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Exchange programmes and public diplomacy

Exchange Programs and Public Diplomacy
Giles Scott-Smith
Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, Nancy Snow and Philip Taylor (eds.),
2009: 50-56
Public diplomacy covers an array of different activities, all of which function at various
distances from and combinations with the practice of foreign policy and its specific
objectives. Amongst these activities, exchange programs are an interesting case. Whereas
most forms of public diplomacy work involves the presentation of image and information,
exchanges directly involve the ‘human factor’, where an engagement with the personality and
psychology of the participants is central. This chapter will provide an overview of some of the
features of exchanges that lend them a special value within the public diplomacy toolbox.
Although the inspiration for many of the comments is the US State Department’s
International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), on the whole these are general observations
on the practice of exchanges in toto.
The International Political Context
The starting point for this analysis is the fact that exchanges, however educational and
‘apolitical’ they may be presented, inescapably operate within the broader political
environment of international affairs. The ability of individuals to cross national boundaries
has been a matter of major consequence since the arrival of the nation-state, and exchanges
are naturally no exception. Even the most politically neutral of exchanges, such as those
between high schools, have either political intent behind their creation or are promoted for the
purpose of developing cross-border relations that can subsequently lead to political outcomes,
such as a reduction in conflict. The best example of the latter here is probably the Franco-
German high school exchanges after WW II, which saw upwards of five million students
being exchanged by 1997, contributing to the normalisation of relations between the two
countries. Political outcomes, in other words, can represent a mix of national and general
interests, such that it becomes difficult to disentangle strategic communication from ‘mutual
understanding’. This is also the case with exchanges run wholly by the private sector, which
still operate within a broader political environment (but which are often used by governments
exactly to avoid any sense of direct political interference). A good current example are the
exchanges being run with Iranians by the US private sector, which successfully involve artists
and other non-governmental professional groups but which are still inevitably heavily
burdened by the tension-filled relations between the two countries.1
The inter-personal nature of the exchange experience, coupled with its inherently
private character, have caused this field to be largely written out of the documentation of
diplomacy and its conduct in the public realm. What exchanges represent are a form of private
international relations, a diffuse interchange of people, ideas, and opinions that are generally
so lost in the myriad of global social contacts that their worth is often questioned.
Nevertheless, the informal networks established from these relations themselves have major
political import. Not for nothing have US ambassadors around the world referred to the
International Visitor Leadership Program, operational since 1950, as the most valuable tool of
public diplomacy at their disposal.2 As the 1963 study A Beacon of Hope stated: “American
Embassies throughout the world have stressed to us, and American leaders have confirmed,
the exchange programme’s effectiveness in expanding personal contacts and personal outlook,
‘in setting up a current of contact between the United States and other countries’.”3 Exchanges
may be a form of soft power, but a form of power, however diffuse, they remain.
Political Influence
The spectrum of public diplomacy activities stretches from the direct advocacy of specific
policies through to the more ‘noble’ pursuits of cultural diplomacy and the use of the arts to
gain sympathisers abroad. While exchanges generally fall into the cultural diplomacy
category, they are a flexible medium that can be applied in various ways according to the
purpose they are designed for. All social groups can be reached in this way, although the
higher in the hierarchy of a profession one aims for, the more prestigious the program has to
be, and the likelihood increases that the person will be unable to accept due to work pressure
or simply protocol. Exchanges may well be utilised as a form of strategic communication,
which refers to the tailoring and directing of information at specific target audiences in order
to generate a specific (policy) response.4 However, this is not without considerable difficulty,
or even danger. The offer of an exchange trip for someone directly involved in a policy area
of great value to the initiator of the contact will generally be taken as an attempt to gain
access to in-house deliberations on that policy, preferably in the short term. This can raise
questions as to whether the participant’s allegiance is being deliberately influenced. Whether
this is deemed acceptable or not will depend on the state of bilateral relations between the two
nations. Nevertheless, if the political environment is favorable, the opportunity is open for
using exchanges to acquaint professionals with their policy-making counter-parts in order to
smoothen negotiating processes. This can be a very useful tool when the level of importance
of the relations demands constant attention. A good example is the relationship between the
United States and the European Union, where European officials were first invited to the US
via the State Department’s Foreign Leader Program (now the IVLP), and these contacts were
subsequently expanded with the arrival of the EU’s own Visitor Program in 1974 and various
transatlantic training and professional exchange programs that were developed through the
1970s and 1980s.5
Risk and Unpredictability
Whatever the goals they are intended to achieve, exchanges are best kept independent from
any sense of direct political interference and obligation in order to maintain the integrity of
the participants and the credibility of the programmes themselves.6 Whereas propaganda
refers to the deliberate manipulation of information to achieve a desired result, exchanges are
(ideally) the most two-way form of public diplomacy, opening up spaces for dialogue and the
