Families: A New Voice for a More Caring World

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

Where Are All the Citizens?

Name your issue — climate change, war, terrorism, poverty, pollution, crime, violence against women, etc. — all of them share the same condition: in order to address them effectively, you need to mobilize people, often lots of people.  Further, democracies by definition depend on people’s participation in power.  Even in republics, where the people elect their representatives and the representatives make most of the government decisions, people still need to be informed and engaged enough to make wise election choices as well as to participate in the plethora of other republican institutions that require citizen engagement — including political parties, court juries, government advisory committees, and voluntary associations of all kinds — to address pressing public needs and problems.

Hence, in democratic (including republican) societies, arguably one of the most important questions to ask is: how do we get people to pay attention and act as citizens, that is, as people who care about public affairs?  Mind you, this is not quite the same as asking “how do we get people to pay attention and act as partisans or consumers?”  Businesses, political parties, interest groups, advertising agencies and public relations firms can be quite skilled at getting people to pay attention, absorb partial information, and act as angry partisans or avid consumers.  Indeed, there is too much socialization and mobilization of consumers and partisans in modern societies.  What is, in contrast, far less common and institutionalized is the socialization and mobilization of citizens.

Families as Sites for (Non-)Citizenship
Families in public life

If there is one institution Americans think of most often as the proper training ground for citizenship it is the school.  In contrast, families are widely supposed to provide something more basic than schooling: what sociologists call “primary socialization” or the fundamental knowledge, beliefs and behaviors that allow a person to function generally in their society.  This is distinguished from “secondary socialization” whereby a person learns, through schools, businesses, civic associations and other organizations, the knowledge, beliefs and behaviors that allow them to function in specific groups or organizations.  That secondary socialization includes citizenship education, and the most appropriate place for that education is the school.  And so the usual story goes.

However, the family is not only a core site for primary socialization, it is the site for the reproduction of societies numerically and socially.  Kids are usually made in families, and kids typically go on to become the parents, workers and citizens societies require.  As ample research on political socialization shows, the children of active citizens (people who read news, discuss public issues, vote, donate to and volunteer for public causes, etc.) are themselves more likely to become active citizens.  In fact, families can have more influence on the shaping of citizens than do schools and other institutions (Burns, Schlozman & Verba 2001, Verba, Schlozman & Burns 2005, Flanagan & Levine 2010, Schlozman, Verba & Brady 2012, Brady, Schlozman & Verba 2015, Kim & Lim 2019, Lahtinen, Erola & Wass 2019).  Through parents, relatives and their friends, children learn the beliefs and behaviors of active or passive citizenship, and gather little to much knowledge about public affairs.  Much of this family-based learning about citizenship, or lack thereof, is not conscious or planned as it is in a school civics course, but it often lasts far longer, over years rather than a fleeting semester.  Such citizenship learning can also be more impactful because it takes the form not of conscious instruction but taken-for-granted habits and identities of parents, relatives and friends with whom children tend to have closer and hence more influential relationships.  This makes families less recognized yet arguably more important sites for the socialization of active or passive citizens.

The Private Family in Modern Times

Families are not just vital agents for citizenship education, but a major focus of public action.  Whether to marry, divorce, work (and at what kind of work), have children, have one or more children, and how to raise them are just some of the important questions couples grapple with privately in modern societies, but all kinds of institutions — governments, businesses, schools, and a host of nonprofits — have strong stakes in those decisions.  History at least in modern times is replete with small and large, sporadic and systematic interventions to coerce or coax the family in one direction or another on these questions.  Think of all the heated debates, mob actions and government policies, past and present, concerning adultery, out-of-wedlock births, abortion, miscegenation, divorce, homosexual marriages, paid family leave, child abuse, and child support, to name a few.

