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Citizen Diplomats Seek President's Initiative

The on-going economic crisis has turned the focus of the U.S. presidential election to domestic issues. But a group of citizens with an active interest in international affairs wants the next president to encourage Americans to think and act more globally. VOA's Susan Logue reports.

A recent poll indicates that Americans do care about how the rest of the world sees us. More than 80 percent of those polled deemed improving America's standing in the world as extremely important.

Ann Schodde says American citizens can take action themselves to improve our image abroad. "There is a major role for citizen diplomacy today that is terribly important as a complimentary component of making a major change in the direction of our foreign policy."

Schodde is executive director of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy. The non-partisan, non-profit organization was established two years ago to affirm the value of citizen involvement in international relations.

Schodde says some 40 million Americans are involved in citizen diplomacy in a variety of ways, such as hosting international visitors, working with Sister Cities International, or volunteering abroad through programs like the Peace Corps. And, she says, they are having an impact. "Those individuals we encounter [in other countries] are telling us 'we do not agree with the direction your country is going today, but we really do enjoy and like Americans. Our interfacing with you is the kind of communication we do appreciate.'"

More of that kind of communication is needed, Schodde says, and the next president can make a difference by "taking a leadership role [in] voicing and communicating to the American public their responsibility to interface and be part of the world around them."

With that in mind, the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy has proposed a National President's Initiative for Citizen Diplomacy. This "call to action" for the next chief executive grew out of a meeting it sponsored in early October with 40 U.S. leaders from more than 90 organizations involved in international affairs.

Among those in attendance was Aaron Williams, Vice President for International Business Development at RTI, International - a non-profit research and development organization. He has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, leading project design teams for USAID.

"When an American meets someone from another country," Williams says, "the real communication that takes place is the best possible citizen diplomacy that we can ever imagine." Through person-to-person exchange of ideas, Williams says, "[citizen diplomats] find that in reality we are more alike than we are different."

That's why Williams, Schodde, and others who have been engaged in citizen diplomacy want to expand the opportunities for more Americans to get engaged.

Williams, who was inspired in the 1960s by President Kennedy to join the Peace Corps, believes the next president can inspire Americans to become citizen diplomats today. "If the president issues such a call there will be an overwhelming response," he says. "We are very confident on this."