interchange of alternative viewpoints. ‘Mutual understanding’, the catchphrase for the Liberal
understanding of cross-border contacts, does mean something here, even in the most
politically-orientated programmes. Exchanges are at their most effective when they allow the
participant to experience openness and honesty in their interaction with the host nation. This
openness is optimised if combined with allowances for freedom of choice to enable the
construction of a personal itinerary or the satisfaction of individual interests, thereby adding
to a sense of empowerment. Inevitably, there is an ever-present risk factor within these kinds
of contact. It is impossible to predict exactly how an exchange experience will influence an
individual, and the element of chance and contingency are ever-present. Exchanges “cannot
be easily fine-tuned into a political instrument,” and if this is attempted, it is highly likely that
the resulting limitations and sense of propaganda that this will project will rebound and
undermine the overall impact.7 The use-value of the exchange for both organiser and
participant may not coincide, but that does not mean that the results may be malign, only
unpredictable. This goes for all types of exchanges, whether educational, academic or
professional. The process of selecting participants, an essential part of most programs (even
those who apply to participate in programs must still be accepted), offers some control over
who becomes involved, but this remains a question of judgement based on necessarily
incomplete information. The most notorious case that exemplifies risk is the visit of Seyyed
Qutb to the United States in 1948. Qutb, an Egyptian civil servant, went to study the
education system in Colorado for the benefit of implementing reforms in his home country.
Instead his disgust at American society and its immoral materialism only furthered his own
path towards a pure form of Islamic radicalism, and he subsequently became a major
influence within anti-Western fundamentalism. This case highlights how things can seriously
go awry, but while the chance of a culture-clash is ever-present it would be a mistake to use
Qutb as a reason to limit exchanges in general. They are hardly an exact science, as even the
psywar afficianados of the 1950s were forced to admit.
Cultural Differences
Qutb’s case points out how regional and cultural differences have a crucial impact on how
exchanges function. In the 1950s, during the early years of the IVLP it was discovered that
the most complaints about theProgram were coming from participants from India. The reason
was that the US embassy was selecting mainly individuals from the higher castes who
expected far more of aVIP treatment than they received, and they did not understand how the
US government could run such a Program with so little official protocol (when that was in
fact the whole point). The often individual nature of the exchange experience, especially for
the longer student exchanges, can also generate problems of negative social isolation for some
groups. Risks can be minimised if special attention can be given to this problem by an alert
international student advisory/counseling apparatus coordinated through the university
system. The issue of ‘follow-up’, i.e. contact between the inviting organisation and the
participant, can have different connotations for different cultural groups. Whereas some will
have no expectations, others may be surprised (and disappointed) if no further contact
materialises. It is vital to take into account local perceptions in order to avoid undermining the
exchange’s purpose.
Overall, the exchange experience will be valued most because of its uniqueness. The levels of
cross-border contact are now so high that it is difficult to appreciate how any particular form
of exchange can still offer more, but this is a vital element to making its effects stick. It can
take form in many ways. It can be related to the opportunity to gain new knowledge and skills
otherwise unavailable locally. This can be combined with absorbing and appreciating a new
cultural environment, where first-hand experience will always have a greater effect than
second-hand knowledge. For other types of exchange there could be a prestige factor in being
invited, which may also involve obtaining access to persons or institutions that would
otherwise be either closed off or accessible only via more formal routes. The importance of
youth here cannot be overstated, but this needs to be clarified. Access and prestige can always
have some impact, but an exchange will have the greatest impact if it takes place both before
the host nation is already familiar for the participant, and it offers openings and opportunities
that the participant can utilise for their own personal and/or professional benefit afterwards.
The initial contact, if well managed and well timed, can have a long-lasting effect.
The ‘Opinion Leader’
This connects to the important issue of the participant’s status after their return home. Here it
is ideal if the value of the exchange operation for both organiser and participant can coincide
as much as possible. If successful the experience will contribute towards not just personal
knowledge but also a further encouragement of ambition and, possibly, leadership potential.
In the 1940s US communications researchers developed the concept of the ‘opinion leader’
who, based on their recognised knowledge gained from direct experience, could function as
key transmitters of information within a given community. Exchanges were first applied to
develop this role among participants by the US occupation forces in post-war Germany, as
part of the re-education of German society towards democratic principles. Analysis of these
programs indicated that the ‘opinion leader’ model did operate as intended, with exchange
participants acting (voluntarily) as legitimate and respected sources of opinion and judgement
on the United States. Although this example has lost some of its worth due to the saturation of
broadcasting from or about the United States, exchange participants can still function as
important channels for information transfer to wider communities (the ‘multiplier’ role) in
certain settings. The case of Iran is a prime example, where the relative isolation of much of
the population from outside contact enables those who have such experience to gain a more
prominent role than they would have otherwise. If the international political environment
allowed, exchanges would be an ideal means over the longer term to improve relations
between that nation and the West.