Given the family’s large role in citizen education, it seems peculiar that public affairs have long intervened in the family, but collectively families have historically intervened little in public affairs.  Of course, a minuscule minority of powerful families have long ruled tribes, governments and businesses (e.g., the House of Plantagenet in England, the Ming Dynasty in China, the Medicis in Florence, the Kennedys in the USA, the Rothschilds in many countries), but the vast majority of families in human history have had little to no voice in public affairs.

Industrialization in the 1700s onward shifted work more and more from the family shop or farm to larger factories. This shift coincided with the growth of modern governments and business corporations, the former levying taxes, drafting soldiers and imposing rules on families like never before, the latter pushing more work and peddling more consumerism on families than ever before.  In the process, the family lost much of its public role as a site of community production, and increasingly became what it is now, a site for private and increasingly manipulated, avid yet disconnected consumption (Lasch 1977, Barrett & McIntosh 1982, Zaretsky 1986, Linn 2004, Schor 2004).  Accordingly, there is far less sense of family agency in the world, and more of a sense of family vulnerability to powerful and seemingly uncontrollable outside forces.

Families at the Decision-Making Table
Families in public life

One might understandably imagine that modern advancements in family income, education and communication, plus expanding interventions in and supports for families (e.g., paid family leave, maternal nutrition programs, public education, child care programs, tax credits for families and children), would mobilize families to engage in public affairs, spur the growth of large family associations, and seats for these associations at the decision-making tables of local, state, national and international governmental bodies.  Families in developed democracies often have some voice in local school matters in such forums as parent-teacher associations.  There are also nonprofit think tanks, policy groups and political associations that advocate for families at local to international levels.  However, I do not know of any large, cross-class membership associations composed of diverse parents and legal guardians and/or children that not only speak out for families, but participate in government decision-making.

If businesses and labor organizations get a seat at the government decision-making table, why don’t families as one of the most important institutions in society?  Government decisions directly impact not only business and labor, but families too.  Governments impact families directly through policies on divorce, homosexual marriage, paid family leave, child support, etc., and indirectly through policies on employment, wages, taxes, safety, the environment, foreign affairs, and more.  As in other domains, experts and professionals are happy to occupy those seats at the decision-making table, but for anyone who believes in democracy (whether republican or more direct), there is a strong case for rotating diverse ordinary parents, guardians and children in those seats.  Of course, most families would have much to learn about the complexities of policy and government, but there is arguably no more powerful way to affirm and nurture families as schools for for citizenship.  Governments would, in turn, gain much from including family voices, rich to poor, in their deliberations, not just as advisors but as decision-makers.

Just as ordinary workers participate in business problem-solving in many companies, and ordinary citizens help decide cases as jurors in many courts, so can ordinary families inform government policies.  Moreover, including families in decision-making could help soften the hard edges of government — inviting smiles and occasioning more conversations between adversaries who can find common ground in their devotion to family — and nurture a politics of care that prioritizes the wellbeing of families and the most vulnerable.  The family thus need not be a haven in a heartless world; it can be a new voice for a more caring world.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.


Barrett, M., and M. McIntosh.  1982.  The Anti-Social Family.  London: Verso.

Brady, H. E., Schlozman, K. L., and Verba, S.  2015.  “Political mobility and political reproduction from generation to generation.”  The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 657:1:149–173.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716214550587

Burns, N., K. Schlozman, and S. Verba.  2001.  The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Flanagan, C., and Levine, P.  2010.  “Civic engagement and the transition to adulthood.”  The Future of Children, 20:1:159–179.  https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ883084.pdf

Lasch, C.  1977.  Haven in a heartless world: The family besieged.  New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lahtinen, H., J. Erola, and H. Wass.  2019.  “Sibling Similarities and the Importance of Parental Socioeconomic Position in Electoral Participation.”  Social Forces soz010.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soz010

Kim, H., and E. Lim.  2019.  “A cross-national study of the influence of parental education on intention to vote in early adolescence: the roles of adolescents’ educational expectations and political socialization at home.”  International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 24:1:85-101.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02673843.2018.1470993

Linn, Susan.  2004.  Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.  New York: The New Press.

