Category Archives: Citizen Diplomacy

Open Letter to Learning Life Families

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

This letter is meant for the lower-income parents and guardians Learning Life work with in Washington, DC, but is posted publicly to help make clear why Learning Life engages lower-income families. 

Dear parents and guardians,

I am writing to you to explain why Learning Life wants to engage your family in world learning.  In explaining, I’m going to  focus on four terms: globalization, segregation, global citizenship, and family diplomacy.

Family Diplomacy

Some of you may wonder why we don’t instead focus on basics, like math, science or reading.  We focus on world learning because schools focus more on math, science and reading, and because our world is globalizing.  Globalization means that our world is getting smaller, that improvements in transportation and communication technologies are making it faster and easier for people, information, goods and services to move from one country to another.  This is why the juice we drink may be made of fruit coming from Florida as well as Mexico, Brazil and India; why we eat Mexican burritos and Chinese fried rice, not just burgers and fries; why our cell phones are made from minerals mined in Canada, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and why cars made in the USA have parts coming from all over the world.  Our lives are richer, and we have many more things to buy pretty cheaply because of globalization.  At the same time, globalization means that issues like joblessness, climate change (extreme weather, including more frequent and powerful hurricanes, warmer winters, hotter summers, etc.), terrorism and disease increasingly affect more than one country.

While our world is globalizing, it is also deeply segregated by wealth and race.  Segregation means that all around the Earth, rich and poor, and whiter and darker-skinned people often live in separate neighborhoods, even when they live in the same towns and cities.  This is very much the case in Washington, DC.  (For a stark look at the differences between the richest and poorest neighborhoods or wards of Washington, DC, click here.)  Segregation is bad because it shuts poorer people out of many opportunities they would have if their neighborhoods had more of a mix of people of different races and wealth levels, and more of a common spirit of sharing rather than hoarding resources (money, jobs, good schools, decent homes, etc.). So, we live in a strange world because globalization is connecting people, but segregation keeps us apart, not just locally but also globally.  We affect each other, but we usually don’t see how we affect each other, for better or worse.

That’s why learning about and connecting with the world is so important.  The more we learn about the world, the better we understand how we are all connected, how we affect each other, and what we can do to improve our world, especially for those people that have less.  The more we connect with people around the world, the more familiar and less strange they become, and the more we may come to trust and help each other. That’s where global citizenship comes in.  We’re used to thinking of citizenship as “I am a citizen of the USA,” with all the rights (to vote, run for public office, religion, public schooling, etc.), and responsibilities (paying taxes, jury duty, military service in times of war, etc.) that comes with.  But because of globalization we are also more and more citizens of the world.  Being a global citizen means caring about people outside the USA not only because what people do outside the USA affects us as Americans, but because we are all human beings who think, feel, laugh, love and cry.  Being a global citizen means not only enjoying the fruits of globalization — the cheaper and more varied food, cell phones, cars, and other goods we get from the world — but helping to make our world a better place for everyone by together tackling problems like climate change, poverty, disease, terrorism and war. Our world is a complicated place, so it can easily seem too difficult to understand, let alone address its problems.  However, the problems aren’t going to go away if we just ignore them.

Moreover, there is such an exciting, beautiful world out there to explore, and so many different, interesting people to meet!  That’s why Learning Life is developing family diplomacy.  Diplomacy — the management of relationships between countries — has for most of human history been controlled by rich and powerful people, but globalization, especially the internet and cell phones, is allowing ordinary people like you and me to connect and cooperate with ordinary people in other countries.  Family diplomacy in part means connecting families in different countries so that they can learn from each other about the world: about our families, cultures, communities and countries, about our joys, sorrows, fears and triumphs.  Family diplomacy can help make the world seem less strange and complicated because most people have a family and value it.  Family diplomacy may also help make the world a more caring place because families, at their best, are about loving and caring for each other.