The ‘Cultural Broker’
Exchanges can function in an important way to create neutral spaces for a form of ‘cultural
brokerage’. This generally refers to no more than introducing and linking individuals and
institutions working in the same field, and allowing professional inclination to take its course,
with unspecified results. Private-sector exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
took this approach, looking to break down inter-bloc antagonism through professional
interchange, and with some success.8 It can also involve the organisation of multinational
group visits, perhaps based around a specific theme to unite a particular group around a
particular goal. Travelling around for days or weeks in a third country will generally
contribute to breaking down barriers that would remain intact in other more formal settings,
stimulating curiosity, dialogue, and perhaps longer-term contact. This method can then be
employed for the deliberate (though perhaps unstated) purpose of removing various
individuals from a conflict zone in order to set up, on a low level, a chance at reconciliation
within a distant environment. Maximum opportunity must be given for personal contact to
break down prejudicial barriers. Once again, selection is crucial in order to ensure only
participants with sufficient open-mindedness take part. This is no more than small-scale
conflict resolution, and care must be taken not to expect too much once the participants return
home, but it is typical of the kind of inter-personal, grass-roots effects that can, if coordinated
with determined conflict resolution measures in the ‘hard policy’ field, have a long-lasting
An increasingly important role has been played in this field by what might be called
corporate or entrepreneurial cultural diplomacy. The most notorious example is George
Soros’ Open Society Institute, which has been promoting the development of civil society and
good governance practices across Central Europe and Central Asia since 1993 as part of an
explicit strategy of democratisation. The Institute runs many fellowship and grant programs to
increase professional interchange with the region and encourage leadership potential. Other
institutions look to use exchanges to break down cultural barriers within the context of the
one-world global market, such as the Atlantic-Pacific Exchange Program (APEP) based in
Rotterdam (which began as an effort to improve Dutch-American relations in the mid-1980s)
and the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) in Berlin. What is most interesting about these
operations is that they are not related to any particular national interest. Whereas the OSI is a
fully independent actor, the APEP and ICD both function and adapt to the changing needs of
their corporate clients over time.
Identity and Orientation
There is quite a body of work on the impact that direct experience of another culture can have
on a participant’s own psychological outlook.9 As one astute observer has put it, cross-border
contacts can lead to “a subtle but important shift in identity and self-conception,” whereby
previously fixed political and/or cultural allegiances are not abandoned but become more
flexible.10 Identities are the basis for how interests are defined, and whereas this generally
occurs in a routine manner according to the familiar settings we find ourselves in, “sometimes
situations are unprecedented in our experience, and in these cases we have to construct their
meaning, and thus our interests, by analogy or invent them de novo.”11 One goal of an
exchange can be to precisely create that unprecedented experience, thereby dislodging
previously fixed notions of identity and interest. For optimum impact, what needs to be
created is a wider community or institution that can engage with and encompass the changed
outlook of the former participant, so that they can continue to share and develop their new-
found perspective. This can mean in the first place involving former grantees in the operation
of the program afterwards, particularly in the selection and orientation phase for new
candidates. Satisfied former grantees are valuable as the best advertisments available,
themselves functioning as ‘opinion leaders’ for a continuing program. An alumni association
is also a useful tool, not just to maintain a visible community but also as a ‘multiplier’
organization for the program itself. More broadly, in the professional and academic field this
can ideally point towards some form of allegiance to a larger (intellectual) community not
limited by the borders of the nation state, thus fomenting a broader conception of national
interest itself.
