As debate about Afghanistan and Iraq rages in the US, and Radio Free America tries to spread free market ideas and encourage democracy in the former USSR and Middle East, it is often left out that experience is the best teacher. We should be welcoming the best youths of the world to visit and spend time in America. The Arab Spring, perhaps the most successful movement for (so far) positive change of the last decade, was built by youth who demanded more. In 1959 at the height of the cold war Nixon and Khrushchev passed by a working model of the average kitchen in America – and it blew the Soviet leader away, putting him immediately on the defensive.
Seeing and experiencing America – on TV and especially in person – shows others the great wealth and freedom most US citizens enjoy. Rather than restricting travel of others to America on vacation and schooling, or making it very difficult to get short term work visas, we should be using it as a key foreign policy – encouraging the next generation of influencers to spend time here and return home to improve their nations, to “go and do likewise.”
We should identify and encourage young people from abroad who are likely to be influential as media workers or political and academic leaders to spend time studying in the United States. These students, primarily from troubled countries with uneasy relations with the Unites States, would return to work in their homelands and, in speaking of their U.S. experiences, help dispel myths. Candidates from Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia, for example.
Whatever the shortcomings of the Peace Corps, it has in many ways proven to be an appealing and powerful organization to US youth and shaped many lives for the better. A similar program might be implemented to mobilize a small U.S. civil service corps of volunteer college graduates could work off their government college loans for two years in foreign service. These volunteers could expand their horizons and work on a worthy cause when they are both reasonably mature and largely unencumbered by family or career considerations. They would identify promising and open-minded young students in selected countries, particularly those interested in careers in journalism, government and the academy, and help them apply for exchange programs, admission and scholarships to U.S. schools. People should be encouraged to host students and young activists who want to visit the US for a time.
The premise of this program is that ignorance of the United States is partly responsible for anti-democratic attitudes abroad. People who have never lived here cannot effectively screen out caricatures and lies presented by their closest sources of information – biased local and regional media, politicians playing to the worst in people, academics who may not know any better. Offering future opinion shapers direct experience of the United States might go a long way in providing a framework for more discerning and open minds in the next generation of people who create the climate of opinion of other nations.
Education is one of our greatest exports, and in doing foreign service and offering opportunities for a U.S. education, these volunteers would present the young and vibrant face of the United States to the people of these other nations. In gaining familiarity with the cultures of the countries they visit, those U.S. volunteers would also bring experienced voices to cultural and political discussions back home and become more involved with national service throughout their lives. This program would thus benefit our own young while improving relations with others.
Phin Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.