The University of Iowa

Get involved in groups supporting citizen diplomacy

November 12th, 2010

The following commentary, written by Associate Provost and Dean of International Programs Downing Thomas, was featured in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010.

International Education Week gives us a chance to reflect on the importance for all of us to understand world conditions and global processes but also of making connections to people who are different from ourselves, who may or may not share our views, but who may learn from us and from whom we can also learn.

While it is the U.S. government’s role to develop and maintain relationships with countries around the world for the purposes of peace and stability, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has remarked, we as citizens also have an important responsibility: “21st century diplomacy takes more than government-to-government interaction — it also requires substantial people-to-people contact in which we try as directly as possible to reach people through governments, around governments and under governments in every way possible.”

This is what we call “citizen diplomacy.”

During International Education Week this year, the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy will convene at the U.S. Summit for Global Citizen Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. The summit is a partnership with the U.S. State Department and will be held in support of more than 1,000 U.S. non-governmental organizations conducting people-to-people activities. The goal of the Summit is to double the number of American volunteers of all ages involved in international activities here in the U.S. or abroad, from an estimated 60 million today to 120 million by 2020.

Some of this activity is being sponsored by local organizations right here in Iowa City. The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, which sponsors events that promote learning about world affairs, and the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities, which promotes global understanding on a person-to-person basis, are an important part of the citizen diplomacy movement, providing opportunities for Iowans to learn about the world and get to know people from Morocco to Singapore and everywhere in between.

The ability to cross borders confidently is increasingly important as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, both to promote understanding across borders and to provide Americans with opportunities here and abroad. According to Mercer’s 2008/2009 Benefits Survey for Expatriates and Globally Mobile Employees, the number of individuals working internationally increased 90 percent in the previous three years.

That number can only have increased over the past year. Of the 243 multinational companies they surveyed, 144 reported they have increased the number of employees they expatriate on one- to five-year-long assignments and 92 companies reported an increase in the number of employees who work on assignments while moving among countries. Global connections are as pertinent here in Iowa as they are in New York.

The Iowa Department of Economic Development reports that Iowa’s products and services are exported to close to 200 different countries and that foreign-owned companies employ over 40,000 Iowans. Education also is one of the U.S.’s and Iowa’s more significant exports. International students and their dependents alone contributed more than $204,000,000 to the State economy in 2008-09. Beyond this material contribution, the long-term benefits of welcoming international students go much deeper. They contribute to the diversity of our community, bring global perspectives to Iowa students and return home as ambassadors for Iowa and for the U.S., and in many cases as friends.

So get involved in an organization that supports citizen diplomacy; volunteer, study, or work abroad; host a high school student from abroad. There are many different ways that we as Iowans can learn about different cultural contexts, and acquire and use global skills.