A recent opinion piece in the Huffington Post raises some interesting issues about the Peace Corps and its relationship to official U.S. public diplomacy efforts overseas. I’d like to begin by professing my appreciation and admiration for the Peace Corps and the many thousands of volunteers who are serving or have served around the world. Although I am no development expert and cannot speak to their accomplishments in that regard, I have long appreciated the valuable contributions that Peace Corps volunteers make towards advancing our public diplomacy efforts.
For millions of foreigners around the world, a Peace Corps volunteer is, or was literally, the “face” of the United States, the only direct interaction they may have had with a U.S. citizen in their entire lives. Judging by my personal interaction over a career that has brought me into contact with hundreds of bright, enthusiastic, and dedicated volunteers, I am confident that those interactions are overwhelmingly positive and reflect favorably on the United States.
In addition to highlighting the Peace Corps’ public diplomacy mission in the article, Mr. Machado points out the considerable efforts expended to ensure that the Peace Corps remains an independent entity from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. military. While I can certainly appreciate the bureaucratic need to maintain such independence, I am also concerned that it comes at the cost of less-than-ideal cooperation and coordination of our shared public diplomacy objectives. Mr. Machado correctly points out that foreigners rarely draw a distinction between Peace Corps volunteers and other official U.S. representatives. Perhaps we should acknowledge that simple fact and develop better procedures to synchronize our efforts.
In many countries around the world, this is already happening. The Peace Corps, where it has an on-the-ground presence, is, of course, part of the Country Team led by the U.S. Ambassador. Working together on those teams, Peace Corps Country Directors and Public Affairs Officers have seen the compelling logic of close coordination.
When I was the Public Affairs Officer at one of my overseas postings, for example, I worked closely with the Country Director to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps by profiling a few talented volunteers and on nationally televised news programs. The programs were viewed by hundreds of thousands of locals who marveled not only at the volunteers’ command of their language, but also of the dialects of the local communities where they worked. In a separate collaboration we partnered volunteers with local American Corners, invigorating those key public diplomacy platforms with English language clubs and other activities. I know that similar collaboration takes place in many other countries as well.
At the same time, I worry that the perceived need to maintain “distance” between the Peace Corps and the U.S. Department of State may lead us to miss such opportunities to leverage our respective investments in public diplomacy for maximum impact. The simple reality is that foreign perceptions and opinions of the United States cannot be compartmentalized, but will instead be shaped by a combination of factors, including opinions of U.S. policy and military interventions, American pop culture and American tourists abroad, consumption of U.S. products and services, as well as direct interaction with Peace Corps volunteers and official U.S. public diplomacy programs.
Let’s recognize this and get on with maximizing opportunities to cooperate and collaborate not only between Peace Corps and the U.S. Department of State, but between all U.S. government agencies. In fact, to the extent that we share objectives – and I know that we often do – we should do the same with the private and non-governmental sectors as well.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.