Schlozman, K. L., Verba, S., & Brady, H. E.(2012). The unheavely chorus: Unequal political voice and the broken promise of American democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schor, J.B.  2004.  Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture.  New York: Scribner.

Verba, S., Schlozman ,K. L., & Burns, N.  2005.  “Family ties: Understanding the intergenerational transmission of participation”  in A. S. Zuckerman (ed.) Social logic of politics: Personal networks as contexts, pp. 95–116.  Philadelphia,PA: Temple University Press.

Zaretsky, Eli.  1986 [1976].  Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life.  New York: Harper & Row.

Globalization, Inequality & Opportunity

Thanks to Learning Life intern Thalia Navia for her assistance in the research for this post.

Globalization is increasing, and for good reason.  Advances in transport and communication technologies are making it easier for people to travel and talk across national borders.  This leads to greater trade and movement across borders, which in turn brings people more and cheaper goods and services as well as more opportunities to explore, learn, collaborate and prosper.

Globalization, Inequality & Opportunity

Globalization – simply defined, more connections and interdependence between countries – is driven to a great extent by businesses searching for profits.  When businesses are able to sell their goods and services to more consumers abroad, they expand their potential for growth and profits.  This helps explain why pay tends to be higher in international trade-directed than non-trade directed jobs (Griswold 2016), and why international jobs – like customer service representatives, market analysts, digital map-makers, language interpreters and translators, and airline and hospitality workers – are proliferating (Sentz 2016, Peltier 2018).

Given our world’s globalizing trend, persisting socio-economic inequities as to who participates in and leads foreign affairs threatens to further marginalize already disadvantaged groups, and undermine the representativeness of international business and policy-making.  In the United States, this is especially true for African and Hispanic Americans, who comprise 14% and 17% of the U.S. population, respectively, yet who represent just:

  • 5% and 7.5% of U.S. college students who study abroad (Carr 2014)
  • 4% and 5.1% of U.S. Foreign Service officers (Miller 2015)
  • 2% and 3% of executives of Fortune 500 companies (Jones 2017)

Unfortunately, race and ethnicity dovetail closely with income and wealth, and Hispanic and African Americans have substantially less of both than European and Asian Americans on average (Peterson Foundation 2018).  This makes it more difficult for blacks and Latinos to take advantage of travel abroad opportunities that help stimulate interest in the wider world.

While some individuals can overcome disadvantages to pursue successful international careers, it is much more difficult for marginalized groups to do so without government policies – like annual grants for travel, study and work abroad in high school and college, and consistent funding for effective international engagement programs at all ages – that widen opportunity on a large scale.  Of course, there are a number of U.S. programs that fund international study, exchanges and travel abroad, such as the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Abroad Program, the Critical Language Scholarship Program, and the Youth Ambassadors Program.  However, the number of spots or grants offered are often quite limited, and those who take advantage of these programs – even programs meant exclusively to benefit ethnic and racial minorities, like the Thomas Pickering Fellowship and the Charles Rangel Summer Enrichment Program – tend to come from economically relatively privileged backgrounds.

Reformers who wish to open the world to marginalized peoples cannot create programs and expect the disadvantaged to throng to them.  If they do, they will continue to disproportionately attract privileged applicants.  Inequality segregates the disadvantaged and tends to narrow their geographic horizons, so they are much less inclined to take advantage of opportunities to engage with a world so foreign to them.  Thus, reformers must go to the marginalized, opening opportunities in direct and sustained ways in their otherwise segregated communities.

It takes time and an accumulation of experiences – conversations, books, magazines, games, films, travel, classes, volunteering, internships, work — to understand, care about, and act effectively in the world.  That’s an accumulation the advantaged are more likely to gather, little by little, as they grow up.  Absent government policies to provide marginalized groups with such bridge-building opportunities in their own communities, nonprofits can do much to open the world to the disadvantaged.  This includes mentorship, field trips, games, documentary discussions, volunteering, virtual exchanges, and other opportunities that can enrich marginalized neighborhoods, and connect the traveled and untraveled, with or without costly travel abroad.

