Politicians and academics alike have expressed a common fear that our everyday diplomacy may be failing. For example, before entering his second term in office, improvement of the United States’ image abroad was listed as “a top priority of issues requiring the urgent attention of President Obama”. A poor national image has the power to jeopardize our relationships abroad, which can impact our economy, peace building efforts, and an array of other foreign policy interests. As a nation, we need to examine why our reputation as a country has fallen so far behind, and what we can do to turn things around.
As a society, we collectively lack knowledge about the rest of the world. In 2003, a study performed by the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad concluded that “America's ignorance of the outside world is so great as to constitute a threat to national security.” This information deficit not only touches a lack of knowledge about important facets of international history and current affairs, but it reveals a lack of cross-cultural understanding. The reasons behind our collective ignorance are many. We can look at everything from holes in our educational system, to a lack of responsibility on behalf of our mainstream media sources. Regardless of where the bulk of responsibility may fall, in today’s globalized world, our success and our harmony as a planet require that we work towards a new norm.
One of the most effective ways of building cross-cultural understanding has been through foreign exchange programs. These programs, which include familiar forms such as study abroad semesters, have also been used by governments and business who want to build relationships and exchange information overseas. According to the Association of International Educators, “International exchanges have often been cited as one of our strongest and most effective public diplomacy tools”. Exactly what about these programs makes them so effective, and how can we replicate their success? Not everyone will have the opportunity to participate in an academic exchange, nor should the gains from international experiences end when one graduates college. In turn, we need to consider a practical alternative which combines elements of these programs, and applies them to our exploration of the world. The answer may simply be an encouragement to travel.
In a controversial opinion piece for the New York Times, authors Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison make an important distinction between tourism and travel. Travel, unlike tourism, requires the participant to return from their journey a changed person. Travel mandates, “giving oneself over to disorientation” and a willingness to be humbled by discomfort. Through what these authors argue is a true ability to develop a sense of cross-cultural understanding, we can gain a valuable sense of awareness for the lives other individuals lead around the world.
How can travel replicate the diplomatic success of foreign exchange programs? According to Stavans and Ellison’s definition, we are able to gain new perspectives on both our home and host countries every time we travel. As a Huffington Post article articulates, “Exchanges offer an in-depth experience with a foreign country, its culture, its systems, and most importantly, its people. Exchanges provide a substantive and long lasting connection.” If we leave home, seeking to make relationships, we can truly begin to value societies different than our own, and those who we meet can do the same. In this way, we are able to replicate the benefits of exchange programs, and improve our presence abroad.
In addition to these intrinsic benefits, there are also several practical benefits to traveling with a purpose. The development of new language skills, for example, is becoming increasingly important to function in our globalized work. Immersion is a great way to not only learn a new language but the customs that go along with it. These tools are vital for the success of our long-term communication with other nations, and they strengthen our diplomatic efforts. Travel has also been used as a way to break down stereotypes, and create peace between conflicting nations. This is because travel allows us to ability to increase our understanding of one another in such a way that we must reach beyond our preconceived notions, and learn to value what makes other cultures different than our own. With all of these benefits presented to us, travel truly seems to be one aspect of being a responsible global citizen.
Presently, it’s an unfortunate reality that many individuals do not have the means or ability to travel far from home, let alone abroad. Financial restrictions prohibit both students and adults from participating in international exchange programs while at school and then later on personal terms. Given the benefits we have been able to observe from travel, and the far reaching impact it holds beyond ourselves, it’s important that we encourage institutions and government to continue to see the importance of intentional time abroad. Colleges need to tune in to how they can support their students in taking part in fundamental experiences. Likewise, we are in need of creative solutions for how we can shift our concept of travel from being a privilege, to becoming a lived experience. Mutual understanding is an important part of justice, and travel, serving as a driver of this virtue, needs the credit it deserves from our leaders.
When we are able to put experiences and faces to world affairs, our perspective is able to shift to not only a place of concern, but a place of obligation and duty. The United Nations World Tourism Organization projects that by 2030, over 1.8 billion trips will be taken each year. This number is too big not to ignore the consequences travel will have on infrastructure, climate change, and the way we look at citizenship. By approaching travel as a form of everyday diplomacy that can be used to build cross-cultural understanding, we can not only create a better future, but mitigate the potential for harm and fear that might otherwise take its place.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.