A DC Massing of Citizen Diplomats

Yesterday I flew from Seattle to Washington DC, was picked up at the airport, and got to my hotel with 15 minutes to spare. I was there to accept the Citizen Diplomat Award from a huge gathering of the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) and to help kick off their annual convention with a talk about how I see the value of travel.

Plopping my bag in the hotel room and brushing my teeth, I marveled at how someone can fly clear across the country and get there with 15 minutes to spare…exactly as planned. While many enjoy complaining, I am forever impressed by and thankful for the airline industry here in the USA.

NCIV promotes citizen diplomacy with nearly 100 community organizations throughout the United States. Working with the US Department of State, their mission is to welcome and enrich the experience of people (mostly education, business, and political leaders) who visit our country. With 80,000 volunteers spread over every state, it is an inspirational group. And to be in a big hotel ballroom with hundreds of their leaders as part of their annual powwow was an inspiration for me. There’s always something uplifting about getting committed, caring people with the same passion together in the same room.

I enjoyed giving my “Travel as a Political Act” talk, and they seemed to gobble up the ideas. Even though I may have been preaching to the choir, there is a powerful, intangible value in such a pep rally (for me, as well as for my audience).

The Citizen Diplomat Award has been given six times. Senator William Fulbright received it first in 1987 for his work in establishing the Fulbright scholarship program, which pursues the same goals as the NCIV. I enjoyed time with Harriet Fulbright, who explained to me how she was keeping her husband’s heritage alive.

In 1946 Euro-visionaries, sitting on the rubble of their bombed-out continent, were realizing that something radical — like the creation of the European Union — needed to be done to prevent another such major war. That same year, broad-minded American visionaries, like Senator Fulbright, were also thinking outside the box to help our country learn from history and help build a more peaceful world. Throughout his long career, Fulbright provided global-minded leadership here in the USA.

In preparing for my award, I read the NCIV material (see www.nciv.org) and enjoyed seeing how a group with the same mission as my own company builds understanding between cultures that have a mirror-opposite agenda. At ETBD, we work to inspire Americans to travel with a mindset that helps make them more broad-minded and come home as better citizens of the planet. Meanwhile, NCIV works to help foreigners visit the USA and return to their homelands with a better understanding of our culture. While we’ve come up with our “become a temporary local” phraseology, NCIV has their “shape foreign relations one handshake at a time” and “you welcomed a stranger and sent home a friend” slogans.

After my talk at the main event, the NCIV president, Sherry Mueller, hosted a wonderful dinner party in her home — perfectly in keeping with the style of her organization, which does most of its best work in that grassroots kind of people-to-people venue. It was a joy for me to have our daughter Jackie (who’s a student at Georgetown — just a few blocks away — and is interested in citizen diplomacy) join me to meet the NCIV gang.

In working on my Travel as a Political Act book, I’ve been thinking about the value of people-to-people diplomacy. For instance, it’s great for parents to scrimp and scrape to give their student a foreign study experience. And it’s exactly as productive for people without their own students (or lacking the income to send a young person abroad) to host a visiting student here in the USA. It accomplishes the same noble goal.

The NCIV is frank about the lowly status of our nation’s battered image abroad and the importance of fixing it. I’ve realized lately how propaganda and sensational media distorts perceptions in both directions: causing foreigners to think less of us Americans, and causing us to misunderstand (and needlessly fear) people from distant lands.

NCIV knows that improving America’s image abroad is not a sales pitch spearheaded by a government-funded PR person. (We tried that and failed miserably.) It is actually the job of our citizenry in general. I remember when France had the very bad image from its proud and chauvinistic de Gaulle era. Then the French government actually inspired its people to be less judgmental and more welcoming — and today, that off-putting French snobbery is mostly a thing of the past.

The mission of NCIV is more than philanthropy. There’s an economic rationale, as the tarnished “Brand of America” is a business concern. People who don’t like us don’t want to buy our stuff. Many NCIV-types are excited about the Obama Administration. Obama is not a quick fix, but the arrival of a new administration gives us a fresh start and a chance for the world to give us another look. As a nation and as individuals, we can share, listen, respect, bend, and work together with the rest of the world.