Globalization holds much promise, but whether that promise is fulfilled for all rather than a few depends on clear-eyed purpose, sustained effort, and bridge-building to connect the marginalized to the world.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder & Director, Learning Life


Carr, Sarah.  May 8, 2014.  “As Study Abroad Becomes More Crucial, Few Low-Income Students Go.”  The Hechinger Report. 

Griswold, Daniel.  August 1, 2016.  “Globalization and Trade Help Manufacturing.”  The Los Angeles Times. 

Jones, Stacy.  June 9, 2017.  “White Men Account for 72% of Corporate Leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 Companies.”  Fortune. 

Miller, Lia.  June 2015.  “Toward a Foreign Service Reflecting America.”  The Foreign Service Journal.

Peltier, Dan.  March 22, 2018.  “Tourism Jobs Numbers Increase Despite Modest Introduction of Artificial Intelligence.”  Skift.

Peter G. Peterson Foundation.  September 13, 2018.  “Income and Wealth in the United States: An Overview of Recent Data.”

Sentz, Rob.  September 27, 2016.  “Three Jobs That Are Growing Because of Globalization.”  Forbes.

Toward Good Health, Local to Global

Good health is vital.  The less healthy one is, the less one is able to perform as a private individual in school, work and family, let alone as a public citizen in community and society.  The vigor and happiness of individuals, families, communities, societies, indeed the entire world, thus depends on good health.  In turn, human health is also impacted by a myriad of factors, from the local food supply to global climate change.  These are two major reasons why Learning Life has begun orienting our programming toward health.

Countless pressing public issues are health issues, including bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, depression, loneliness, drug abuse, drunk driving, gun violence, hunger, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, income and wealth inequality, human trafficking, communicable diseases ranging from common cold viruses to deadly Ebola, terrorism, war, pollution, and climate change.  As this long yet far from complete list demonstrates, health issues run from violence at home, or bullying in one’s school or neighborhood, to international phenomena like human trafficking, terrorism and climate change.  Furthermore, many of these health issues are interconnected and happen in many localities yet they are shaped by big, complicated histories and institutional actors — religious faiths, multinational businesses, national governments, international governmental bodies — whose powerful actions are often invisible and incomprehensible to all but a few trained and paid specialists.  Thus, human health is affected by so many issues local to global yet the connections and causes of those issues are dauntingly complex.

Faced with such complex health problems, it is tempting to ignore them.  But ironically, the less one knows, the more one is at risk for avoidable health problems (e.g., those less educated are more likely to smoke, take drugs, overeat, etc.) while other health threats, like drunk driving, inequality, and climate change, one can ignore but cannot avoid entirely, if at all.  Those who are resource-poor are the least able to avoid many public problems that have health impacts.  So, we can either put our heads in the sand, or take action, and Learning Life aims to take action.

Accordingly, in fall 2017, Learning Life began collaborating with the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s (GUSM) Community Health Division.  That collaboration helped propel Learning Life’s research this year comparing the health and food cultures of our CDI (Citizen Diplomacy Initiative) families in Washington DC, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Dakar, Senegal (click here for the first study, with further research results coming soon), and our larger family food culture project.  Food clearly impacts health, and has the educational advantage of being a universal, daily preoccupation of interest to most people.  Food culture — which we define as a group’s food shopping, cooking and eating habits and beliefs — also varies substantially cross-nationally, and can be shaped to advance health and learning about the world.  Hence, food culture seems a fitting focus for our project work between CDI families in different countries.

