Exchange Professionals and the Value of Public Diplomacy

5 minutes read time
Department Intern S. Elizabeth Branton sits down for a conversation with Public Diplomacy Veteran Rick Ruth at the Department of State.
Department Intern S. Elizabeth Brandon sits down for a conversation with Public Diplomacy Veteran Rick Ruth at the Department of State. (State Department photo)

Exchange Professionals and the Value of Public Diplomacy

As a new intern, I learned that the State Department assigns a single letter to represent the offices of its senior leadership: ‘S’ for the Secretary of State, and ‘P’ for Political Affairs, and so on. However, the pattern doesn’t follow when you get to Public Diplomacy, which goes by the letter ‘R’. To my delight, I got to spend the summer working in Public Diplomacy’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) with Senior Advisor Rick Ruth, a driving force behind the work of ‘R’. Rick has been an asset to U.S. public diplomacy since he first participated in a professional exchange to the Soviet Union in 1975. Since then, he’s played a critical role in U.S. public diplomacy efforts throughout several historically significant events. Rick Ruth continues to be a great inspiration to all in the bureau.

During my internship with ECA, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with him about the history of the Bureau and its impact over time. Here’s what he said:

ECA: A History by Crisis Response

Could you give a brief overview of the history of ECA for readers who may not be as familiar?

There are many ways to look at the history of ECA, through the lens of bureaucratic change, size and budget change, or changes in areas of focus. My view is that exchange professionals are responders -- responders to conflict and crisis. World War I, for example, gave rise to the American Field Service, now a longtime partner of the Bureau in youth exchange. The founders of the Institute of International Education, another of our partners nearly a century old, included two Nobel Peace Prize winners. The time around World War II gave us two of our flagship programs, the International Visitor Leadership Program – begun as a means to counter fascist influence in the hemisphere – and, of course, the Fulbright program, begun as a way to foster mutual understanding and improve relations between countries. The end of the Cold War brought about the Future Leaders Exchange Program for countries of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. More recently, the terrorist attack of 9/11 led ECA to create the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, focused primarily on the Arab and Muslim world. When there is trouble in the world, there will always be men and women of both good will and resolve, such as exchange professionals, who step up and step forward. ECA exchanges have touched the lives of many men and women who have gone on to be leaders in their countries and communities. 

What aspect of ECA’s history do you believe is most fundamental to understanding its existence?

Its origins. I think it is important to understand that international engagement, people-to-people diplomacy, is a natural expression of the American character. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we owe “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” – as elegant a description of Public Diplomacy as you will find. This is the business of ECA, to promote mutual understanding through exchanges, contributing to a safer, freer and more prosperous world.

National Security and ECA

How does ECA’s mission fit into a larger U.S. National Security Strategy?

Very nicely. The National Security Strategy of the United States highlights networks and alliances, which is an essential part of the business of exchanges. The NSS also highlights American values. All of ECA’s programs embody our values. Exchanges help create the sustained societal engagement needed to address the challenges of our time.

What is the biggest challenge to public diplomacy today and what is ECA doing to counter it?

The biggest challenge today to public diplomacy is how global discourse is poisoned by misinformation and disinformation. Authenticity is an antidote. Exchanges can strongly counter this kind of information manipulation through the development of resilient, informed human networks. 

The Future of ECA

How do you envision the future of public diplomacy?

The future is about competing for influence. There are active and organized state and non-state actors that seek to exert malign influence on other countries. Exchanges are the most effective means to promote American values – they create networks of like-minded men and women who share values and are willing to make common cause with us. Few activities of the U.S. government do more than exchanges to create a world that rejects violence and extremism. Exchanges are inherently positive in nature; they work best when they are “for” something. Our programs promote individual dignity and freedom around the world. In the future, we will move increasingly toward digital diplomacy to engage communities that would be challenging to reach through traditional means.  

What sage words of advice do you have for the bureau?

Well, I’m an old hippie from California. I will reach back to those roots to describe exchanges as a “karmic” bank – a bank that cannot be robbed. If the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs were to vanish tomorrow (heaven forbid!), the good work that has been done would not be affected, would not be undone. Lives have been touched, understandings imparted, skills and knowledge conveyed. Exchanges would live on in individuals and societies in ways that are enduring. To me, that’s one of the best things about working in ECA.

To learn more about ECA and our programming, visit ECA.state.gov or our Facebook page.

About the Author: S. Elizabeth Brandon serves in the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.