The Power of Interpersonal Connections
On August 8, 2008, people around the world huddled around their television sets to watch the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Meanwhile, this author was in an airport with a group of fellow high school students and recent graduates, each wearing a blue blazer decorated in flag lapel pins representing the nations of other students they had met. We discussed our hopes, anxieties, and language deficiencies as we waited for a plane to Brazil where we were going to spend a year as Rotary Foreign Exchange Students. Both the Olympic Games and foreign exchange programs were designed with a particular objective in mind: to prevent international conflict by creating connections between the peoples of different countries.
Countries have instead largely viewed these activities as a means for expanding their influence abroad by emphasizing their culture and values through individual representatives of their countries. They compete to host the Olympic Games as, despite its high economic cost, it is an honor and chance to highlight themselves on the international stage. In the 1960s, the Kennedy Administration sought to formalize the exchange process by establishing the Peace Corps to ensure that the U.S. government was the beneficiary of the goodwill generated by their citizens abroad.
Today, programs like these are more important than ever, particularly for the United States. Global perceptions of U.S. leadership have declined notably in recent years, and has been closely linked to those of the Trump administration. Furthermore, perceptions of diversity and those from other countries have been in decline. One need only look at Brexit, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the global rise of nationalism for evidence of a decline in the hope of a global civil society. Increases in perceptions of the leadership role played by China and Russia parallel these troubling trends. Given that these countries are often viewed as rivals to the United States, it is critical that policies be taken to ensure that the United States maintains its leadership position in the world.
Interpersonal exchange programs may offer a promise of reducing some of these tensions in the world and provide a way in which the United States can emphasize its positive attributes outside of the Trump Twittersphere. The interactions between individuals can reduce number of these issues; for example, by emphasizing the differences between U.S. citizens and their government. While the Trump administration has made a number of derogatory claims about different countries, public opinion polls typically note that U.S. citizens are more open to trade and immigration than the President Trump’s rhetoric would suggest. Having U.S. citizens engage with people from other countries could improve the perception of the United States in other countries.
Exchange programs can also help reduce xenophobic tendencies among the population. Studies show that xenophobia towards a particular group is often correlated with individuals who have the least contact with individuals of different backgrounds. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria recently noted that the United States could use a call to public service as a means to improve relations between people of different backgrounds in the United States. As Zakaria notes the interactions between people could underscore the similarities that U.S. citizens share and thus reduce the polarization that is occurring in the country. A similar effect could occur with an increase in the number of international exchange programs. Not only could it reduce the negative perceptions of citizens participating in these programs of those residing in other countries, but it could reduce the prejudices of participants in these programs.
The connections between former exchange students and former Olympic athletes did not prevent the outbreak of World War II. Friendships and business relationships across borders have not dissuaded leaders from waging wars. However, increasing the number of individuals that interact with those of other countries and showing that the differences that exist between different groups are less than many assume may be able to reduce the polarization and xenophobia that we see in the world. Furthermore, this may be in the national interest of participating countries as it allows nations to showcase their own culture and increase their prestige around the globe.