The GUSM Community Health Division, under the leadership of Dr. Kim Bullock, welcomes partnerships with community organizations to help improve community health education while giving Georgetown medical students experience in what the medical profession commonly calls “the social determinants of health” (SDHs).  A pie chart (University of North Carolina-Charlotte 2018) often employed to provide U.S. medical students and health professionals with perspective on the determinants of health gives a sense of the importance of SDHs:

Determinants of Health

As the chart shows, SDHs have the largest impact on people’s health, surpassing individuals’ own actions (diet, exercise, smoking, drug-taking, etc.), and much surpassing a person’s genetics, environment, or medical care resources.  The second chart below  (Kaiser Family Foundation 2018) unpacks the SDH term, giving a sense of the wide range of SDHs, and hence why these factors, together, matter so much to human health:

Social Determinants of Health

The chart underscores that while good or bad health is experienced individually, it is shaped by a range of social factors, some of which, like literacy and language, too many people may not realize are linked to their health.  As our world grows more interconnected economically, socially and politically, many of these SDHs are shaped more and more by international forces like trade, immigration and climate change.  It thus behooves health educators to frame learning about health in local to global terms.

In the shorter term, the shared challenge of Learning Life and GUSM’s Community Health Division is to improve CDI families’ understanding of health, including nutrition and SDHs, and food culture, wherever they are in the world.  In the longer term, we hope to improve the health outcomes of our families worldwide.  Much that is good on this Earth takes time and patient work to happen.  That is why we are in this for the long haul.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Kaiser Family Foundation.  “Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity.”  Chart retrieved from https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/beyond-health-care-the-role-of-social-determinants-in-promoting-health-and-health-equity/ on 9/7/18.

University of North Carolina-Charlotte.  “ARCHES Mission & Goals.”  Chart retrieved from https://arches.uncc.edu/mission-goals on 9/7/18.

Food & Health in Senegal vs. the USA

Earlier this month, my wife and I took a remarkable trip to Senegal for about a week.  We visited Dakar, the capital, then Gorée Island, one of the most infamous sites of the slave trade, then Saly a small beach town about an hour south of Dakar.  But the most memorable parts of the trip were our three days with three Senegalese families studying their food culture.  The following reflections consider where Senegalese and American food systems are now, and may be headed, with lasting consequences for public health.

Dakar market merchant

Since fall 2017, Georgetown University Medical Center community health fellow, Dr. Melissa See, and I have been collaborating on research comparing the food cultures of three lower-income African American families in Washington DC with three lower-income Senegalese families in Dakar.  Combining observation, interviews plus photo and video data taken over several hours with each family, we are studying how these six families participating in Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) shop for, cook, and eat their food, and the meanings they attach to these practices (i.e., their food culture).  Dr. See is conducting the research with the three African American families while I conducted the research with the three families in Dakar with my wife’s able assistance.

Our hope is that this research will deepen our understanding of the diet-related challenges our CDI families face in living healthy lives in DC and Dakar.  This concern grows out of Learning Life’s turn toward community health as a focus of CDI work.  Health is fundamental, and it’s a serious concern in many lower-income communities worldwide.  Health also connects to so many forces — like culture, business, politics, and the environment –in interesting ways that can help us better understand our world.  (More on health, and particularly community health, in an upcoming post).

Antonia shops at central market

Food, in turn, is central to health, so studying food culture is helpful to identifying families’ health challenges and opportunities.  One of the most striking differences we’re finding in the food culture of the Senegalese and American families is in the processing, packaging.  Like many Americans, our CDI families in DC generally eat a lot of processed, packaged foods.  In contrast, the Senegalese families’ food we observed was on the whole far less processed and packaged.  Americans of all income brackets are typically used to shopping at supermarkets with lots of packaged, processed foods.  In Senegal, by contrast, there are far fewer supermarkets per capita.  When we went shopping with one of the Senegalese families, we went not to a supermarket but to an open air market with many merchants selling fruits, vegetables, meats, spices and many other foods, most minimally packaged, and unrefrigerated.