So, if globalization connects us all in ways we often don’t see, and segregation pulls us apart by wealth and race, global citizenship can open our eyes, and family diplomacy can connect our hearts.  Perhaps best of all, you don’t have to be rich to engage in global citizenship and family diplomacy.  All you need is an internet-connected cell phone or laptop, and some caring volunteers to guide you.  That’s where Learning Life comes in. We look forward to helping your family connect with the world!

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

Five Reasons Why Diplomacy Should Involve Families

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

Our world is becoming more complex and interdependent as more people, goods, services and interactions flow across national borders.  This changing global reality has triggered xenophobic, sometimes violent reactions that have been validated and amplified by political activists and opportunistic leaders.  Diplomacy is rightly upheld as an important response to the mounting tensions within and between some countries, but diplomacy should not be left strictly to professionals.  The internet and smart phones open exciting possibilities for citizens to be involved in diplomacy to help promote peace, prosperity and justice, but success and our global future depend in part on fresh approaches.   This is the second in a series of posts intended to develop family diplomacy as a new form of citizen diplomacy.  Read the first post here.  

Thanks to Learning Life intern Marley Henschen for her assistance in the research for this post.  

Diplomacy can be simply defined as the management of international relations.  Yet the adjective “diplomatic” — that is, dealing with people tactfully — suggests diplomacy is a broader social art or ethic especially needed in our divided world.  Given international divides sometimes erupt into violence, why would one want to get families involved?  Here are five reasons.

1. Value:

The search for common ground is one of the staple practices of diplomacy, and if there is one institution which people across the world commonly cherish it is probably the family.  While precise international evidence for this common value is harder to find, according to the World Values Survey, strong majorities of people in 29 countries worldwide — from 75% in India to 99% in Colombia — believe that “more emphasis on family would be a good thing” (Social Trends Institute).       

2. Impact:

Families are impacted by most international forces and trends, from war and terrorism, to trade and immigration, to climate change and disease transmission.  Because families are widely valued and vulnerable to so many international forces and trends, advocates and policymakers frequently call for the protection and support of families, but rarely for their political empowerment.  Individual citizens in liberal democratic societies are free to, and in some cases expected to participate in the decisions that affect their lives (at least by voting for their government representatives).  In corporatist countries like Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Norway, groups like business associations and labor unions — not just individuals — have a say in government decisions that affect them.  Families, like businesses and labor unions, are impacted by government decisions, and have distinct interests and associations representing them on various issues.  So, why shouldn’t families also have a seat at the decision-making table, at local to global levels, including international diplomacy?

3. Empowerment:
Family Diplomacy

Involving families in diplomacy can also empower kids, parents and grandparents as global citizens by nurturing valuable experiences, contacts and skills as well as a larger sense of purpose and significance.  For these and other reasons, there is considerable interest in the United Nations to include youth in decision-making (see, for example, the 2009 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, General Comment #12).  Yet far less thought is given to involving kids as members of families, including parents, grandparents and guardians. Of course, not all families speak with the same voice, nor do their members speak with equal status, and some voices — especially those of women and children — are often routinely stifled or subordinated within families.  But not all families need be engaged in diplomacy.  Families that demonstrate interest in diplomacy can be selected from all classes and countries, and should model not only interest, but tolerance and equality so that all people can see men, women and children unafraid to participate.  Further, parents, grandparents and children can form distinct groups that meet separately then together to develop then share their respective concerns about, aspirations for, and interests in world affairs.

4. Responsibility:

For most of human history, most kids in hunter-gatherer then settled agricultural societies spent most of their time at work, rest or play with their families and larger kinship groups.  With the proliferation of factories and schools in the 1800s, more kids spent more time segregated from their parents.  In the most modern societies marked by rapid change, commercialism and individualism, families now spend a minority of their waking time interacting, and seem increasingly strange to each other because rapid change sharpens generational differences, individualism nurtures a desire to lead separate lives based on interests rather than kinship, and commercialism turns families’ attention toward products (screens, games, shows, clothes, music bands, etc.) rather than each other.

