in the field, public diplomacy

Peace Corps and Public Diplomacy: Missed Opportunities?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swears in new Peace Corps Volunteers in Antigua, Guatemala, on June 6, 2013. (Credit: State Department, Public Domain)

Secretary of State John Kerry swears in new Peace Corps Volunteers in Antigua, Guatemala, on June 6, 2013. (Credit: State Department, Public Domain)

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.


About Jonathan Henick

Jonathan Henick is a career diplomat with over 20 years of experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, including assignments to Turkey, Portugal, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Timor-Leste. He is currently working as the Public Diplomacy Fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University.


17 thoughts on “Peace Corps and Public Diplomacy: Missed Opportunities?

  1. I believe that the third goal is where Peace Corps volunteers who have returned could assist the State Department employees in developing better understanding for the various countries and their citizens. Before Obama sent our troops to Afghanistan, I wrote to him and suggested that 1. It not become his “Viet Nam” and 2. that he and the State Department contact former PCVs and get some real experience information about who the people are and how the culture works. I know he didn’t listen, but I believe RPCVs are an untapped source for understanding and the creation of global Peace.

    Posted by Nancy L Sanchez-Spears | September 28, 2013, 2:21 am
  2. I agree with a lot of what has been said already. I’d only really like to add that PCVs already do a great job of public diplomacy within our countries. It just isn’t “public” on the government level. I literally convinced a friend that maybe he doesn’t hate America, just by being a friendly American in the village next to his and talking to him a few times, and I am sure this experience is being multiplied thousands of times as volunteers go through their service. This isn’t going to be measured in any State reports, it isn’t going to show up in any newspapers or have a press conference about it, but that is the point of Peace Corps – lasting improvements across every spectrum band, be it local agriculture, safe sex knowledge, or just an emotional warming between our country and whichever country we serve in. Top-down public diplomacy won’t work in a lot of places because of the distrust or just pure ignoring of the government – it was certainly that way in my tiny West African country. What works is your neighbor telling you. That is the point of the Peace Corps.

    I agree with the above commentator: give Peace Corps more money. You’re getting almost all of your labor for free, paid for by the good intentions of its volunteers, and we do it while being tragically under-supported. We need defense, of course, but maybe we could not build 10 or 20 missiles and double the budget of the Peace Corps for a while? Improve the mental health support (by which I mean give any of it) first and foremost, then improve the net of volunteer coverage so that we can rely on each other more to complete projects.

    Posted by Mason | September 26, 2013, 9:07 pm
    • I think I should also mention one other small issue with this, and you can see this in all the comments by RPCVs – we are stubborn as hell. If you made a good PCV, it probably means you smiled and nodded at your superiors, told them you’d follow their suggestions (or even rules) and then went back to your village and threw that all out the window, doing it the way you thought it would work based on your village, your community, and your colleagues. We’re going to fight being integrated or given more higher-ups to work with, even if it could be a good idea 🙂

      Posted by Mason | September 26, 2013, 9:15 pm
  3. Spoken like someone who never served as a PCV and someone who is a public affairs officer. All too often the US story overseas is bad news so is it any wonder that a public affairs officer would seek to exploit PCVs? PC consults carefully with host country governments and local communities to develop programs so while they may not seek to advance specific US foreign policy objectives, PC ensures that they do not hinder those objectives. Keeping PC separate from State Department goes far beyond a “bureaucratic” need as Mr. Henick posits. This separation is essential in keeping volunteers safe in the field and to prevent PC from becoming a mere pawn in the political machinations of Washington. In this polarized political environment it is one of the only agencies that maintains bipartisan support.

    If you think this is paranoid, one need only look at USAID for an example. “Development, diplomacy, and defense” are now considered the three legs of foreign policy. However, the head of USAID is not a cabinet level position so not all “legs” are equal leading to, as one would expect, foreign policy that is not always well balanced. As a result, USAID’s ability to manage its own budget and set priorities has fallen victim to the desire for quick political wins (and threats in some cases) rather than development which, by definition is a long term process – one that far exceeds a government official’s time in office.

    I also believe Mr. Henick underestimates the sophistication of host country nationals. The majority of them generally understand the difference between the goals of PC, State Department, USAID, and the US military. This is the very reason they often seek out PCVs to explain US foreign policy – PCVs become trusted members of their community with whom they can speak freely and they understand when PCVs often have to admit that they also don’t understand a particular foreign policy.

    I believe a much simpler solution is available – appropriate enough money to PC so that each post could hire their own political affairs officer to publicize the accomplishments of PC. PC is already seen as an agency for which taxpayers get the most bang for their buck, wouldn’t this one simple position stretch those dollars even farther?

    Posted by Jahmeka Jersey, RPCV Jamaica | September 26, 2013, 4:36 pm
  4. Some very good comments above about separation of PC and PCVs from other diplomatic mission groups. I totally agree. There’s a very good reason you can’t be hired by the CIA or other US intelligence agencies for five years after returning from volunteer service. In my village there were a few who always viewed me with suspicion, even directly accusing me (usually after sharing a bottle of mnazi with me) of being a spy. Nothing I did or said changed their minds. But for the vast majority of students and volunteers I worked with, I think/hope they saw me in a more positive, innocent light, as in PC goal #2.

