, especially those undertaken by youths, have the longest-lasting impact in multilateral relations between the U.S. and other countries. The rationale for exchanges is simple, and its effectiveness is tremendous. Although technological advances pose a challenge to exchanges, the argument against their continuation is not strong enough. The fact remains that the short-term and especially long-term benefits of international exchanges are vast.

The rationale for international exchanges is simple. By having a person-to-person approach between American citizens and their counterparts abroad, in a domestic or international setting, preexisting stereotypes are broken. This is because after some time, people realize that the similarities between them far outweigh the differences. And the remaining differences can then be viewed as enriching rather than threatening (Bellamy & Weinberg, 2008: 62). As President Barack Obama puts it: “Simple exchanges can break down walls between us, for when people come together and speak to one another and share a common experience, then their common humanity is revealed.”

International exchanges are quite effective in terms of creating an impact in public diplomacy. Despite how different governments in other countries may be from ours, the fact remains that in most cases governments are influenced by the people they serve. If people create bonds between one another through person-to-person international exchanges, international disputes become easier to resolve, and past scars become easier to heal. Moreover, confrontations and conflicts become unlikely to occur again. An illustrious example of this was the Franco-German rapprochement in the aftermath of World War II. International exchanges played a key role in reconciling the once-thought irreconcilable foes (Krause & Van Evera, 2009: 113). This was only possible due to the emphasis on bilateral exchanges between both countries’ youth, who brought about the change.

However, there is an intellectual camp that believes that the person-to-person approach for exchanges is no longer necessary, deeming it archaic. This camp was particularly prominent during the 1990s, though it has lost leverage since (Finn, 2003: 17). It believes that technological advances, such as the Internet, shared global pop culture, and, most recently, social media make societies ever-more intertwined. As a result, exchanges are constantly occurring between people—especially the young and technologically savvy—without the need to travel or spend money. Although it is true that technology has been bridging people throughout the globe in an unprecedented manner, it can never fulfill the same diplomatic function that exchanges do. Technology can never replace human interactions, which are based on feelings and emotions. The power of international exchanges lies in the fact that people cohabiting in the same place and sharing the same experiences are able to establish a person-to-person dialogue. And this dialogue eventually evolves into a respectful mutual understanding.

There’s a general agreement between diplomats and scholars that exchanges improve and restore bilateral relations between countries. At least this is one of its most obvious impacts. This impact has been most noticeable during lows in diplomatic relations. To a great extent, international exchanges were responsible for improving relations between the U.S. and other countries following their deterioration during the early stages of “The War on Terror.” This is because one story from an exchange participant can change negative perceptions for a thousand people. And this applies to both sides participating in the exchange. The exposure to different ideas, values, and practices from the exchanges can also have a great impact in diplomacy. Exchange participants are able to experience other country’s values in action and bring their understandings back home. A young participant fascinated with the idea of women’s rights in the U.S., for instance, may be an advocate for that cause in his/her home country in the future. Likewise, American exchange participants in other countries may bring back home the best ideas, values, and practices from other countries in order to enrich society. The important thing is that a dialogue is established so that the exchange of information continues long after the international exchanges.

Ironically, the scalability of the impact of international exchanges is often underestimated, with very few people being aware of the crucial role the exchanges play in encouraging good relations with other countries. This is because it is hard to measure their impact quantitatively in the short term (Grincheva, 2010: 173). However, there is a clearer picture in the long term. For instance, the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) has been running exchanges since the 1950s, and it organizes about 5,000 exchanges per year. Since its conception, IVLP has produced more than 200 chiefs of governments and 1,500 cabinet-level ministers (Bellamy & Weinberg, 2008: 56). Once in power, former IVLP alumni often keep great bilateral relations with the U.S. Furthermore, the Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) has organized more than 6,800 exchanges between American youth and those of Muslim countries since 2003. YES is often cited as an effective tool in improving multilateral relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and its benefits are still in the making. In every society, it is the youth who lay the pathways forward. Former YES alumni will one day grow into leaders and promote friendly relations between their countries and the U.S. As a matter of fact, research shows that approximately 90% of international exchange participants believe their programs created a positive impression of the U.S. and the American people. Research has demonstrated that approximately 89% of participants assume some sort of cultural, social, or political leadership throughout their lives.

In short, international exchanges are more effective in creating global harmony than any other circumstance that has been or will be. This is because human relations are handled best when they are dealt with by people, especially the youth who represent the future of the world. Hence the reason why international exchanges are a great form of diplomacy.

Work cited:

Bellamy, C., & Weinberg, A. (2008). Educational and Cultural Exchanges to Restore America’s Image. Washington Quarterly, 31(3), 55-68.

Grincheva, N. (2010). U.S. Arts and Cultural Diplomacy: Post-Cold War Decline and the Twenty-First Century Debate. Journal Of Arts Management, Law & Society, 40(3), 169-183. doi:10.1080/10632921.2010.504509

Krause, P., & Van Evera, S. (2009). Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas. Middle East Policy, 16(3), 106-134. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4967.2009.00408.x

Finn, H. K. (2003). The Case for Cultural Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs, 82(6), 15-20.

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