Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Citizen Diplomacy – What It Means To Me

Stephen Maly, WorldMontaan Board Member

Stephen Maly, WorldMontana Board Member

The literature we’ve inherited and adopted from the State Department and Global Ties, a coalition of groups like World Montana, contains this compelling phrase: American citizens have the responsibility and duty to help shape our foreign relations one handshake at a time. I know from experience that what begins with a handshake, a slight bow, or a smile-with-a-nod, often ends with a warm embrace.

As a friend of mine put it just the other day, part of our charge is to “change the narrative” about the state of the world. Network and cable news is almost unceasingly negative, as it feeds on and profits from violent conflict. Social media seems to be trending in the same direction. As citizen diplomats, we counter all that by paying attention to our visitors, listening to them, and sharing the experiences of ordinary life in Montana. Daniel Goleman, an expert on Social Intelligence, writes that as human beings, we are wired to be in synch with each other. “The shortest distance between two brains is a good laugh,” he says, adding that we possess neurons, the sole purpose of which is to detect another person’s smile. I like that and believe it to be true.
I think of citizen diplomacy as a partial antidote to the poison of two strains of nasty and contagious propaganda: the myths about foreign cultures and countries perpetrated by insular and fearful Americans, and the misinformation about the U.S. deliberately set forth and broadly distributed here and abroad to undermine our legitimacy and credibility as a democratic republic.

Active citizen diplomacy, which is up close and personal, also serves as an alternative to the ferocious face the United States government and some corporate entities present to much of the world. Here in our almost bucolic wonderland of mostly friendly live and let live attitudes, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the U.S. projects power in many directions from behind fearsome masks of steel and Kevlar, and from remotely controlled attack drones. We informal representatives of America routinely wrestle with a central paradox of foreign policy in a democratic society. The state expresses, defends, and forcibly exercises its interests. The people have other priorities, desires, and aspirations. We citizen diplomats want to make friends, and at least one small bureau in the State Department wants us to be successful in that endeavor. But at the same time other agencies of the State are preoccupied with real and perceived threats to national security and the aggrandizement of commercial as well as geopolitical interests. I readily and enthusiastically acknowledge that it is a privilege of freedom in America to be critical of my own government. I can also insist that loyal opposition is a potent form of patriotism.

Our foreign visitors often marvel at Montanans’ candid expressions of frustration with our country’s domestic policies and foreign relations. We have a reputation for openness, and frankness. Specialists in cross-cultural communication point out that only a small minority of the world’s people relish such directness. We Americans share a predilection for blunt speech with Germans, and Russians. Everybody else prefers indirect patterns of discourse, to preserve “face” and avoid verbal confrontation. Citizen diplomacy is an arena where we can all just be ourselves, and remedy misunderstanding with simple acts of generosity and kindness.

For most of the visitors we host, it is their first time in the United States, and for many it’s a scary prospect. I recall a group of Muslim women from India who related to us that their relatives issued vehement warnings that Americans might murder them on the street. (Too much television!) It didn’t take long to dissuade them from such apprehension and relieve them of needless anxiety. Montanans are good at putting other at ease.

With truly rare exceptions, we discover that people from other countries and cultures want pretty much what we do: good health, a good job, good education, good relationships, brilliant and prosperous and happy children, and hope for a better life for the entire commonwealth of humanity. This is sort of cliché, I know, but it’s real.

Stephen Maly, World Montana Board Member

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