These striking contrasts do not necessarily mean one country has it better when it comes to food.  Americans might assume we have the best food system in the world, and ours is indeed among the best in food safety, abundance and affordability.  However, our mainstream diet of cheap, processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt — the sodas, chips, burgers, pizzas, donuts, cookies, cake, ice cream, etc. we eat in abundance — generate all kinds of widespread health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  The Senegalese diet is less varied, high in starch — mainly rice but also other cheap grains — and less safe due to lack of refrigeration and standardized food safety practices (e.g., cleaning, disinfecting, cooking at safely high temperatures).  Nonetheless, the Senegalese obesity rate is around 9% vs. 36% in the USA.  The Senegalese live much shorter lives on average than Americans — 62 vs. 80 years, respectively — but living longer does not necessarily mean living better.

Lunch of rice, chicken and vegetables

Many factors affect health and longevity: not just diet but activity levels, the number and quality of one’s relationships, air and water quality, housing conditions, transportation safety, crime levels, education levels, the availability and quality of health care resources like doctors, hospitals, parks and gyms, etc.  However, to the extent that our diets are central to our health, major food companies that sell processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar pose a serious threat to global health that often goes unrecognized.  Besides the obvious threats — fast food chains and convenience stores that market and sell cheap, tasty but unhealthy food products — the modern supermarket presents less recognized problems.  To their credit, supermarkets commonly sell fresh produce, even if there may not be many varieties of fruits and vegetables, and much of it may not be local or even domestic.  However, most other food aisles of any supermarket are filled disproportionately with processed foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar.  Why?  Such food is generally cheap to make, “shelf-stable” (lasts long without going bad), can be manipulated easily (new flavors, different quantities and types of ingredients) to cut costs and boost appeal, and tastes good to most consumers.  These are the main reasons why food companies sell processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Supermarket processed food

The abundance of packaging that envelopes many processed food products serves three key functions.  First, packaging is a vehicle for advertising to seek to distinguish the product, attract consumers and build “brand loyalty” (consumer loyalty to the company’s product or product line).  Second, governments often require companies to reveal certain information on their packaging, such as the ingredients in and nutritional content of their products.  Third, packaging helps preserve food products and protect them from contaminants in the environment.  Despite these functions, food company packaging is often excessive, and contributes substantially to resource waste, environmental pollution, and the world’s ever mounting trash heaps.

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind though is this: like most businesses under capitalism, the primary goal of food companies is not environmental health nor the public good, but profit.  This does not mean businesses are evil, but it does mean they are self-serving.  Furthermore, they are rationally single-minded and tireless in their pursuit of profit.  For these reasons, businesses, alone or in concert, tend be very powerful actors who do their best to shape resources, markets, laws and consumers to their profit-seeking ends.  This makes it hard to underestimate the extent to which the food cultures of Americans and other higher-incomes peoples are shaped by food companies.

Many of the healthiest foods — whole foods like apples, pineapple, carrots, broccoli, beans, nuts – require minimal processing, are not shelf-stable, cannot be easily manipulated, and do not taste as good to consumers because people are naturally drawn to foods high in salt, fat and/or sugar.  Hence, supermarkets grudgingly sell whole foods, but tend to make their best profits from packaged, processed foods.

Patisen processed food product

As the Senegalese and other peoples of developing nations increase their income, international food companies will be more attracted to them in search of profits, and they will bring their familiar fast food chains, convenience stores and supermarkets with them.  That will mean more processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar, and accordingly, more obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke.  Already, an ambitious Senegalese food company named Patisen is pervasive in homes, markets, and on street billboards in Dakar.  Further, Patisen is working to bring its line of sauces, spreads, condiments and drinks high in salt, fat and/or sugar to other West African countries, with the help of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.  The same trend is happening worldwide wherever incomes are rising, including much larger nations like India and China, where diets are becoming more processed, and diet-related diseases are consequently rising.

