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Public Diplomacy That Lasts: The Value of International Visitor Exchanges

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Perhaps one of the most noted facts about last week's visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was his unusual personal connection to the United States. As a provincial official 27 years ago, Mr. Jinping was here as part of a Chinese delegation to Iowa to study agricultural policies.

The U.S. press's fascination with this fact is easy to understand. Mr. Jinping, viewed as the next leader of China, had himself emphasized this previous experience in our heartland as the basis for his warm feelings about the United States. In interviews, he remarked on the importance of people-to-people exchanges in providing a wide perspective on a country, breaking down stereotypes about everything from a country's governance to its culture, and creating lasting links between people of different cultures.

These sentiments are echoed by thousands of international visitors who have participated in official exchanges. World leaders from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon remember fondly the time they spent in the U.S. and the insight it provided on our country and people. They also speak about how those insights stayed with them for years and helped shape their view of the United States even after they came to power.

This ability to build bridges between the U.S. and rising global leaders is the paramount reason that the U.S. and many other countries around the world place so great a value on sustaining and expanding international visitor programs. While people are rightly pointing to the power of social media to bring people across societies together, exchanges still represent a key component of public diplomacy. 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. Technology and social media serve to extend and sustain that connection.

The U.S. Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) has been fulfilling this important mission for more than 60 years. The program brings emerging international leaders to the United States on programs that reflect professional interests and U.S. foreign policy goals on topics such as combating trafficking and international crime, interfaith dialogue, food security, and rule of law, women's rights, entrepreneurship and others.

Visitors spend a week in Washington meeting with their professional counterparts on the federal level and then an additional few weeks in other U.S. cities meeting with private and public sector officials, attending cultural events, and enjoying the hospitality of American families. This enriching cultural experience is by no means a one-way process; many participants visit U.S. schools and give presentations to American audiences. They may even get involved in volunteer activities along the way. Throughout their program, participants gain deeper insights into the society and culture of the United States, and an awareness of the diversity of opinions and ideas, even as they inform Americans about their own culture and society. It is no surprise that U.S. embassies around the world view these programs as the most effective public diplomacy tool at their disposal. In fact, this model is so effective, that it is increasingly emulated by the private sector looking to create long term links to nations and people who they believe will be critical future partners.

As president of the Meridian International Center in Washington, I've seen first-hand the tremendous value of intercultural exchanges. Meridian has been one of the State Department's leading partners in organizing these exchanges for more than 50 years, arranging programs for more than 64,000 such visitors to date. Of those, 157 are current or former heads of state, four are Nobel Peace Prize winners, and one is a former UN Secretary General.

Following the completion of their experience in the United States, many of our alumni continue to engage with the U.S. in a variety of ways from initiating business ties to participating in ongoing dialogue and best practice exchange. They also continue to be informal ambassadors for us through alumni associations in their country forming the basis of strong networks which contribute to a more balanced and informed view of our country.

Recently we have seen communities of shared interest form between U.S. and international leaders as a result of these exchanges. One such community resulted around our work on volunteerism and service, a theme which connects social entrepreneurs from the U.S. and abroad who face common challenges.

Last week's visit by the Chinese vice president should serve then as an important reminder as we look to pursue greater international cooperation: No matter how far apart two countries might seem, a well-planned personal exchange can be a critical step along the way toward bridging the distance.