To Be Great, America Needs “Citizen Ambassadors”

By Abby Falik

It may seem paradoxical, but the most patriotic thing Americans can do right now is travel abroad.


“With shocking speed, [President Trump] has wreaked havoc: hobbling our core alliances, jettisoning American values and abdicating United States leadership of the world.” So wrote Susan Rice, the second former U.S. National Security Advisor to speak out about the danger and short-sightedness of the White House’s run of foreign policy decisions in the past four and a half months.


Rice describes how these so-called “America First” policies are actually alienating our friends and jeopardizing our national security. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, deprecating NATO, and pulling us from the Paris climate agreement has put the United States “at odds with virtually the entire world.”


And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will our allies heed our call in the face of a future global pandemic? The next domestic terror attack? What can be done to protect and reaffirm America’s moral and political leadership in the world?


Rice argues the answer lies in the hands of our citizens: “In the absence of leadership from the White House, the American people should act as informal ambassadors through tourism, study abroad and cultural exchange.” In short, she calls on everyday citizens to protect and defend our commitment to democratic values and global cooperation by spending time abroad.


I could not agree more. Investing in the spread of goodwill through “citizen ambassadors” is not a new concept, but I can’t think of a moment in history when it has been more imperative.


We need our citizens, and especially our emerging leaders, to engage in our global community instead of withdrawing from it.


Sending our young people out in the world to live, learn and serve is more than a “nice to have.” Global Citizen Year, the organization I founded and lead, exists to ensure that an immersive global experience between high school and college is not a luxury, but a defining part of a 21st century American education.


Each year we recruit and train a diverse corps of high school graduates, and support them through a school-year long immersion in foreign cultures. Our fellows live with host families and apprentice in projects in education, health, and the environment. The length and depth of their immersion is transformative: they learn to speak to people in their own language and to see the world through new eyes.


In a recent Op Ed published by USA Today, Global Citizen Year alumna Maria Morava wrote:

It is more important now than ever before for young people to travel. In the midst of this national xenophobia, it may seem paradoxical, but the most patriotic thing we can do is leave…. If Trump had taken a year abroad like mine, he would have different ideas about what we should actually fear. He’d also realize that there is no ‘other,’ there is only ‘we.’


Maria is hardly alone in feeling alarmed by the fear-mongering and surge of isolationism and xenophobia. Many people who have served or represented our country overseas — whether in a diplomatic, military, or private sector capacity — are likely to share her view.


Today, it is up to those of us in positions of power to come together and invest in our future leaders by redoubling our efforts to counter these dangerous trends. It’s time to coordinate our efforts, and dramatically scale up global travel, learning, and service opportunities for Americans from all backgrounds.


The only chance of addressing our planet’s greatest challenges — climate change, pandemics, terrorism, extreme poverty — is finding common ground across national and cultural divides.


And if the future is to look any different than the present, we need our emerging leaders to have the types of formative, global experiences that will help them find common ground with their counterparts around the world.


Failure to act will have dire consequences. But if we do it right, we can build a counter-force that turns the tide and bends the arc of history toward global peace and understanding.


Given the stakes, we can’t afford not to.

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