Sister Cities International: Exchange Diplomacy, Xi Jinping and Soybeans

U.S. News & World Report ran a story last week on Sister Cities International, introducing it with the fact that in 1985, President Xi Jinping visited Iowa on a Sister Cities International exchange.

“He stayed close with the family that hosted him as a young delegate from Hebei province, and this year, a soybean farm opened in Hebei, modeled after the one run by another family who hosted him on a return trip as vice president in 2012.”

The 2012 trip was profiled in this Daily Mail piece. This was one example of an exchange-diplomacy-alum-turned-world-leader that I didn’t expect. I love that Xi Jinping learned about agriculture in America’s heartland, and how his 2012 itinerary included Muscatine, Iowa alongside a visit to the White House (this New York Times article about the Washington part of the visit didn’t mention it). It’s particularly fascinating because the traditionally Republican farmers don’t support Trump’s trade war with China–those same soybean farmers that now-President Xi Jinping stayed with, who voted for Trump, are now taking a big hit (and getting a bailout), due to Trump’s trade war.

Sister Cities International was one of several exchange diplomacy efforts initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He believed in the ability of citizen diplomacy to enhance and even surpass traditional diplomacy:

“If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments — if necessary to evade governments — to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”President Eisenhower’s remarks at the People-to-People Conference, September 11, 1956

Sister Cities has received less coverage in the academic literature than other exchange-of-persons programs of the time. Matt Loyaza’s 2013 article, “A Curative and Creative Force”: The Exchange of Persons Program and Eisenhower’s Inter-American Policies, 1953–1961, looks at the State Department’s Leader & Specialist exchanges with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the so-called ‘A-B-C countries’ considered by US officials to be a crucial ideological battleground of the early Cold War. Victor Rosenberg looked at Eisenhower’s diplomacy & cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union. Jazz diplomacy and dance diplomacy were also key features of Eisenhower’s citizen-forward strategy.

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What I’m reading…

For pleasure:

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I’ve had The Art of Stopping Time on my nightstand for a few weeks now and it’s been a great book to dip in and out of–each daily gong or task is only 2-3 pages, so you can skim through some and close read others, depending on what sounds interesting or useful for you. I love the variety on offer. Some have been high-level spiritual, conceptual mindfulness exercises, while others have been practical changes, like limiting your time spent on e-mail and social media. I’ve tried quite a few now, and my favorite so far has been the half-hourly breaks at work–it felt silly to stretch and get up and walk around so often, but I found it really did increase my energy and make me more productive, as Shojai promised!

For work:

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Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío, eds. Elite Mobilities (London: Routledge, 2014)

I’ve been reading this in my attempt to theorise exchange diplomacy in a piece that I’m writing for an edited volume. Elite Mobilities looks at the international flow of the 1 percent, examining their movement for work and pleasure, its meaning and consequences. It uses a critical sociology perspective to examine the elites and their travel, and brings together a range of issues in its analysis, including transport, tourism, class, consumption, and climate change.

There has been little work on the elite aspect of exchange diplomacy, probably because there is a stigma attached to the term ‘elite’–as if revealing the elite nature of participants would somehow make the exchange program seem less noble, less altruistic, elitist. (As an aside, several universities including Cornell and Leicester have used the slogan “elite, not elitist” to describe themselves–this gives some indication of the terms’ connotations)

At a conference once, I remember a Fulbright alumnus getting quite defensive about the term ‘elite’, claiming that he and other Fulbrighters were not elite, they were ordinary people, not particularly wealthy, influential or privileged. But, as another Fulbrighter reminded him at the time, it is still by its very nature an elite programme. It provides funding for graduate school, so applicants must already have a Bachelors degree, and that prerequisite already places them in the most highly educated group in society. Leader-oriented exchanges like the US State Department’s IVLP and British Council’s Leadership Exchange Programme, also draw upon elite pools for their participants, quite naturally.

I’m hoping to bring this emphasis on the “elite” into my conceptualisation of exchange diplomacy, to demonstrate that it’s not something to be feared or avoided. If the aim of exchange diplomacy is to influence future leaders, it only makes sense to recruit elite participants for exchanges. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory–it is only in practice that administrators will have to be careful in how they define merit and how they identify future leadership qualities. There should also be an wider effort to bring cultural and educational exchange to broader audiences, whether that’s through youth exchanges (high school or undergraduate), free public exhibitions and lectures, cultural centres with free outreach activities, and internationalising the curriculum of public schools. These things require funding that is often directed elsewhere, but they could ultimately influence more people than elite programmes of exchange diplomacy.

