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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Exchange 2.0 Summit

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
April 27, 2011


[Also available in Russian]

Thank you, Ambassador. I’m so happy to be here this morning as we explore and expand the peacebuilding power of intercultural understanding. I’d like to thank everyone who helped organize this unique opportunity, especially the United States Institute of Peace, Soliya, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and Partners for a New Beginning.

We all share a deep belief in the ability of people from different backgrounds and experiences to find common ground if they just have the opportunity to sit together and talk. Simple interactions can have enormous power. We see it every day. We see it when Youth Ambassadors from Brazil honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by sharing their own dreams for the future just across the street from here, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And we see it when a Kyrgyz teacher uses Skype to connect her classroom of English learners to students she met during her exchange in Billings, Montana, allowing distant peer groups to share their common experiences as teenagers.

These stories illustrate the human virtue of international exchanges. They are not just about traveling to new places or experiencing other cultures. They are about the moments where we exchange little pieces of ourselves with other people. And where we exchange our own prejudice for understanding. These are the building bricks of sustainable and shareable peace in countries all over the world.

So I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today about the State Department’s unwavering commitment to promoting opportunities for exchange through every possible venue – face-to-face and using connective technologies. We want to find new ways to interact with one another and use technology to augment the reach and retention of our exchanges. But the underlying principles of international exchange remain unchanged. In all we do, we must strive to create the sense of shared belonging and mutual respect that is so critical to lasting peace and understanding.

We know that stand-alone, government-to-government diplomacy is no longer enough. More so now than ever, public diplomacy is a vital component of the foreign policy of the United States. Engaging with and telling our story to people around the world both advances our national interests and enhances our national security.

As we do this, facilitating exchanges and face-to-face interactions between individuals is the bread and butter of our public diplomacy work. Our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs works around the clock to maintain a wide range of high-quality exchanges between youth, students, educators, artists, athletes, and emerging leaders in the United States and more than 160 countries. Exchange participants quickly become citizen ambassadors. They create spaces for conversation and opportunities for cooperation while traveling abroad. And they build even larger communities of understanding when they return home.

We have over one million alumni of State Department led exchanges living and working around the world today. It is a network that includes more than 50 Nobel laureates and more than 350 current or former government leaders. This is an invaluable asset to help us engage with countries at every level and inform our policy objectives – if we harness it correctly.

Expanding and strengthening our people-to-people relationships is a major pillar of our public diplomacy framework at the State Department. It is a commitment that guides our strategic outreach in every region of the world. And exchanges are the human heartbeat holding it all together. But we must also navigate this new world of global connectivity and the never before known opportunities it provides. The Internet has made it possible to reach more people in more places. But it has also shifted power and influence to such an extent that it is necessary to engage with more people. So we need to do more to connect with people – all 6.9 billion of them – to better ensure the stability and security of our world.

Operating in this new world also means recognizing that people themselves are different from previous generations with whom we sought to engage. Today, more than 60 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 30. These young people are savvy, connected, and increasingly well educated. They will be the drivers of change in their countries and throughout the world in the coming decades. We are already seeing it across North Africa and the Middle East as a rising wave of young activists demand their rights and remake their world. This is a critical inflection point for these newly empowered youth, which makes this a critical moment for the United States to redouble our efforts to support and engage them.

Next week I will travel to South Africa, Senegal, and Niger to meet with organizations and youth groups who are transforming Africa into a wellspring of innovation and entrepreneurship. We want to tap the energy and ability of these young people and help elevate them. We want to make sure that more youth across Africa – and every continent – are connected to the resources and opportunities they need to achieve their goals.

But in much of the world, today’s young people have grown up skeptical of the United States and our role as a world leader. They often see us as self-interested, or perhaps worse, irrelevant. Too few of them have productive outlets for their time and talents. And too many of them have been systematically denied their basic rights to self-expression. Exchanges can help address these issues.

When we promote exchanges that build skills and empower youth to be a positive force for change in their communities, we help throw open the doors of opportunity around the world. When we foster networks that connect people in one country with their colleagues around the globe, we build bridges and mine resources that help people reach their full potential. When we advocate and educate young people to be leaders in their own countries – not because it is good for the United States, but because it is right for the world – we bring the true American spirit to life for people everywhere.

If we can show our full commitment to young people today, and engage them in a direct, two-way dialogue about our shared goals and mutual responsibilities, we will have strong allies and partners for years to come. Now, as I said before, face-to-face interactions are the bread and butter of our public diplomacy exchanges. But connective technologies allow us to butter our bread on both sides. Exchange 2.0 is not a replacement for the tried and true methods of international exchange. There is no virtual equivalent for the face-to-face impact of interactions between Americans and people of other cultures. Exchange 2.0 is a complement rather than a competitor – one we cannot afford to ignore.

