How Sister Cities are Strengthening Citizen Diplomacy

Close your eyes and imagine a diplomat. Tell me, what do you see?

Is it a sharply dressed person with a dark suit and a pair of round, thin-framed glasses? Or perhaps someone with a thick binder of talking points? Is this diplomat shaking hands with their counterpart in front of a pair of gracefully draping flags?

Now open your eyes and look in the mirror. The diplomat is you.

I’m talking about citizen diplomacy. Through citizen diplomacy, everyone can be a diplomat.

Which way to your hometown? Photo Credit: Prayitno (No modifications have been made)

A Short History of Citizen Diplomacy

Citizen diplomacy has its roots in the belief that open-minded communication can foster mutual trust, generate goodwill, enhance soft power, and build bridges of peace around the world.

Citizen diplomats bring their countries and cultures closer together simply by being themselves. Whether going abroad to teach, study, work, or volunteer, citizen diplomats represent the best their home countries have to offer.

The idea of forming strong people-to-people relationships is not new. Long before Marco Polo served as a liaison between Kublai Khan and the Pope, the cities of Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France had already formed a partnership in the 9th century.

As new technology allowed travelers to move faster and farther, exchanges became more frequent. Though many interactions ended in tragedy, world leaders began to recognize that mutual understanding is a requirement for maintaining peace on an interconnected planet.

American history offers many examples of this. Teddy Roosevelt institutionalized a scholarship fund for top Chinese STEM students to study at U.S. universities. Then in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt established what is now called the International Visitor Leadership Program. Later, with Cold War tensions rising, President Eisenhower organized the 1956 White House People-to-People Conference to empower citizen diplomats. He also founded Sister Cities International (SCI), a membership association that unites more than 570 communities (including 2,300 partnerships) in 150 countries.

In honor of SCI’s 60th anniversary last month, we present one of our citizen diplomats who is experiencing her Sister City firsthand.

A Tale of Two (Sister) Cities: San Francisco and Zürich

After falling in love with Zürich on a long work trip last year, Molly Bryant knew that two months in the city was not enough. Driven to return, Molly found her dream program in the Independent Work Abroad Program in Switzerland and is living in Switzerland for the next year and a half.

Molly Bryant celebrates all the splendors of Switzerland. Photo Credit: Molly Bryant

Now working at XL Catlin, an international insurance company, she feels at home with the hilly streets and picturesque waterfront. Perhaps that’s because it reminds her of San Francisco, Zürich’s Sister City since 2003 and where she was born.

To Molly, the partnership makes perfect sense. “I think the international vibe of both Zürich and San Francisco makes them ideal sister cities […] Zürich has very marked differences from one neighborhood to the next, and it reminds me of the marked differences between the Financial District and Haight-Ashbury.”

Even the houses are funky in Haight-Ashbury
Photo Credit: jphilipg (No modifications have been made)

Determined to fully experience Zürich, Molly is seizing the opportunity to explore and make new friends. She frequently enjoys “Apero” (happy hour) evenings with her Swiss coworkers, has met ex-pats from all around the world, and loves cooling off in the turquoise waters of the Limmat River. Molly also participated in Züri Fäscht, a triennial celebration on the shores of Lake Zürich. Alongside two million other visitors, she enjoyed all of the fireworks, late-night dance parties, and culinary delights.

Despite experiencing culture shock (most memorably when competing against 50 people for one apartment), she has maintained a positive attitude. Since becoming a citizen diplomat, Molly has “learned that you can never make an assumption about a person or place and that you have to keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to learning and understanding different ways of life.”

You have to keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to learning and understanding different ways of life

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The Lammat River and Grossmünster Church Photo Credit: zeitblohm (No modifications have been made)

Citizen Diplomacy Across Sister Cities

Thousands of people like Molly have also engaged in international exchange to their sister cities—and beyond. According to Adam Kaplan, Vice President of Sister Cities International, “Great programs are always trying to give people in their community their first experiences traveling abroad, and they host visiting delegations as friends, not tourists.”

To him, “An ideal sister city relationship is one that involves lots of community stakeholders—municipal officials, educators, businesspeople, youth, artists, nonprofits, other civic organizations, et al.—which provides stability, inclusiveness, and many different potential areas for collaborative activities.”

As many countries around the world debate closing their borders and limiting foreign influence, Kaplan believes that isolationism is unwise because it closes the door on mutually beneficial relationships. In his view, “No one ever made friends by ignoring someone, and the idea that we can shut ourselves off from ‘foreign influence’ is not only impractical but is a recipe for falling behind in the future.”

Wanhua program participants soaking in the sights of New York City Photo Credit: Bryan Yannantuono

Advances in technology raise another challenge. The internet, smartphones, and social media have done such a great job at connecting people, that some believe that exchange programs are no longer important. While it is true that one can effortlessly find information about Cameroonian culture, Columbian coffee, business in Burma, or the musings of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Kaplan believes “there is no substitute for the visceral experience of traveling to a new place and meeting people face to face.”

Despite the global challenges and negative political rhetoric, Kaplan is optimistic about the future. “I also think that the success of sister cities in forming relationships over the past 60 years also shows people that with persistence, patience, and an eye towards peace, we can make incremental progress,” he said.

How to be a Citizen Diplomat

On what it takes to be a great citizen diplomat, Kaplan offers some great advice:

“The best citizen diplomats embody our principles of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation. Mutual respect requires people to approach people from other countries as equals, no matter what their respective social, economic, or political status. Understanding requires people to be good listeners, to reserve judgment about others, their actions, and their culture until they’ve had time to learn more and reflect. It requires that even when you disagree with a particular cultural practice that you endeavor to understand why that practice is in place. The cooperation side means that you should try to make the relationship mutually beneficial, and to try and figure out what you can learn from your partner and what you can teach or give them that will improve their life.”

The best citizen diplomats embody our principles of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation

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Now It’s Your Turn

Optimistic, open-minded people like Molly and, yes—you—are at the heart of citizen diplomacy. Whether you visit Toronto or Timbuktu, you serve as the face of your country and culture.

As you study, work, and intern around the world, we would love to hear from you. What is your most memorable experience as a citizen diplomat? Does your hometown have a sister city relationship? Have you hosted international friends or visited the other city?

We also encourage you to discover your hometown’s sister city. Learn about the process of establishing one, by visiting Sister Cities International.