Travel as Peacebuilding

by David V. Baxter

Regardless of the outcome of the Benghazi hearings or even your personal feelings on the outgoing Secretary of State, there’s no denying that Hillary Clinton has logged an obscene number of miles over her four year in office — nearly a million miles in the air, and countless more on the ground.

During her tenure, Clinton visited 112 of 195 U.S.-recognized countries, and in doing so, redefined foreign affairs and diplomacy. Clinton put personal relationships — building and maintaining them — at the forefront of her agenda. And we’re not just talking relationship-building with her counterparts and other foreign dignitaries, but everyone. When asked why she travels so much, Hillary replied that with more travel comes more respect and understanding, which is good for America. Simply put, logging hundreds of thousands of miles a year make possible what the fastest internet connection, most-penetrating public relations campaign, and fiercest military force simply cannot accomplish alone: Real, lasting peace. 

Clinton’s mileage as Secretary of State is unprecedented, yet her philosophy is not revolutionary. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin’s face-to-face relationship-building over the course of extensive travel that compelled King Louis XV to recognize the American republic as a sovereign nation.  Franklin’s legwork in France and the rest of Europe ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Paris with Britain in 1783, ending America’s war for independence.

Nearly two centuries later at the height of the Cold War, the echoes of the travel diplomacy philosophy rang out in President Kennedy inaugural address and subsequent establishment of the Peace Corps. Despite popular belief, Kennedy’s vision for the Corps was not so much a vehicle by which to offer development assistance, but rather to promote world peace and friendship through understanding — the sort of cross-cultural understanding that can only be achieved through one-on-one personal exchanges by living and working overseas with people whom Americans are least familiar. In fact, many on both sides who were directly involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff often state that the one thing that averted nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR was Kennedy and Khrushchev’s ability to see their counterpart as a human being; the sort of recognition and understanding that Kennedy had hoped to achieve on a broader civic level through the Peace Corps and other initiatives.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique (2004-06), Kennedy’s message resonated deeply. After the initial six months of living and working in my community, it was becoming fast apparent that I would never achieve anything close to what I had originally hoped. This realization ultimately led me to reflect on what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer and forced me to redefine my goals. For Americans, the desire to transplant American ideology to some place strange and new is incredibly tempting. For better or worse, our culture fosters an innate sense of social justice and personal entitlement for every individual, and when we encounter other cultures which appear to lack this, it really bothers us. In my quest to leave a lasting legacy of change in my community, I failed to fully appreciate the significance of the friendships I had formed and the ability for me and for my Mozambican neighbors and colleagues to view the other, not as a local celebrity or National Geographic subject, but as a flesh-and-blood person, and perhaps even as a true friend.

I often think of the places I have traveled through and the individuals I met along the way. Whenever my thoughts wander back overseas, I find myself reminiscing in terms of faces and towns rather than entire nations: Calisto introducing me to his CD collection in Morrumbene (Mozambique), Badal sharing tea in Khuri (India), or Amit teaching me how to drive a left-handed stickshift outside of London. I am occasionally reminded of those who have tried to con me and others who have succeeded, but never forget the neighbors and market women in Mozambique who stood up on my behalf like I was family after thieves cleaned me out of house and home.

Rick Steves, one of the best known tour guides and travel writers, says that Americans who travel thoughtfully get a broader perspective and a better understanding of what this planet is truly like, and the world gains a better understanding of Americans. Following his first trip to Iran, I had the opportunity to hear Rick speak in Seattle. His talk centered on making the connection between travel and peace. For Steves, at a time of strong tensions and dangerous rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran, the Iran trip and subsequent travel feature on PBS were an attempt to bring an understanding of Iran into the living rooms of the U.S. electorate, and likewise, an understanding of Americans into the lives of many Iranians who previously had never met one.

The basic idea behind travel as peace-building is essentially the more engagement and interaction we have with people in other countries and that others have with us, the higher the likelihood that we will truly see one another as real, breathing, living and loving individuals with families, hopes and dreams, rather than faceless strategic bombing targets on a satellite map. For example, would you be more willing to support a brutal and destructive shock-and-awe campaign in a far-off country which you know little about, or rather a bombing raid in your friend Hakim’s neighborhood where you had lunch together at that corner cafe before picking up his daughter, Amira, from school?

It remains to be seen what style of diplomacy Kerry will invoke during his tenure, but it is doubtful Clinton’s mileage or popularity overseas will be topped any time soon. What made Clinton effective, perhaps more than anything else, was her innate ability to make even the least powerful individual in the tiniest of countries believe that they matter and that U.S. foreign policy will not ignore them. Building this level of trust at the grassroots level is powerful stuff if America can make good on its message.

Perhaps even more powerful, however, are the building blocks of trust cemented year by year by the thousands of Americans who choose to leave the comforts of home behind, to build lasting peace, brick by brick, person by person, in far off lands of the ever-shrinking Great Unknown.

David Baxter is an international development consultant, independent traveler and travel writer based out of Washington, DC and his backpack. He holds an MA in International Development Studies from the George Washington University and specializes in post-conflict and community development. He was a Peace Corps education volunteer in Mozambique from 2004-2006 and has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America and the Caribbean.

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