Nothing is inevitable, yet profit-seeking food businesses are powerful players whose answer to the diseases they help create are a plethora of processed “health” and “diet” food products that are not necessarily healthy, and are certainly not whole foods.  Fortunately, there are plenty of smart food critics writing influential articles and books (e.g., Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Michael Moss), a growing body of popular food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, Forks Over Knives), and encouraging socio-economic trends, like slow food, local food, organic food, farmers’ markets and urban gardening.  The secret to fighting the food industry giants may be more of this — reading, talking and acting locally and internationally for whole food diets and a healthier planet.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.


International Finance Corporation.  2011.  “IFC Invests in Senegal’s Agribusiness Sector.”  Retrieved April 1, 2018.

Central Intelligence Agency.  “Africa: Senegal.”  World Factbook.  Retrieved March 31, 2018.

Democratize Diplomacy!

Our world is growing more interconnected yet also seems more and more insecure, divided, and dangerous.   Improving incomes, transportation and communication have spurred international travel, trade and collaboration but also job flight, piracy, climate change and terrorism, among other problems.  Despite the uncertainty these developments bring, one thing is certain: international affairs increasingly impact us all, from the air we breathe, to the prices we pay, to the jobs we get.

For all the impact the wider world has on our lives, it can seem distant from our everyday preoccupations and face-to-face interactions.  Indeed, the less we know and connect with the wider world, the more irrelevant it can seem despite its increasing relevance to all our lives.  This paradox of perceived irrelevance and mounting relevance calls for democratizing diplomacy.

Diplomacy is simple to define — it is the management of international relations — but hard to do well, as any professional diplomat will readily note.  Diplomacy is difficult because there are many factors and forces — political, economic, religious, geographic, historical, etc. — including competing individual and group ambitions, and all are pieces in an evolving play that can change its focus at any moment.  This is often an argument for professionalizing rather than democratizing diplomacy.  The world’s complexity, the argument goes, calls for well trained and experienced diplomats who can skillfully negotiate the dizzying and potentially explosive mix of interests, cultures and personalities toward peaceful and mutually beneficial ends.  Amateur ignorance of that complex mix can at best offend, and at worst lead to war.

Professional diplomats are indeed essential for their skillful negotiation that can and has resolved crises, and fostered cooperation vital to international peace and prosperity.  However, professional diplomats are, at the end of the day, paid agents of their governments.  As such, they are first and foremost servants of government leaders, whether or not they like it, and whether or not those leaders’ interests align with those of their people, let alone the people of the world.  Diplomats may and often do promote international peace and cooperation, but only if it coincides with their national leaders’ interests.

Democratize Diplomacy!None of this is meant to condemn diplomacy, nor its professional practitioners.  Professional diplomacy is essential to international peace, justice and development, and countless diplomats put their lives at risk in service of these world goods, usually with little if any public recognition.  Nonetheless, I suspect that many if not most diplomats who work to advance these goods would agree that they could use some help not just from their governments (in the form of more staff, equipment, security, etc.), but also from their fellow citizens.

At its simplest, democratizing diplomacy means enlarging the circle of participation in diplomacy.  Whether professional diplomats like it or not, diplomacy experts explain that newer communication technologies (the internet, smart phones, social media, etc.) are already breaking the traditional near-monopoly of governments over diplomacy, giving ordinary people — individuals, networks and non-governmental organizations — more power in international relations (e.g., Grant 2005, Nye 2011).

As political scientist Joseph Nye notes, this widening of participation in international affairs can be for the better, or worse (Nye 2010).  For better, any motivated individual or organization with a cell phone or laptop and access to the internet and social media can now, for instance, expose government violence and corruption, or collaborate with others across the world in mutually beneficial ways.  For worse, any motivated person or group can photograph or video themselves burning a country’s flag or a religion’s sacred text, beating or killing a foreigner, or else.  Unfortunately, it’s always easier to burn than build a bridge, and empowering more people to communicate makes it far easier for ideologues and lunatics to destroy the long, patient work of bridge-building.

