public diplomacy

The Real Potential of Virtual Exchanges

The Obama administration broke with decades of policy when it extended a diplomatic overture to Iran in the form of a controversial and polarizing nuclear deal. Some experts characterize the deal as a monumental blunder that will threaten regional security and stability. Others hold it up as realistic and workable, the first step towards a more positive relationship with this adversarial nation. Any number of potential outcomes could follow from such bold diplomacy, and the move will surely be the subject of much debate for years to come. Regardless of which side one takes, the deal is seen by all as a harbinger of change; it will open a door, creating new diplomatic opportunities in the process. If the administration plays its cards right, responding to these opportunities with cautious optimism and a cogent strategy, reconciliation between the United States and the Iranian people may be possible. Through dialogue, mutual understanding, and public diplomacy, the State Department can lay the groundwork for new and rewarding relationships in the region. One way to start is with the creation of virtual exchange programs.

Virtual exchanges are technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people communication efforts. Using new media technologies like Skype and online video games to connect people from distant locations and diverse backgrounds, virtual exchanges can be leveraged to stimulate conversations and encourage meaningful cross-cultural learning. Participants are exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking; they build new relationships and acquire new skills, all from the comfort of their home country.

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Figure 1 – A limited virtual exchange sponsored by the ECA

Exchange programs have long been the cornerstone of the State Department’s public diplomacy strategy. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) was created in 1961 for the purpose of building “friendly, peaceful relations…through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges.” Participants learn new skills and make lasting connections that may someday benefit the United States. Today, ECA oversees over a hundred separate exchange programs with a budget of over $600M.

Despite these vast resources, or perhaps because of them, ECA has done relatively little experimentation with virtual exchanges. Why bother connecting online when you can afford to connect in person? In 2013, ECA created a virtual exchange team as a part of its experimental Collaboratory program, largely in response to the efforts of a handful of NGOs (Soliya, iEarn-USA, and Global Nomads Group, comprising the Virtual Exchange Coalition). The team has since designed virtual exchanges that primarily extend physical ones; participants already involved in a limited number of exchange programs are encouraged to connect online before and after their travel experience. This supplemental approach ignores many of the unique benefits offered by virtual exchanges.

By virtue of operating online, virtual exchanges possess two great strengths: first, they are able to reach large audiences who are unable to participate in traditional exchange programs. Technology has made instantaneous communication all but free, dramatically lowering the costs of cross-cultural conversation. Less than 1 percent of US citizens will ever participate in a physical exchange, but over 88 percent have access to the internet. Second, virtual exchanges are low risk. As participants connect from their local homes, offices, or classrooms, they are not exposed to the dangers of travel. This is particularly true for countries experiencing internal conflict or those with adversarial relations with the United States – countries like Syria and Iran.

Thankfully, it appears that the ECA is coming around. Last year, it sponsored a pilot Student-Led Virtual Exchange Program that digitally connected American University students with students in other countries. The program was a resounding success, illustrating the power of virtual exchanges to reach new audiences and promote cross-cultural learning.

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Figure 2 – Peace Park, an online video game that connects Georgian and Abkhaz youth in a positive virtual environment

In the case of Iran, it is easy to envision virtual exchanges built around art, music, architecture, or fashion; a majority of Iranians view the United States favorably, with thriving black markets catering to demand for all forms of officially-banned American pop culture.

From my own experience, I recall a virtual exchange between my elementary school in Kansas and one in South Dakota during the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s cross country expedition. Students were connected via a video application and asked to discuss a book and plan a fictional event. Neither I nor any of the other children were particularly interested in Lewis and Clark, so we largely sat quietly or talked about other things.

While this particular program wasn’t a success, it both illustrates one of the strengths of virtual exchanges and offers an important lesson for diplomatic ones. First, by operating entirely over the internet, the two schools invested relatively little compared to the thousands of dollars and hours of time they would have had to spend to enable a physical exchange. It was an experiment, not a disaster. Second, the example shows that even with the best intentions, success isn’t assured and can’t be forced. Any virtual exchange, whether with Iran or any other country, will live and die by the interest and participation it is able to generate among both populations.

In summary, virtual exchanges are an ideal starting point towards reconciliation between the United States and the populations of adversarial states like Iran. They are a low cost, low risk way to build mutual understanding. While they don’t guarantee meaningful interaction, successes can be identified and built into traditional exchanges over time. ECA should expand its efforts to develop programs that better leverage the unique strengths of virtual exchange programs.

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