Connective technologies can provide the first introduction between two people that sparks a curiosity to learn more about one another. Or they can be the second contact that helps cement and build a relationship over time and distance. Each interaction leaves a different impression and shows a person he or she is important to us. That too is a core function of exchanges. And Exchange 2.0 adds several elements that help us better achieve our goal of strengthening and expanding personal connections in the 21st century.

First, connective technologies allow us to scale up and adapt our exchanges to reach a wider, more diverse audience. With social media, we can maintain a connection to communities we have never before had the resources or opportunity to engage. If our goal is to engage with everyone, particularly communities and populations that may have been marginalized in the past, online exchanges make that goal a real possibility for the first time.

Second, social media provide a platform to sustain our meaningful engagement with alumni once they have completed an international exchange program. Setting up an online group for alumni allows us to continue the conversation long after participants leave their host countries. And it keeps the network alive for participants to more easily share ideas and best practices among themselves as well.

Third, social media allow us to engage with youth where they live – whether online or on their mobile phone. We cannot remain wedged in a model of engagement that requires youth to come to us. There are too many streams of information competing with us for influence, and important conversations will happen with or without us. If we do not enter the marketplace of ideas and join forums where youth are already active, we risk marginalizing ourselves permanently.

And finally, social media allow us to keep up with the speed at which our world happens. We have to be able to respond to rapidly changing environments. I recently returned from Tunisia, a country that is changing minute-to-minute. Journalists were asking for assistance to learn the basics of how to question their politicians in an open media environment. So we are setting up an online, rapid mentorship program to connect journalists in Tunisia with their counterparts in the United States and France and throughout the Middle East. With Tunisia’s first democratic elections in over two decades less than three months away, our support must not be too late or too little.

Added to these assets is a bonus advantage: Exchanges using social media technology cost relatively little to implement but can return large benefits. Soliya’s Connect Program is an excellent example of combining technology tools with the core principles of exchange to produce impressive results. Soliya tracks the before and after attitudes for each participant in their Connect Program. Nearly twice as many students, both Arab and American, strongly agree that they have a lot in common with their counterparts after participating in the semester-long virtual exchange. Even better, the Connect Program has a viral impact as 93 percent of participants say they shared what they were learning with others in their community. No miles are traveled. No one meets in person. But attitudes are changed.

We need to explore more ways to strategically and consistently incorporate connective technologies into our exchange efforts. As President Obama has said, we need to “create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.” With the help of many of you in this room, we have already started down this path at the State Department. Our Global Connections and Exchange Program has been in operation for ten years. This landmark public diplomacy initiative connects students who may never share a lunch table or walk home together. But with online classrooms, there are no limits on sharing their ideas. Together, they learn to be positive forces for change in their local communities.

One such exchange actually connects high school students in Egypt – Sadat City though, not Cairo – with those in Brookline, Massachusetts. They collaborate on environmental projects around waste removal and recycling. They call themselves “the Waste Busters.” Using digital video conferences, Skype, and Facebook, the students have formed an active community. And this community allows the students to do more than bust waste. They also encourage each other during final exams. And next week they are organizing an online discussion about the roots of Egypt’s revolution.

It doesn’t take much to unleash our natural curiosity about the other people and places of the world. It doesn’t take much to bring people together and remind us that we all belong to the same shared planet. Sometimes all it takes is the opportunity to ask a question and receive an honest answer. Connective technologies help us open those lines of communication.

I’ve participated in several virtual exchanges and seen firsthand how online dialogue can spark offline action. Just last month I visited an after-school program out in Redwood City, California, to observe the first Skype exchange between a group of American high school students and students in Karachi. Because of the security situation in Pakistan, the Karachi students spent the night in their school to be ready to talk at 6:00 a.m. Some of the American students had never traveled outside of California, but they arrived dressed in their best suits to make a good impression.

Things started slowly. Both sides were a little shy, particularly the American students. But just over the course of that half-hour call, all the awkwardness and insecurities faded away. Students began moving closer to the computer screen. They stood up more readily to take their turn at the microphone. And at the end of the event, one student told me he wanted to work with the Karachi group to make a music video about child labor in Pakistan – an issue he had not known about an hour earlier. With an open internet connection and a little encouragement, those kids exchanged pieces of their personal experience and character with each other. Something none of them would have otherwise had the opportunity to do.

Secretary Clinton has challenged us to think of ways we can make the special experience of international exchange available to the greatest number of people possible. To figure out how we can sustain interactions and turn passing encounters into permanent friendships. Connective technology undoubtedly has a central role to play, and I challenge each of you to find new ways to incorporate it into the great work you are already doing.

Let us build momentum toward a near future where online exchanges are a baseline expectation for our citizens in a globalized world. Let us work together to harness the power of networks and apply them to our people-to-people exchanges. And let us never doubt the universal ability of dialogue in any form to promote intercultural good will.

The path to understanding always takes a different route. It can be a long haul or an uphill climb. But without fail, in every country and across every culture on earth, it starts with “hello” and ends with “go in peace, my friend.”

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