When we think of international diplomacy, we might imagine heads of state at official meetings, but in fact everyone can (and should) engage in diplomacy. Public diplomacy, also referred to as people’s diplomacy, “describes government-sponsored efforts aimed at communicating directly with foreign publics.” Essentially, public diplomacy is about building bridges of understanding between people of other countries, not only government-to-government relations. This also includes virtual exchange! We’re re-enabled by modern technology now more than ever to make and maintain connections with people of different countries. By embracing both in-person and digital connectivity, we can feel empowered to become public diplomats in conjunction with our government.

Traditionally, the purpose of public diplomacy was to promote national interests and advance foreign policy goals. According to the USC Center of Public Diplomacy, “Public diplomacy includes such activities as educational exchange programs for scholars and students; visitor programs; language training; cultural events and exchanges; and radio and television broadcasting. Such activities usually focused on improving the ‘sending’ country’s image or reputation as a way to shape the wider policy environment in the ‘receiving’ country.” Historically, intercultural exchange programs have served as examples of public diplomacy in their work to develop cultural understanding and peaceful foreign policy. That’s why President John F. Kennedy met with AFS students at the White House in the early 1960s: he recognized the power of student exchange as public diplomacy.

Since then, the definition of public diplomacy has broadened to cover a variety of efforts, both formal and informal, to cultivate meaningful connections between people of different countries and deconstruct stereotypes. Public diplomacy has now come to include non-governmental actors and institutions who look to create mutually positive relations on a global scale.

How AFS-USA Engages in Public Diplomacy

As an organization that empowers people to become globally engaged citizens by delivering meaningful intercultural experiences, public diplomacy is what we do at AFS. It’s how we fulfill our mission of providing the knowledge and skills people need to create a more just and peaceful world.

Our founders recognized that cultural exchange could promote peace when they returned from their service as volunteer ambulance drivers in WWI and WWII. As the United Nations explains, “three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension.” Both by hosting foreign exchange students in the U.S. and sending U.S. students abroad, we facilitate ongoing dialogues, cultural learning, and friendships across countries that help avoid misunderstandings that can lead to conflict. Exchange goes both ways for us —­­both “sending” and “receiving” countries benefit from diversifying perspectives and breaking down harmful cultural biases.

Specific and meaningful connections between people of different cultures create a ripple effect that extends deeply into communities, schools, and families on both sides of the exchange. That’s public diplomacy in action. While the macro is important, it’s the micro that matters more. Simple conversations, sharing a car, having a meal with someone from a different culture — it’s these small interactions that accumulate into deep relationships and respect for diversity. That’s how we create peaceful global citizens.

As Emir Hasanovic, a 2009 YES student from Macedonia who spent a year in Minnesota, phrased it:

You put people in a room together… You put people in the chess club together. That’s how you bring people together,” he said. “That’s how you break the stereotypes…You can have the biggest defense budget in the world,” he added. “Ultimately, your biggest assets are the people.

Currently, AFS-USA works in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau to implement four high school exchange programs that bring international participants to the U.S. and/or send U.S. students abroad:

  • Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES): The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program was initiated by the Department of State in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It aims to build bridges of understanding between Americans and people in countries with either significant Muslim populations or strategic importance. Scholarships are also available for U.S. high school students to go abroad through the YES Abroad program.
  • National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y): The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program was launched in 2006 to promote critical language learning among American youth. This program is part of a U.S. government initiative to foster international cooperation by ensuring that Americans have the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge necessary to effectively communicate. NSLI-Y provides overseas critical language study opportunities to American youth through merit-based scholarships to spark a lifetime interest in critical foreign languages and cultures.
  • Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX): Initiated in 1983, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) program is jointly funded and managed by the U.S. and German governments. This scholarship program is for motivated high school students who want to experience German culture and learn the language through a full immersion experience by living with a host family and attending a German high school. The CBYX program additionally offers vocational and young professional scholarship opportunities.
  • Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX): Established in 1992, the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program strives to improve mutual understanding and develop and strengthen long-term relationships between citizens of the U.S. and citizens of the countries of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. The program supports the exchange of high school students from Eastern European and Eurasian countries to the U.S. for a year-long, academic homestay experience. In 2021, the U.S. Department of State and American Councils for International Education announced the inaugural year of the Future Leaders Exchange Abroad (FLEX Abroad) program, a unique fully funded exchange experience for American high school students to build global awareness and intercultural competency.

We all can get involved, whether by welcoming an international student into our homes, living abroad, engaging in virtual exchange, or supporting intercultural exchange in our communities. No matter how you engage in public diplomacy, your decision to foster intercultural connection helps create a better world for everyone. We all can be cultural ambassadors and diplomats of the people. Because that’s what public diplomacy focuses on — the people who will change governments, policies, and, ultimately, the world.