Diplomatic Courier Cover July/August 2013

Citizen Diplomats in the Digital Age


In the July/August 2013 issue of the Diplomatic Courier, Adam Kaplan from Sister Cities International writes an editorial on the growing importance of community diplomacy which explains the increasing value of “citizen diplomats”. Unlike professional diplomats who face restrictions from international protocol, citizen diplomats have more freedom to share their personal opinions and can portray a range of views to more accurately represent their communities.

Sister Cities International encourages “people-to-people” diplomacy. In doing so, it is continuing President Eisenhower’s contention that the key in renewing and strengthening global relationships is with the understanding and appreciation between individuals. Today, the organization motivates and unites thousands of citizen diplomats in over 140 countries.

Kaplan does not suggest that citizen diplomacy should or will take the place of professional diplomacy. The described “well-choreographed dance of official diplomacy” adds consistency between countries and allows areas around the world to stay in tune with each other. It is important to recognize, however, that the underlying goal of diplomats, whether they be professional or citizen, is the same – to advocate for peace and advance the interests of a community.

Although citizen diplomacy has been seen as only a “feel-good” partnership consisting of nothing beyond artistic and cultural exchanges, Kaplan explains that it is becoming more substantive as cities interact through trade delegations, municipal exchanges, development projects and educational programs. With the advent of modern day communication systems, travel options and growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the role of citizen diplomacy has evolved as a stronger tool to forge better bilateral relations amongst nations. It is also important to not underestimate the importance of personal relationships which Kaplan states is vital in any diplomacy. Some benefits of person-to-person interaction include allowing organizations to find new opportunities, creating a sense of good faith that allows risk-taking, and avocation for more engagement within communities.

Kaplan lists four steps that governments can take to “support this new infrastructure in international relations.” First, governments must recognize that international engagement does not happen overnight and requires reorganization and long-term commitment. Second, governments “must realize that exchange funding is a combination of educational investment and civic R&D.” Third, although technology has facilitated easier communication around the globe, face-to-face interaction is a necessity for any long lasting relationship abroad. Finally, national governments must stop viewing citizen diplomats’ main goal as trying to convince specific policy to foreign publics, and recognize that these foreign populations are accepting to policies which reflect their own cultural values. According to Kaplan,

"It [citizen diplomacy] offers governments a chance to diversify their portfolio of international relations. National governments will always need a professional diplomatic corps, but today what is more urgently needed is for governments at all levels to foster more citizen diplomats, and more community diplomacy."

To read the full editorial, click here