Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here with such a distinguished group of citizen diplomats from communities across the United States to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Council for International Visitors. You are important partners of the Department of State, and the work you do is critical to supporting U.S. public diplomacy and foreign policy. I want to personally thank you for the significant contributions you make to our work around the world.
I would also like to welcome the many Ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries who are here with us today, many of whom participated in the International Visitors program themselves. Thank you for all you do to build understanding between the citizens of the United States and the citizens of your countries. Your presence demonstrates something very important about the changing nature of diplomacy today. Cooperation between the United States and our partners around the world has come – more than ever before – to rely upon the ever expanding networks of people-to-people relations we are building through public and privately-sponsored initiatives.
I would like to begin by wishing the National Council for International Visitors a happy 50th anniversary – my colleagues and I all wish you many more years of activity, creativity, and success. Your support for the International Visitor Leadership Program, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary, is essential for promoting mutual understanding between the United States and governments and citizens around the world – and we could not have built those important relationships without organizations like yours.
I also want to acknowledge and welcome the Gold Stars who are here with us today. They are a special group of exchange program alumni who have returned to the United States to share their stories of how the International Visitor Leadership Program has influenced them and changed their lives and their communities.
Our work – yours and mine – begins with a basic premise: that the perceptions, opinions, and actions of individual citizens across the globe matter – to their communities, to their nations, and to us. For this reason, American relationships with the world must reach beyond leaders and government officials, to engage directly and seriously with a broad range of women, men, and young people – business leaders and entrepreneurs; social activists and civil society figures; teachers, students; artists, writers, and media professionals.
When we engage with these individuals, we quickly realize that there are commonalities that can bring us closer together, even when we hold differing views on specific issues. From Indianapolis to Islamabad, people everywhere share the same aspirations for their families and communities.
I passionately believe that if we focus on ways to tap into the potential of partnerships based on human commonality, we will find a path to a more peaceful and prosperous future. This does not stem from starry-eyed idealism. Rather it reflects the hard-edged, utilitarian calculation that, in this age of social networking and borderless economies, of transnational threats and technological promise, when we enter into relationships with those around us and others around the world, we have a better chance of creating something useful, and maybe even enriching ourselves, through cooperation -- rather than antagonism.
This is the insight behind President Obama's vision for how America should interact with the world. It is the power of leveraging human commonality that drives our work at the State Department as we endeavor to carry out President Obama and Secretary Clinton's vision to renew and expand America's engagement with the world. Secretary Clinton has said that solving today’s foreign policy problems requires us to think both regionally and globally, to see the intersections and connections linking nations and regions, and to bring countries and people together to jointly address our concerns.
As we have seen time and time again, nothing can replace the power and impact of personal experience. That is why exchange programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program have been a vital component of American public diplomacy, and why we are committed to sustaining and strengthening them. We fund these programs because they directly support the State Department’s foreign policy mission.
The work that you do is vital to the security and national interests of the United States. As we enter a challenging budget environment, we need to work together to find ways to maintain these programs even as we face the potential of dramatically reduced levels of funding. As Secretary Clinton laid out in her letter to Chairman Harold Rogers of the House Committee on Appropriations, if enacted, the proposed budget cuts “will be devastating to our national security … and will damage our leadership around the world.”
The proposed cuts would fundamentally alter how we conduct our programs. The engagement you have, and relationships you forge with visitors from all over the world, are the very foundation of a successful U.S. foreign policy. We must ensure these efforts are widely known and that your contributions are valued. We must continue to invest in people and relationships that build a secure and better future for the United States and our partners around the world.
The most convincing evidence that this investment pays off comes from the participants themselves. I have met with many International Visitors, here and abroad, and I am constantly amazed and inspired by their stories -- where they traveled, who they met, and what they accomplished during their programs in the United States. Nothing more clearly conveys the power of their experience, and how it has changed their understanding of our country.
They speak of their meetings and discussions with Americans from all walks of life including representatives of our local, state, and national government. They recall the cultural events they attended and sites they visited. And they remember, with fondness and wonder, the generosity of the individual Americans who invited International Visitors into their homes, showed them around their communities, and asked them to share ideas and experiences from their own countries.
In short, they remember YOU, and the many NCIV partners and volunteers who make this program special. The International Visitor Leadership Program is a true partnership that includes the visitors, our embassies and consulates, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and many other departments and agencies – but it could not succeed, were it not for the contributions of thousands of volunteers across the United States.
For five decades, NCIV has practiced “citizen diplomacy,” one handshake at a time. When we talk about the importance of people-to-people relations, it starts with people like you. Government officials come and go, but personal connections remain strong across oceans and borders. When you think of another country, you often think of the individuals you have come to know from that nation and they make it real for you. Similarly, the International Visitor Leadership Program and NCIV make the United States real for thousands of visitors each year, with all our diversity and broad range of opinions. And our international visitors share their experiences and knowledge with their families, communities and governments, thus expanding the impact of the time they spend with us.
We are proud of the numerous international leaders who are IVLP alumni, such as the Presidents of Mexico and Turkey, and the Prime Ministers of Australia and Trinidad and Tobago. We also appreciate the contributions of well-known Americans. Indeed, President Clinton, when he was Governor of Arkansas, met with more International Visitors than any other governor before or since. Former Governor Schwarzenegger of California met with young political leaders and civic activists through the Sacramento and San Francisco CIVs; and Muhammad Ali shared his inspirational message to promote respect and hope, that consistently resonated with visitors to the Louisville CIV.
Today we especially thank and salute all of NCIV’s members, volunteers, and partners throughout the past fifty years – people such as the Jordan family from Texas, whose parents, children, and grandchildren comprise a four-generation commitment to the International Visitor Leadership Program through the work of the North Texas Council for International Visitors. I want to invite Jerry Jordan to stand up, so we can give him and his family the recognition they deserve. Think about how many lives the Jordan family has touched and transformed – we are truly grateful to you.
I’d like to close with a quote from President Obama. He said, “Simple exchanges can break down walls between us, for when people come together and speak to one another and share a common experience, then their common humanity is revealed.” You show the truth of his words through your programs, your actions, and your dedication to improving understanding and creating positive relationships between the American people and their counterparts in other countries. I thank you for your efforts, congratulate you on your significant achievements, and wish NCIV and all of its members another fifty years of great work.