May 2, 2011
The U.S. State Department retains an “unwavering commitment” to promoting international exchanges “through every possible venue—face-to-face and using connective technologies,” Judith A. McHale, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, told an April 27 conference on the future of exchanges at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. The conference itself was webcast live, and questions were received via chat and Twitter.
McHale emphasized that “face-to-face interactions are the bread and butter of our public diplomacy exchanges.” But she used her address to dwell on the opportunities to expand and deepen exchanges courtesy of the interactive media being born in the Internet age. “We want to find new ways to interact with one another and use technology to augment the reach and retention of our exchanges,” she said. “We know that stand-alone, government-to-government diplomacy is no longer enough.”
McHale spoke at a conference titled, “Exchange 2.0,” an event sponsored by USIP, the nonprofit organization Soliya, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the Aspen Institute-affiliated Partners for a New Beginning.
The conference also marked the release of a USIP special report (coming soon) by the same title that was authored by Sheldon Himelfarb, who directs USIP’s Center of Innovation on Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding, and Shamil Idriss, Soliya’s chief executive officer.
For the past three years, USIP has been convening policymakers and nongovernmental practitioners to explore ways of using the rise of social media and the Internet generally to advance peacebuilding and not conflict. The stakes are high.
“They [connective technologies] are shifting the center of gravity from the state to the societies,” USIP President Richard H. Solomon told the gathering. “It can cut in two ways—in a constructive way or in a destructive way.” Added Himelfarb, “How can we harness this unprecedented connectivity for a better, safer world?”
In their paper, Himelfarb and Idriss define Exchange 2.0 initiatives as “technology-enabled programs embedded in curricula and with a cross-cultural educational purpose.” They say that efforts such as those by Soliya, iEARN, Global Nomads Group and East Carolina University’s Global Understanding Program are employing the Internet and connective technologies to create meaningful, cost-effective international exchanges—a trend that has the State Department’s attention.
However, Himelfarb also told the conference that virtual, 2.0-type exchanges so far have been “woefully underutilized.” Why? He cited “misconceptions around their potential impact—most people simply don’t know how effective they can be” in fostering genuine dialogue across cultures.
McHale laid out the broader public diplomacy challenges posed by the Internet. “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,” she said. McHale also acknowledged that in much of the world 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.” She highlighted the need to reach out to increasingly connected younger generations—more than 60 percent of the global population is under the age of 30—calling them “drivers of change,” including in the turbulence hitting the Middle East and North Africa.
The State Department has a long tradition of international exchanges, the Fulbright Program being perhaps the best known. McHale noted that there are more than one million alumni of State Department international exchanges, a network with more than 50 Nobel laureates and more than 350 current or former government leaders.
Such programs remain “the bedrock of what we do…but they’re insufficient,” J. Adam Ereli, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, told the conference audience. “We’re integrating virtual technology and exchanges into our traditional exchanges.” However, Ereli also observed that some countries, particularly China, had thrown up “deliberate obstacles that make access difficult.”
The 2.0-style exchanges appear to have made a significant impact on many of those students who have participated. Ingrid Inema, a Rwandan who is now studying at Stanford University, talked about a Global Nomads Group session she participated in years ago that allowed her and friends to talk directly with American high school students about that nation’s genocide and other topics. “The biggest thing is, really, how it expanded our world,” she said.
Osama Abd El-Fattah Madany, a professor of English, spoke over a video link from Egypt, where he has been guiding a Soliya Connect program at Menoufiya University. He said that the virtual exchanges were helping to break down “preconceived ideas” held by some of his students about Americans. “This is a program that provided a window to the West, a window to the other,” Madany said. “I have a huge waiting list for the program.”
- Learn more about this event
- USIP’s Center of Innovation on Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding
- Exchange 2.0
Special Report | May 2011