Simply widening participation in international affairs is thus clearly not enough.  Experts who advocate democratizing diplomacy though talk more about foreign policy authorities informing publics than about publics participating in diplomacy (e.g., Sachs 2016, Bessner & Wertheim 2017).  Greater dialogue between foreign policy experts and publics would, of course, be a positive development.  But those who attend such dialogues are likely to be more educated, if not themselves involved in foreign affairs, hence reinforcing the gulf between those engaged and disengaged with the world.

A broader public that better understands diplomacy, world geography, history, cultures, trends, problems, etc., better grasps the world’s relevance, and is more likely to call for and engage in diplomacy.  That understanding can be developed in schools, but schools shouldn’t be the only vehicles because they vary so much in their quality and pedagogical priorities.  Democratizing diplomacy can help, and citizen diplomacy is the vehicle.

In contrast with professional diplomacy — that is, paid diplomats’ management of international relations — citizen diplomacy entails citizen-to-citizen communication and collaboration across borders.  Professional diplomats frequently encourage citizen diplomacy if it advances their government’s foreign policy objectives.  “Public diplomacy” officers commonly bring together ordinary people from different countries to promote mutual goodwill and cooperation.  However, given that government leaders and their diplomatic agents are not always foremost committed to peace, justice and the welfare of their people, citizen diplomats need to maintain some independence from professional diplomats.  Watchful citizens active in independent political parties, non-government organizations and voluntary associations are better able than state-backed groups to hold their governments accountable.

In this vein, independent citizen diplomacy groups can help lead the democratization of diplomacy as they collaborate to advance international peace, justice and development.  Current examples of citizen diplomacy groups include the Model United Nations, Sister Cities International, Global Nomads Group, and iEARN.  At their best, such groups don’t just foster dialogue or travel, but educational, economic and political collaborations.  At their best, citizen diplomacy organizations also involve populations least likely to engage in diplomacy: the poor and those least connected to the wider world.  Poverty and disconnection don’t necessarily engender xenophobia.  But they breed ignorance, and ignorance is fuel for the xenophobia that attacks immigrants, neglects refugees, elects demagogues, and sows the seeds of war.

Thus, at its best, democratizing diplomacy means:

  1. Harnessing communication technologies to engage more people, especially the poor and those globally least connected, in diplomacy.
  2. Promoting not just dialogue and travel, but collaboration to advance transnational peace, justice and development.
  3. Cultivating and measuring progress in participants’ world knowledge, interests, skills and social ties via those cross-national collaborations.
  4. Encouraging the development of an independent citizen diplomacy sector composed of groups devoted foremost to international peace, justice and development rather than their country or government’s self-interest.
  5. Thinking and talking about how citizen diplomacy can ultimately lead to routine and meaningful yet independent citizen participation in international government.

Democratizing diplomacy is a vital step in advancing human freedom, understood not as individual license but as collective self-government.  The path to international government of, by and for the world’s peoples is clearly long.  But the rise of the United Nations and other international governmental bodies, progress in transport and communication technologies, and growing cross-national trade and cooperation in the last hundred years constitute important steps on that path.  Governments that fear their people and seek to control power and perceptions present formidable obstacles.  But governments that see their people as their greatest strength understand that democratizing diplomacy can help make their nation and the world more secure, just, and prosperous.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life


Bessner, Daniel, and Stephen Wertheim.  April 5, 2017.  “Democratizing U.S. Foreign Policy.”  Foreign Affairs.  

Grant, Richard.  2005.  “The Democratisation of Diplomacy: Negotiating with the Internet.”  Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and Antwerp University.

Melissen, Jan. 2005.  “The New Public Diplomacy:  Between Theory and Practice” in The New Public Diplomacy, ed. Jan Melissen.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nye, Joseph.  October 4, 2010.  “The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy.”  New York Times.  

Nye, Joseph.  2011.  The Future of Soft Power.  New York: Public Affairs.

Sachs, Jeffrey D.  December 21, 2016.  “The Democratization of U.S. Foreign Policy.”  The Nation.