What are the necessary conditions for actors to reinvent their identities? According to
social theorist Alexander Wendt, two factors must apply. Firstly, “there must be a reason to
think of oneself in novel terms. This would most likely stem from the presence of new social
situations that cannot be managed in terms of pre-existing self-conceptions.” Secondly, there
has to be a pay-off: “The expected cost of intentional role change cannot be greater than its
rewards.” In other words, if the intention is to guide this process down certain paths, there
must be full consideration of the many variables and obstacles involved that need to be
overcome to make it successful.12
Reinforcing Opinions
A subtle variation of the ‘identity change’ approach is the move to use exchange
experiences to build on and strengthen already-existing positive sentiments among selected
participants, with the goal of thereby strengthening a potential or actual (political) ally for the
future. Research into the post-war German programs and other investigations into
psychological warfare techniques highlighted the fact that critics will rarely be swayed, but
doubters may become believers and supporters will feel empowered. From this perspective,
exchanges are a prime means for alliance management, since they can be applied to build up,
over the longer term, a community of individuals united around a common cultural affinity
that takes positive relations between certain nations more or less for granted. Since 1946 the
Fulbright Program has been very successful in developing such an affinity with the United
States, firstly via the means of academic exchange itself and secondly by encouraging the
establishment of American Studies in universities around the world. As even arch-Realist
Hans Morgenthau recognised, creating and sustaining forms of cultural affinity amongst
foreign publics represents a potent form of power:
The power of a nation, then, depends not only upon the skill of its diplomacy and the
strength of its armed forces but also upon the attractiveness for other nations of its
political philosophy, political institutions, and political policies. This is true in
particular of the United States....13
It should be apparent that, whatever the particular merits of exchanges, they will only deliver
the best results if allowed to function in coordination with foreign policies that promote
international cooperation. No public diplomacy campaign will sell bad or unpopular policy,
and because of the ‘human factor’ exchanges are particularly vulnerable in an antagonistic
political context. Yet in the right circumstances they can achieve significant changes in
attitude. In short, this form of public diplomacy won’t change the world, but – pace the risks
exemplified by Qutb - it does contribute towards holding it together.
1 Negar Azimi, ‘Hard Realities of Soft Power,’ New York Times Magazine (24 June 2007), pp. 50-55.
2 Field Survey of Public Diplomacy Programs, US Department of State, Washington DC, 2000.
3 A Beacon of Hope: The Exchange of Persons Program, Advisory Commission on International Educational
and Cultural Affairs, April 1963, pp.27-28.
4 See Jarol!Manheim,!Strategic)Public)Diplomacy)and)American)Foreign)Policy:)The)Evolution)of)Influence)
5 Giles Scott-Smith, ‘Mending the ‘Unhinged Alliance’ in the 1970s: Transatlantic Relations, Public Diplomacy,
and the Origins of the European Union Visitors Programme’, Diplomacy and Statecraft 16 (December 2005):
6 On the issue of credibility see the important work of Sherry Mueller: The US Department of State’s
International Visitor Program: A Conceptual Framework for Evaluation (PhD diss., Fletcher School of Law and
Diplomacy, 1977).
7 Lawrence T. Caldwell, ‘Scholarly Exchanges with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,’ Evaluations of the
Interantional Research and Exchanges Board, 1980, Grant No. L79-256, Report No. 012108, archive of the Ford
8 The debate on exactly how much such exchanges contributed to the downfall of the Soviet system is still
continuing. See Yale Richmond, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (University
Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).
9 See for instance Ithiel de Sola Pool, ‘Effects of Cross-National Contact on National and International Images’
in Herbert Kelman (ed.), International Behavior: A Social Psychological Analysis (New York: Holt, Rinehart &
Winston, 1965), pp. 106-129.
10 Gail Lapidus, ‘The Impact of Soviet-American Scholarly Exchanges,’ Evaluations of the Interantional
Research and Exchanges Board, 1980, Grant No. L79-256, Report No. 012108, archive of the Ford Foundation.
11 A. Wendt, ‘Anarchy is what States make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics’, International
Organization, 46 (Spring 1992), p.398.
12 Ibid., p.419.
13 Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred Knopf,
1985), p. 169.
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Hard Realities of Soft Power
  • Negar Azimi
Negar Azimi, 'Hard Realities of Soft Power,' New York Times Magazine (24 June 2007), pp. 50-55.
The Exchange of Persons Program, Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs
  • Hope Beacon
Beacon of Hope: The Exchange of Persons Program, Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs, April 1963, pp.27-28.
Strategic Public Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy: The Evolution of Influence
Jarol Manheim, Strategic Public Diplomacy and American Foreign Policy: The Evolution of Influence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Scholarly Exchanges with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
  • Lawrence T Caldwell
Lawrence T. Caldwell, 'Scholarly Exchanges with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,' Evaluations of the Interantional Research and Exchanges Board, 1980, Grant No. L79-256, Report No. 012108, archive of the Ford Foundation.
Effects of Cross-National Contact on National and International Images
  • See For Instance Ithiel De Sola
  • Pool
See for instance Ithiel de Sola Pool, 'Effects of Cross-National Contact on National and International Images' in Herbert Kelman (ed.), International Behavior: A Social Psychological Analysis (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), pp. 106-129.
The Impact of Soviet-American Scholarly Exchanges
  • Gail Lapidus
Gail Lapidus, 'The Impact of Soviet-American Scholarly Exchanges,' Evaluations of the Interantional Research and Exchanges Board, 1980, Grant No. L79-256, Report No. 012108, archive of the Ford Foundation.
The Exchange of Persons Program
  • A Beacon
  • Hope
A Beacon of Hope: The Exchange of Persons Program, Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs, April 1963, pp.27-28.