There is ample evidence that youth who spend more time alone or in groups of youth unsupervised by parents or other responsible adults are more likely to get injured, do worse in school, and develop behavioral problems, including risky behaviors like consuming alcohol, cigarettes and drugs (Warr 1993, Pettit et al. 1997, Kerrebrock & Lewit 1999, Mott et al. 1999, Colwell et al. 2001, Updegraff et al. 2006, Keijsers et al. 2012).  There is no turning back to hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies to bring families back together, nor should we want to return to those harsh, precarious eras.  But if modern people still value families, and family supervision encourages kids to act more responsibly, then involving families — not just youth — in government and diplomacy can be a modern vehicle for bringing families together, and for socializing kids as responsible global citizens.        

5. Care:

The preceding three reasons deal more with how families would benefit from their involvement in diplomacy.  This fifth and last reason points to a benefit for families and diplomacy alike.  That is, involving families in diplomacy can promote a culture of care in and beyond the family.  Families play a distinct if not unique role as a care-giving institution.  Families can look very different — large, small, multigenerational, bi- or multi-national, inter-racial, straight, gay, with one, two or more parents, with adopted kids, etc. — but they all tend to have the same fundamental purpose or aspiration: to care for each other.  Publicly elevating (e.g., highlighting, rewarding, publicizing) family care-giving, by making families part of government and diplomacy, has the potential to inspire more caring not only among families, but also in government policy and practice.  

In these fractious times, caring families could be a potent force for a more peaceful world.

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


Colwell, Malinda J., Gregory S. Pettit, Darrell Meece, John E. Bates, and Kenneth A. Dodge. 2001. “Cumulative Risk and Continuity in Nonparental Care from Infancy to Early Adolescence.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 47(2): 207–34.

Keijsers, Loes, Susan Branje, Skyler T. Hawk, Seth J. Schwartz, Wim Meeus, Tom Frijns, Hans M. Koot, and Pol van Lier.  2012. “Forbidden Friends as Forbidden Fruit: Parental Supervision of Friendships, Contact With Deviant Peers, and Adolescent Delinquency.” Child Development 83(2): 651–666.

Kerrebrock, Nancy, and Eugene M. Lewit. 1999. “Children in Self-Care.” Future of Children 9(2): 151–60.

Mott, Joshua A., Paul A. Crowe, Jean Richardson, and Brian Flay. 1999. “After-School Supervision and Adolescent Cigarette Smoking: Contributions of the Setting and Intensity of After-School SelfCare.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 22(1): 35–58.

Pettit, Gregory S., Robert D. Laird, John E. Bates, and Kenneth A. Dodge. 1997. “Patterns of AfterSchool Care in Middle Childhood: Risk Factors and Developmental Outcomes.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 43(3): 515–38.

Social Trends Institute.  “Global Family Culture.”  Retrieved on 8/10/19.

Updegraff, Kimberly A., Susan M. McHale, Shawna M. Thayer, and Shawn D. Whiteman. 2006.  “The Nature and Correlates of Mexican-American Adolescents’ Time with Parents and Peers.” Child Development 77(5): 1470–1486.

Warr, Mark. 1993.  “Parents, Peers, and Delinquency.” Social Forces 72(1): 247–264.

Seven Ways of Being in the World

(c) Paul Lachelier 2019

Given globalization — in short, countries’ growing economic, political and environmental interconnection driven in part by advancements in communications and transport — it behooves those interested in the wider world to consider the ways that people live in or engage with the world.  Why?  Because some of those ways are good, some are problematic, and all together reveal sharp inequalities.  I see seven ways that people cross (or do not cross) national borders and live in the world, for better or worse.

