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“The Importance of Citizen Diplomacy”

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Embassy of the Republic of Korea Washington, DC
United States

July 23, 2010

Ambassador Duk-Soo Han, Secretary Stock, friends of the people of Korea.

We gather this evening to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright program in Korea.

In so doing, we honor distinguished program participants but, more profoundly, we underscore the vital role of exchanges and citizen diplomacy itself.

Perspective is difficult to apply to events under way and just past.  But the evidence is in that exchanges make a difference in the lives of individuals and the social structure of societies.  Modern communication – the speed of travel and the virtually instantaneous capacity to transfer thought great    distances – have made neighbors of every citizen on the planet.  But being neighbors is not the same thing as being friends.  Mutual understanding is not as easily uplifted as technology is upgraded.

Technology provides the means to more readily advance understanding, but it does not create the inevitability that such a mental path will be traversed.  Rubbing up against neighbors who have different manners and different ways of speaking can sometimes spark friction.  That is why exchanges that involve learning and living in the shoes, shirts, and dresses of others make such a difference.

One of the myths of our times is that relations between countries is principally a function of government policy and that diplomacy is exclusively a government-to-government dialog.  Actually, it is businessmen and businesswomen, unelected people of good will—be they artists or scientists, athletes, students, or scholars in the humanities—who are more integral to defining the tone of relations between states than elected officials.  Citizen diplomacy generally precedes and increasingly supersedes government-to-government relations.

Governmental relations understandably have power and security dimensions, especially in a fractured world.  Citizen diplomacy, on the other hand, is exclusively about the power of values, the power of the human spirit. 

Since there will always be disagreements between people, the challenge is to see that they are resolved in civil rather than violent ways. 

Whether violence is an integral element of the human condition or a learned response is a matter of conjecture.  But non-violence is almost certainly a practice that must be learned.  And the most effective form of social education is human contact where greater understanding is mutually sought. 

It is the humanization rather than the demonization of individuals from different cultures, particularly cultures that are most unlike and/or embody the greatest prospect of enemy status, that is so critical if non-violent approaches to problem solving are to be institutionalized.  Without humanization—hand shakes of understanding—there can be no trust and hence no family or national security.

Governments may embody national values.  But if people are to develop mutual respect, values must be brought to bear on a human scale.  And those values frequently are best understood and reflected outside of political norms. 

The great 19th -century American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, was seemingly intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence.  He once wrote that his greatest dream was for “an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”  

A third of the way around the world from Washington, D.C., Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: “Beauty,” he said, “will save the world.”

A third of the way around the world in the opposite direction, Confucius suggested that “when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”

All of this sounds rather naïve but there are few people on the planet that ever understood human nature more than Whitman, Dostoevsky and Confucius.

I mention these great men of literature and philosophy because the most profound political observation of our age probably comes from a scientist.  Splitting the atom, Einstein once observed, has changed everything except our way of thinking.

The thinking of man must change.  Words and thought patterns matter.  When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Whitman, the novels of Dostoevsky, the wisdom of Confucius be used to uplift and unite.  These are our choices.

In making these choices, care has to be taken to recognize that no one assumes that there is only one proper path determinable by one individual or one country.

Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, great caution should be taken about being certain of very much.  To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes.  Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.    That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why shared learning is such an important part of a civilized world polity.

Half a century ago, the British author Lawrence Durrell wrote a set of books called the “Alexandria Quartet.”  Each one was a first-person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt.  An individual may wonder, Why read about the same set of happenings four different times?  It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different.  One person’s perspective is only a snapshot of reality.  A clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences. If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn’t it take many eyes and many thought contributions to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope of events?

What the Fulbright program allows is for participants to not only advance scholarly undertakings but see things from different perspectives, and listen to those who see the same or different things from eyes trained from nurture and perhaps nature to see in different ways.  This experience may be the first step to taking the leap Einstein implies must be taken – changing our way of thinking.  Surely, it is the most important legacy of the Fulbright program.