Exchange Matters / June 29, 2016

The President’s Corner: An American in Doha

The power of exchanges never ceases to amaze me. Even though most of my waking hours are spent thinking and talking about the importance of exchange programs, there is no better reminder of just how important they are until you immerse yourself in the experience again. Thanks to the generous invitation of the Qatari government, I recently had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a type of “exchange” program at the 16th Annual Doha Forum at the end of May in Qatar. Photo courtesy of the State of Qatar.

Just as we hope the international visitors who spend time in the U.S. have a more nuanced understanding of the U.S.- both its people and its policies- I was able to gain a much deeper and more refined perspective the Gulf Region’s view on how to advance greater peace and stability in the region and around the world. Moreover, my interactions and conversations with representatives from other nations helped me put this view as well as the U.S.’ in an international perspective, which was enlightening. As a leader in public diplomacy, it was fascinating to see how other nations carry out similar efforts.

In the spirit of amplifying the power of exchanges, I wanted to share some of the perspectives I gained as a result of this mini-exchange program. It was similar to the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the sense that, I was an official guest of the Qatari government. Just as one cannot apply to the IVLP, one cannot register for the Forum – it is an invitation-only event. In addition, I had the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of people with a wide range of perspectives, much in the same way IVLP programs allow individuals to experience varied mind sets and backgrounds. Lastly, I was encouraged to explore the city of Doha as much as possible to appreciate its rich tradition and emerging cultural and arts scene, which is also an important aspect of IVLP programs and the work we do at Global Ties U.S.

Qatar is a country that manages sharp contrasts extremely well within its borders, the most striking of which is that of balancing the new with the old. Having won independence in 1974, its identity is fairly new and it is constantly evolving as a state, which is evident from the moment you set foot in the country and look around. I spoke with a young Qatari diplomat who had been in the U.S. the last several years who admitted that even she did not recognize parts of the city.
At the same time, Qatar is steeped in tradition. It is one of the more religiously conservative Gulf States as it practices Sunni Islam, which is reflected in the traditional dress of Qataris. The Qatari women all wear the abaiya and the men the throbe. Alcohol and pork are strictly prohibited.

I was amazed at the level of hospitality extended to me, which was a reminder of how important details are to helping make our IVLP participants feel welcome and respected. One comparison I would make is that I believe our form of hospitality as expressed through the IVLP is through very warm personal interactions with Americans. In Qatar more emphasis was placed on going above and beyond to ensure that I was very comfortable in terms of accommodations, amenities, level of service and attention. A take-away for me was that in the U.S. perhaps we can pay more attention to the latter.

This hospitable atmosphere proved the perfect backdrop for the Forum. The summit brought together ministers of foreign affairs from over 100 of countries, high level envoys to the United Nations, and academia and civil society leaders to explore the theme Stability and Prosperity for All.

The primary theme of the discussion was to explore how the international community fosters greater stability and prosperity for all. Significant focus was placed on identifying the root causes of instability, about which participants brought many varied perspectives depending on interlocutors. In the U.S., we tend to emphasize the rise of radicalism and non-state actors, lack of democracy and governance lack of opportunity. There was more emphasis on the lack of trust between nations and leaders, which impedes greater cooperation to tackle instability and conflict. The other nuance was related to what the U.S. often refers to as extremism, which portrays conflict on a spectrum of good vs. evil. Here, the emphasis centered around a more multifaceted battle of ideas, with the focus on the conflict of ideology that fosters distrust and ultimately impedes progress on peaceful solutions.

More variance arose in terms of identifying and outlining possible solutions to the world’s problems. For example, I observed differing opinions on the role the United Nations can and should play in bringing about greater peace and security. Ban-Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, gave a keynote during the opening session and there was much discussion about the rising expectations the international community has of the UN. There was also widespread recognition that in order for the UN to meet these expectations, it will need to evolve its highly centralized framework to meet the demands of a now highly decentralized environment – particularly with the rise of non-state actors.

Other areas of emphasis focused the critical role of human development on a fundamental level in promoting stability. Many expressed commitment to addressing basic challenges such as systemic poverty, unemployment, and ignorance. Others noted the importance of involving young people in foreign affairs and facilitating their contribution to community service. This is often used as a tool to eradicate extremism and plug loopholes used by terrorist organizations to attract young and vulnerable individuals.

Lastly, an important underlying thread for many of the discussions was the ability and thus responsibility of governments to empower citizens through frameworks of justice, equality, and rule of law. Despite the diverse levels of democracy and secularism of the countries involved, many participants emphasized the idea that peace is based on justice. Countries must not be compliant with the type of stability that comes with repression and instead be committed to the type of prosperity that comes with liberty.

The summit reinforced my belief that exchanges and international education are the most enlightening ways to experience another culture and tackle global challenges. These programs and experiences allow participants to go beyond passive observance and force them to approach challenges from diverse perspectives. Not only was I able to hear from some of the most renowned names in international affairs, but I was able to understand these individual’s perspectives from their point of view.

I am returning home with a newfound appreciation for the world’s immense cultural nuances and with plenty of new perspectives to apply here in the U.S., which is precisely what we hope to accomplish with each IVLP project the Global Ties Network facilitates. Our goal is to help citizens of the world gain appreciation for the cultural differences that ultimately make us stronger as a whole, and attending the Doha Forum has provided me with a unique toolkit of new ideas to integrate into our programs here at home.

I am grateful for the generous invitation extended to me by State of Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attend this event, and I look forward to sharing and applying my experiences at the 2016 Doha Forum with the Global Ties U.S. community moving forward.

By Jennifer Clinton, PhD, President, Global Ties U.S. Follow her on Twitter: @CDJclinton