11 Replies to “A DC Massing of Citizen Diplomats”

  1. Thanks for introducing us to this organization. When I was a kid, my family hosted a Japanese student for a short time in California. Travel and citizen diplomacy has a bigger impact than I used to think. I can’t tell you how many Europeans and others that I meet in my current job who have spent time in the USA, as students, professionally, or just traveling. Almost without exception, these people have a generally positive view of America. While they might not agree with all of our policies, they “get it” regarding the basic goodness of Americans and the dynamism of our society. Everyone is a “diplomat without portfolio” (a phrase my old economics prof used to love to use) That’s one reason why I always try to present myself well over here… Most people meet me and first think: “an American”, and only after they get to know me do they think of me as “me”. Therefore, when traveling, first impressions are doubly important. As for myself, the longer I live here, the better I understand that if Europeans do something differently or have different priorities, there is usually a good reason. I don’t necessarilly have to agree with how they do it (although I often do), but at least I have an inkling as to why they do it that way.

  2. Quick story about citizen diplomacy. I was attending the international poultry trade show in Atlanta 2 weeks ago. In the booth next to me was a German company and in that group was two ladies and I believe a grandson. They were delightful and kind and very impressive as they spoke 3 languages. Yet, we had a international incident I will not soon forget. For you who have done trade shows there is draping behind every booth and in some cases you can go behind the draping to use the facilities in the unused part of the exposition center. There was also an exit sign and a break in the draping. So fellow trade show workers and attendees could go through. Well–We had an over zealous security guard go bananas on the Germans because she saw their kid go through the exit. She yelled and screamed and threatened to call the police. I wish she would have as she would have been arrested! A couple of my fellow Americans went to management to complain. I apologized profusely and said that is not how we treat our international visitors. In the end the GM of the congress center, head of security and others apologized to the Germans. It was found that in fact the exit the boy used was a fire exit and could not be barred from coming and going. I know that she and her compatriots were very grateful for our swift defense and protection we afforded them because we all know our image is tarnished and we have to make sure we shine again.

  3. I am always amazed at how many things you are involved in. You have some of the best communication ability I have ever seen. My husband watches a lot of history channel, discovery ect. and I can find these shows almost boring after the first 10-15 minutes. They pretty much repeat the same thing. You really have a talent to captivate and keep your work so interesting after all these years! Thanks for all the effort to make the world a better place, we really need more like you!

  4. Congrats Rick on the award and thank you for sharing information about this group. Sounds like an organization that is needed. It seems like we all benefit when we act neighborly and just accept that other people do, think, and speak differently. I wonder how our nation would change if everyone got to know their neighbors and community; when they met someone different just invited them over for dinner. These are thinks we all learned to do as children and then forgot as we entered the work force. We move too fast and don’t take time to know each other. Thanks again and cheers.

  5. Congratulations Rick. I would also like to encourage all of your readers to host a foreign exchange student. We are currently hosting our 3rd student and have also hosted regional visitors from Tanzania and a few other places. You learn so much from their presence in your home. My children have a much broader perspective than I had at their age. We have traveled to Europe to reunite with one of our students twice and our current student from Germany will afford us the same opportunities as well. However, even if you cannot afford to travel or to send your children abroad you can host a student for only the cost of meals and the inconvenience of having a long term house guest who quickly just becomes one of the family. Try it, you will not be disappointed!

  6. Sounds like a worthy organization. As far as tourism goes I do think that the value of the dollar is more important than a “tarnished brand” or “battered” image. A quick google showed that tourism to the US has been booming while the dollar has been “tarnished” and “battered” against other currencies. I would guess other businesses would be seeing similar trends. It will be intresting to see if an “un-tarnished” image can overcome a strengthening dollar and keep tourism to the US booming.

  7. Hi Rick and congrats to you. I just wanted to say, that I just got off of my treadmill where I enjoy your podcasts on my ipod. I look forward to exercising because I get to view the outstanding podcasts you produce and dream about my next European adventure. I hope you know how much joy you bring to those of us who share the same passion of travel as you. Thanks Rick and keep up your work as it enhances the lives of many people. One of your very biggest fans…Julie

  8. Well, this is all well and good, but I sure hope to see you speaking out if and when the Obama Administration tries to impose American values on the rest of the world via “Soft Power”. There is an imperial inertia built into American foreign policy that many Americans naively believe will suddenly vanish with the new Administration.

  9. Congratulations on your award. This is quite an honor and, based on everthing I’ve read and seen from you, very well deserved. Best wishes for continued success.

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