7 Ways of Being in the World

It is worth stressing that the following seven ways describe not types of people but ways of being, that some (usually more privileged) individuals can shift from one way to another sometimes in the same week or day, and over a lifetime any person may engage with the world in more than one of these ways.  Also, my definitions of these seven ways are overall more encompassing and in many cases different than those of other organizations, like the United Nations and Amnesty International.  Further, I do not provide estimates on the numbers of people engaged in these seven ways of being in the world since others provide estimates, these numbers change constantly, and my purpose here is to paint a bigger picture.

1. The disengaged: It is probably best to start with the largest group, who are not engaged with the world outside their country much if at all.  Whether due to ideology, geographic isolation, institutional disconnection, insufficient resources, or some combination thereof, the disengaged know little about the world and have traveled little if at all outside their country.  Because the world outside their country, or even their community, is far and foreign in their minds, some (not all) of the disengaged are wary of foreigners and of traveling abroad.

2. Non-exploited workers: These workers move out of their native country, with or without their family, to find or take work in other countries.  They typically have had relatively privileged upbringings, have more education and social status, have legal right to work in a foreign country, and make more money from their work.  They may be government foreign affairs officers, transnational business executives and employees, or nonprofit workers.  Like exploited workers, non-exploited workers more commonly live and work in richer countries, where there are more economic opportunities, and life is more stable and prosperous.

3. Exploited workers: Like non-exploited workers, exploited workers leave their native country to find or take work, with or often without their families.  However, they tend to have unprivileged upbringings, less education and social status, may not have the legal right to work, and take jobs that do not pay well by the host country’s standards.  Furthermore, their employers or managers often overwork or otherwise abuse them (yell at them, hit them, sexually harass or assault them, expose them to dangerous working conditions, etc.) yet the workers voluntarily endure the exploitation because they are able to work and earn more money than they would in their home communities.  Many work in construction, farms, factories, or domestic service.  Many exploited workers do not see their families for long periods of time, yet they receive enough in wages to send home money (“remittances”), which can constitute a significant portion of their families’ and countries’ income.

4. Slaves: Millions of people in the world are enslaved, despite the fact that laws in most countries prohibit slavery.  Unlike exploited workers, slaves do not voluntarily submit to their exploitation; they work and are confined against their will, often in their own countries.  Most are poor, and come from poorer and highly unequal countries.  Some get tricked with promises of better lives and trafficked into richer countries, where they commonly do sex, factory, farm and/or domestic work.

5. Refugees: Unlike exploited workers who leave their home country for better economic opportunities, refugees flee their country due to war, persecution or natural disaster.  More conflict, authoritarian government and climate change usually mean more refugees.  Some refugees are legally accepted in foreign countries.  Others — called “asylum seekers” if they’re escaping war or persecution — are not, and live insecure lives as they seek legal permission to live in the country they fled to, working whatever undocumented jobs they can find to make ends meet.

6. Vacationers: As incomes rise across the world, more people have the disposable income to be able to travel abroad.  The standard vacationer visits a foreign country to consume its food, sites and experiences, and to have a good time.  Some travel companies create all-inclusive resorts so that vacationers never have to leave the resort to see the country and people around it.  Vacationers understandably tend to flock to politically and economically more stable countries, but all countries welcome foreign vacationers with open arms because they have more money than most of the world’s people, and they usually spend more money on vacation than they do at home.

7. Global citizens: Global citizens are typically as privileged as vacationers, but unlike vacationers they travel abroad primarily to learn and/or volunteer rather than consume and have a good time.  Whether they take classes, volunteer as teachers, community developers or religious missioners, they tend to engage more deeply than vacationers with the people of the foreign countries they live in or visit.  As more people across the world get more income and education, global citizens, like vacationers, will likely become more common (assuming relative peace and economic stability among nations).  Among these seven ways of being, global citizens may also be the best grassroots agents for nurturing goodwill among nations.

For more information about world migration patterns and trends, visit the International Organization for Migration, which issues detailed reports.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.

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:

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.

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:

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:

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.

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.