No, I am not a lawyer. No, I am not a diplomat. Yes, it makes sense that I work in international education development with such a degree.
The link between diplomacy and education is not an obvious one. We usually think of diplomacy as meetings between high-ranking members of governments or career diplomats to determine economic, political, and security policies, and education as teachers and students in classrooms around the world learning about math, language, arts, and sciences. But there’s an approach to diplomacy that engages the public in foreign countries, not other diplomats; this is called public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy supports international exchange programs for teachers, students, and leaders around the globe. The most famous of these programs is the Fulbright. While not administered directly by the U.S. State Department (that way they cannot be accused of propaganda), this program and many, many others fall under the purview of U.S. public diplomacy at the State Department.
When talking about international relations and power, we tend to automatically think of power in terms of economics, politics, and military - hard power, not the soft power that comes from culture and education. Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” describes it as the ability to attract other nations to your policies rather than coerce them. By promoting educational and leadership exchanges, governments encourage not only knowledge of other cultures by their general public but also understanding. This understanding can help build positive relationships between nations.
Despite what we can learn about other nations and people via the internet, television, and movies, our knowledge lacks connection with individuals from those places. As the famous reporter and head of U.S. Public Diplomacy Edward R. Murrow said, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” Through education exchange programs, governments are able to bridge those last three feet to create personal connections that increase their soft power and thus improve their standing in the international community.
So the next time you’re chatting with an exchange student or in the midst of an adventure in a distant land, remember the importance of the last three feet, the learning that happens across them, and the long-term effects on both of your perceptions of the other. -By Kali den Heijer, WorldTeach Program Manager