The Peace-making Origins of Exchange Diplomacy

On Remembrance Sunday this year, I was thinking about the interwar peace movement that was going on about 100 years ago. The Great War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” A third of Europe’s young men were killed. That’s hard to wrap your head around. Think of a dozen guys you went to high school with–that’s four of them who never lived to see the 10-year reunion. Britain had a significant peace movement after the war, particularly amongst women and religious groups. Testament of Youth author Vera Brittain typifies the shift from grief to pacifist activism. She became active in the peace movement after losing her brother, fiance, and several friends in the war, as well as being impacted by her front-line experiences as a nurse.

The war also partly inspired the Institute of International Education (IIE), founded in New York in 1919. IIE co-founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Elihu Root, argued that education could inform public opinion on foreign policy and thereby prevent democracies from going to war.

Elihu Root–The outbreak of WWI prevented him from delivering his acceptance speech in Norway for his Nobel Peace Prize in the autumn of 1914. The irony! (Source: Hamilton College)

“When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as a part of their ordinary education, with correct information about their relations to other peoples, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, about what has happened and is happening in international affairs, and about the effects upon national life of the things that are done or refused as between nations; so that the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice and passion based upon error.”

(Root, 1922, p. 5)

Going back even further, the Rhodes Scholarship shared this peace-keeping aim when it was envisioned in the late 19th century. In his first version of his will, Cecil Rhodes originally intended to create a “secret society” of elites drawn from around the British Empire (and the US, as he hoped it would return to the Empire someday). The aim of the society was “to form so great a power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.” (Aydelotte, 1946: 7). Rhodes’ idea for a secret society evolved over time into a scholarship programme, but the core elements remained–international elites, brought together in Oxford, to develop mutual understanding and international cooperation. Those elements remain in the Rhodes scholarships today, and have been replicated in other competitive scholarship programmes, like Fulbright, Chevening, Rotary, among others.

On the one hand, it’s lovely to see that peace has been such an integral part of exchange diplomacy and international education since its inception. Bringing people together, as the subtitle of the blog suggests, is a key way to enhance our understanding of each other and prevent conflict. On the other hand, there are important questions to be asked about how we define “peace”. Whose peace? Which voices are allowed to participate and which are excluded? Who gets a seat at the table of international relations? When adversaries are defeated, how do we balance accountability with opportunities for redemption? The terms of peace after the first world war contributed to actions that led to the second world war.

Mutual understanding and international cooperation undoubtedly contribute to peace-building, but this also needs to be expanded beyond the elites. Exchange diplomacy in the 21st century needs to shake off the 19th century elitism and make a broader impact.

Aydelotte, F. 1946. The Vision of Cecil Rhodes: A Review of the First Forty Years of the American Scholarships. London: Oxford University Press.

Root, E. 1922. A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy. Foreign Affairs. 1(1), pp. 3-10. (available free here)

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