    Posted by Jim Laney RPCV Kenya 83-85 | September 25, 2013, 10:42 pm
    • Accusations of being a spy were rife when i was as PCV during the good ol’s cold war in Africa and I am sure they continue. Sadly, a few (one) PCV types were somehow implicated in this where a fine line may have been crossed. That line needs to be clear and this is where we need to be careful. A PCV needs to steer clear of these accusations and be someone the hosts can trust–and this requires an independence from the more political objectives of the USG. By definition, even PC is political- what is not politcal about 2 governments agree to have a few hundred people based in the bush? very few people would view this as an exercise in innocense- regardless of reality. Even my PCV group’s arrival was held back by the host government due to a political clash with Washington – only to be warmly welcomed a week later.

      Posted by Rob PCV Liberia 85 to 87 | September 26, 2013, 1:22 am
  5. Peace Corps’s independence is also to ensure that Volunteers are not used to gather intelligence information. There is no reason for Peace Corps to “coordinate” with the State Department team and many reasons not to do so. Jonathan Henick is not at all specific about what he means by “cooperation.” Volunteers should be cooperating with host country nationals and focusing on the people Volunteers serve. State Department Personnel should concentrate on doing their own work well. Working independently, Volunteers and State Department Personnel can accomplish goals that complement the work of each.

    The “brand” name Peace Corps is made up of literally of over 200,000 Volunteer efforts over fifty years. In my long experience as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, it seems to me that people, who never served in the Peace Corps, are always trying to exploit or commandeer the Peace Corps name to serve their particular agenda. After all, Jonathan Henick could always have joined the Peace Corps and served for two years, without the pay and beanies that State Department personnel enjoy. Perhaps, he could have begun his essay by explaining why he never joined.

    Posted by Joanne Roll | September 25, 2013, 5:58 pm
  6. Read “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.

    Posted by Quinn Stilletto | September 25, 2013, 3:56 pm
  7. You’re worried that the separation of Peace Corps from the US Dept. of State might lead “us” ‘miss such opportunities to leverage our respective investments in public diplomacy for maximum impact’? I’m afraid what you’re missing the point of Peace Corps—clearly stated in its three goals.

    1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
    2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
    3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

    Those goals cannot be accomplished by a Peace Corps that is overshadowed by political considerations, intelligence needs, or any other ‘agenda’.

    Posted by RD | September 25, 2013, 1:15 pm
    • I think it’s good to focus on PC’s mission and 3 goals. What’s missing is that the State dept and others do not use the PC experience to their benefit. Change begins from the bottom up, by building true friendships and understanding cultural traditions and nuances. They need us more than we need them. Wherever PC volunteers serve, the face of America is enhanced, and our foreign policy objectives are thus served. Fran Cary, RPCV, Ukraine, 2009-11

      Posted by Francine (Fran) CurroCary | September 25, 2013, 1:43 pm
      • I couldn’t agree more! Successful diplomacy – like Peace Corps service – also depends on building friendships and understanding cultural traditions. Some of the most successful models of cooperation will certainly come from the bottom up. What’s needed, I think, is for the institutional leadership of State and the Peace Corps to merely give a green light to those of us in the field to experiment and see which models work best — for BOTH organizations.

        Posted by Jonathan Henick (@JonathanHenick) | September 25, 2013, 1:59 pm
    • Not at all… There is, in fact, considerable (although admittedly not total) overlap between the Peace Corps’ goals and those of official U.S. public diplomacy. Specifically, goals #2 and #3 listed above or what we refer to as as promoting “mutual understanding.” I am not proposing to retool or reorient Peace Corps to our “political considerations, intelligence needs, or any other ‘agenda’,” instead, merely to recognize that as often as not we are working towards the same ends and would do well to cooperate.

      Posted by Jonathan Henick (@JonathanHenick) | September 25, 2013, 1:55 pm
  8. There is a facile idea that we could marry the Peace Corps with our foreign policy objectives. This is a bad idea and one that has been easily shot down for 50 years. Peace Corps volunteers can be initially viewed with suspicion and even accused of being spies. Formalizing a relationship to foreign policy via public diplomacy is dangerous for the safety of volunteers and injurious for the credibility of the Peace Corps as a respected and apolitical organization.

    Posted by Hungry Globetrotter (@HungryGlobetrtr) | September 25, 2013, 12:34 pm
    • Amen Amen to Hungry Globetrotter’s comment. The beauty and strength of the PC has been its independence from machinations by State or Military. However, it could (and maybe has been doing) offer insight into local attitudes and perceptions to which officials in State–even USAID–can be remarkably deaf. Remarkably!
      –JAF, African American Insititute Teacher Placement Program, Nigeria, 1961-1963.

      Posted by Jonathan A. French | September 25, 2013, 2:45 pm
    • I totally agree with the prior response….are “we” forgetting our mission?? It takes time to build cooperation and repect
      in our “host” countries….

      Posted by Marie Shockley, RPCV, Namibia | September 25, 2013, 10:04 pm
  9. The reason for the ‘independence,’ agency status, is so PC doesn’t influence in a policy or civil societal or neocolonial way. For example, forcing countries to comply to American ways of living or puntive acts, such as aid cuts, occur. Seizing what Americans consider opportunity costs experience.

    Posted by DS | September 23, 2013, 5:03 pm


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