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Happy 72nd Anniversary to the Fulbright Program

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President Harry Truman, Senator J. William Fulbright and Assistant Secretary of State William Benton. Photo source: University of Arkansas Library Special Collections

On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. The bill authorised the sale of war surplus property overseas to be administered by the State Department and for the proceeds to be used for educational exchanges.

Now in its eighth decade of exchanges, the Fulbright Program has become a globally prestigious academic brand. It operates in more than 160 countries and over 380,000 people have participated.

It’s hard to sum up my thoughts on the program that I’ve been studying for so many years now. It is generally beloved by its administrators and alumni, rarely criticised and quite widely respected around the world. Senator Fulbright himself has a fascinating, somewhat mixed legacy–a Southern Democrat, he voted against desegregation in the 50’s, claiming it was what his constituents wanted and, he argued, was the only way he could stay in Congress to do progressive things like founding the exchange program and opposing the Vietnam War–the two things he’s best known-for today.

In 2015, I attended and presented my work at an excellent conference about the man and the program. The organisers are publishing papers from that conference in an edited volume, “The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Ideology, Power, and Policy.” I’ll be posting more details when it’s officially published–hopefully soon!

My favorite pieces on the origins of the Fulbright Program are Ralph Vogel and Harry Jeffrey’s articles in the Annals special issue in 1987, and more recently,  Sam Lebovic’s article from 2013.

My article in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies looks at three major bureaucratic shifts in the program’s history–from the State Department to USICA, then to USIA and back to State–and examines the role of educational exchange in US public diplomacy.

Beyond Trump & Putin: Increasing Exchanges Between the American and Russian People

Dr Thomas Garza, Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at University of Texas, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Hill about the Helsinki summit, in which he advocated an increase in exchange diplomacy between the two countries.

He pointed to key events in the history of US-Soviet/Russian relations, emphasising that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, there was an emphasis on bilateral talks and keeping a conversation going, including between the American and Russian people.

He explained that the summit between Trump and Putin was “a staged opportunity to provide the optics of stronger relations between the two countries without providing any of the necessary substance. The absence of immediate records of the substance of the talks and, consequently, of any evidence of progress in forwarding a new era of bilateral exchange and collaboration, leaves one wanting some tangible results that relations between the two countries – not just between the two presidents – were stronger.”

Dr Garza recommended a renewal of the type of exchange diplomacy that was used towards the end of the Cold War, and in its aftermath, to create a transparent, open relationship between the people of each country. “Moving forward, we would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy much like that of the Gorbachev era that increased contact between our countries, not only in a summit setting, but also in bilateral exchanges and initiatives.”

Would it help? Can we treat Trump and Putin as a sideshow and get on with the important work of improving relations at the micro-level of citizen-to-citizen exchanges? Is it really possible to conduct transparent, bilateral talks while there’s so much confusion, chaos, distrust, etc. going on? I suppose that’s what they managed to do during the Cold War, though. Soviet-American cultural exchanges increased during the detente period, with thousands of students, scholars, leaders, musicians and other artists travelling in both directions. Ordinary citizens could interact with other ordinary citizens, see everyday life first hand–or experience foreign cultures without leaving home. Russians could see Duke Ellington perform in Moscow, and Americans could see the Bolshoi Ballet in New York.

While I accept the argument that exchange diplomacy worked well during the Cold War, I’m slightly more skeptical of its possibilities in today’s context. I don’t think the current problems between the US and Russia can be repaired through more contact between the American and Russian people. I have the impression that we don’t really have a problem with each other–I think it’s more about concrete actions than mutual understanding. The Americans are critical of human rights violations, journalists ‘disappearing’, the invasion of neighboring countries, etc. Trump supporters have adopted his vague language of it being “a good thing” to get along with Russia, because they don’t know/don’t care about these issues. And we don’t know for sure why Trump insists on criticising America’s European allies while praising Putin, Kim Jong-Un, etc. but hopefully we’ll know more about his motivations before the midterms in November. (Press on, Robert Mueller!)

For more on US-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War, see Yale Richmond’s 2003 book Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Like many authors who’ve written about US State Department exchanges, Richmond offers an insider’s perspective, as he was Director of Soviet & East European exchanges in the department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs during the 1970s. The book is fascinating, filled with great anecdotes of lives changed and perspectives altered through exchange diplomacy. It’s somewhat overly positive–a good example of what Ludovic Tournes and Giles Scott-Smith recently described as a “hagiographic” tendency in the literature on exchanges–but certainly offers a compelling account of activities between the two key players in this vitally important period of exchange diplomacy history.