Saturday, December 1, 2012

(Re)Introducing Sister Cities in the "New Public Diplomacy Imperative"

Reading Joseph Nye's article "Public Diplomacy and Soft Power" this week, I was particularly struck by one thought: "postmodern publics are generally skeptical of authority... Thus it often behooves governments to keep in the background and to work with private actors." (The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616 (2008): 105) Though Nye goes on to mention the potential  public diplomacy (PD) utilization of NGOs in particular, I began to think of the capital that could be utilized in non-profits, particularly ones like Sister Cities International (SCI).

To give a brief background, SCI was founded under Dwight Eisenhower's presidency as part of the "People to People" initiative. It allows for partnerships to be set up between cities in the United States and cities in foreign countries. The partnerships are administered locally, and the sister cities are in charge of coordinating home-stay exchanges for group ranging in age from 8th grade to adult, and ranging in profession from student (youth) to fireman and teacher. So SCI could be placed under the umbrella of "old school" public diplomacy initiatives, since it does, through the home-stay set-up, require face-to-face interaction to help cultivate Nye's "soft power".

Yet in the era of ICT revolutions, especially social media platforms, does Sister Cities still have a place in America's public diplomacy strategy? Or is it "fundamentally redefine[d]" by "technology [that] continually reinvent[s] the ways in which people interact"? (Jacob Comenetz, "Innovating Public Diplomacy for a New Digital World" in The Washington Diplomat) I know from personal experience that technology has impacted my ability to stay in touch with the multitude of host families, co-facilitators, conference participants, and fellow youth ambassadors I have met through the organization. And in this sense, the power of diplomacy is shifted down to the individual level and away from the hands of the government through technology.

I did not, however, initially interact with these people on the internet; I met them in person, and in some cases shared their house. As Matthew Wallin stated, "digital diplomacy may be new, but it does not revolutionize the core elements of good public diplomacy"... and it should "be doing a small part of a much larger strategy, rather than making [digital technology] the headline." ("The New Public Diplomacy Imperative", American Security Project, (August 2012): 34).  I completely agree with this. If an organization with credibility outside the government has successfully been building resources of soft power for the United States for half a century, should it matter that it is still utilizing the face-to-face method of diplomacy while only partially focusing on new media initiatives? No, it shouldn't, especially if new media and increased technology aren't substituting for the proven diplomatic practices Wallin laid out. And yet, I still find that many people seem to down-play, or dismiss outright, the role of organizations such as Sister Cities International in U.S. public diplomacy.

Though it may be old school, and though it may not be directly affiliated with the government, SCI does build soft power for the U.S.; the building blocks just happen to be between individuals and be built over the long-term. So why "develop an entirely new channel for communication when there is one in place that already has a better chance of reaching the target audience...?" (Wallin, 29). Not that the communication via the Internet is not important to have; it just should just share the limelight with older diplomatic communication methods. And since SCI practices one of the established methods and has a network of thousands of cities in constant exchange of information and people, it should be introduced (or more appropriately reintroduced) into the debate on public diplomacy and its future in the digital age.


  1. Dianna this is a very interesting post. The Sister Cities International organization also brings to my mind the concept of citizen diplomacy and the ways in which it helps to achieve public diplomacy goals and also to strengthen soft power. The NCIV (National Council for International Visitors) - another organization that works to promote citizen diplomacy through a network of institutions who host international exchange visitors in the U.S. - defines the concept of citizen diplomacy as “the individual citizen has the right--even the responsibility--to help shape foreign relations… ‘one handshake at a time’.” As you point out, technology can be used to continue the conversation after an exchange, or even to start a conversation that leads to an exchange, in this way strengthening the power of and possible contributing to the impact of diplomacy conducted through individual citizens. Yet even though there is incredible potential in communication technology in terms of keeping the conversation going and strengthening the network ties created by citizen diplomacy, it is still immensely important to maintain the face-to-face contact as a part of these programs. I will close with a quote which I think sums up this idea, “In an era of increasing globalization, more and more people develop their most lasting impressions through face-to-face, personal encounters, when people visit the United States or when Americans travel abroad.” (

  2. Dianna, thanks for sharing your insights about Sister Cities International. I think you're right in your thought about postmodern publics being skeptical of authority figures, and particularly governments, both at home and abroad. Another advantage that an organization like SCI has over a U.S. state actor is its longevity. Whereas a presidential administration has the potential to change every four year period, SCI might be able to provide a consistent voice toward a country that is far more reliable than our government. I imagine that contact with a stable and relatively unchanging organization would go far to build and sustain a positive relationship. This could be much harder to maintain with a government that transitions more frequently.

    I also agree with you that there is value in face-to-face interaction that cannot be achieved through social media and new technologies. As Edward R. Murrow famously said, "The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact – one person talking to another."[1] Even fifty years after this observation was made, we still have not found a replacement for communicating in person.