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Revealing the hidden soft diplomacy of inter-connected international travelers.
When my wife and I decided to take a mid-career break and travel
around the world, we immediately recognized our role as citizen
diplomats—for the United States and the West. After launching a website
and connecting with a growing international community, we sensed a
gap. Although long-term travelers continue to build cross-border
relationships, traditional institutions of diplomacy haven’t yet flexed
to take full advantage of agents like us and the emerging new
communication techniques we employ.
Before we began our journey, we lived in Prague, Czech Republic for
five years. We were accustomed to answering questions about America and
playing the role of informal American diplomats. This helped provide
the motivation for the two-way storytelling approach we employ on our
website, Uncornered Market, and relate our experiences in the world
while sharing who we are as American citizens.
The Caucasus and Central Asia proved our first real test. Besides
being relatively unknown and untraveled, this region featured
governments with various degrees of approval for America—from Georgia’s
embrace to Uzbekistan’s coolness. It also provided an ideal test bed to
leverage the power of personal encounters in our two-way storytelling.
We used various technologies and media to put a human face on distant
Traditional diplomatic channels like the Foreign Service and
educational exchanges are critical, but they are squarely aimed at
political and academic circles. Through travel, we seek to even the
equation by interacting with people in public contexts like the local
food market or public transport. In these environments, we impact the
people who normally fall outside the range of formal diplomacy and
intellectual exchanges. Whose ‘hearts and minds’ are we trying to win,
anyhow—those of the diplomats or those of everyday people?
Eighteen months into our journey, we are heartened by the human
ability to differentiate between the policies of a government and the
citizens of that country. We have often heard that we were the first
Americans that someone had met and because of the interaction, a
favorable impression of America remained.
As we write about and reflect on our experiences from Asia, and plan
the next segment of our journey through the Middle East and Africa, we
continue to examine the role of private citizens in generating
diplomatic currency. Perhaps the interconnectedness of today’s
international travelers can help close the gap between formal programs
and the hearts and minds of ordinary people.
We’re up to the challenge.
Since 2005, Kosmos’s readers have graciously answered requests for articles on various themes. You can see the author’s name in the article.