Citizen Diplomacy

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

When countries are antagonistic to each and have ceased diplomatic relations or are otherwise cultivating other distrustful or threatening attitudes the countries may drift into war either by accident or by design. When this antagonism becomes institutionalized, through policy, public attitude, or propaganda, warfare or other violence becomes a natural consequence. The unique powers of individual people to help overcome these rifts by calming tempers, building ties, promoting reason and dialogue, or healing wounds is rarely acknowledged or promoted. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, the efforts of the rare person who strives to develop personal connections with "the enemy" is demonized by people on both "sides."


This pattern can be applied whenever a country's stance towards another country is antithetical to the needs and values of civil society. This can happen before, during, or after a war or other period of hostility and mistrust.


The use of the concept of "citizen diplomacy" was apparently first applied when US citizens journeyed to the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and met with activists, educators, scientists, health professionals and "ordinary" citizens. These citizens — and their Soviet counterparts — did not want to accept the "inevitability"of war, either hot or cold, and sought to find common ground on which to build a more peaceful future for everybody. Citizen diplomacy offers the promise of (world?) peace by building on actual, hopeful and optimistic face-to-face encounters by citizens of the designated enemy states.

The idea for this pattern, like others in the language, arose in a specific historical context, namely in the late 1980's during the protracted "cold war" between the Warsaw Pact nations (most notably the Soviet Union) and the NATO countries (most notably the USA). Although the information reported here is based on experiences from that time, it is expected that this pattern will be applicable in a great variety of situations in which two (or more) states or other large groups are enemies. Several antagonistic dyads come to mind — India and Pakistan; Israel and the Arab States; the US and Cuba or Venezuela — and each situation contains its own unique opportunities and risks.

People who engage in projects along these lines certainly fit Richard Falk's description of a "citizen pilgrim" who is willing to go on a quixotic journey for a seemingly improbable goal.

Interestingly, especially in a pre-Internet era, many of the collaborative efforts (described in Citizen Diplomacy: Progress Report 1989: USSR) were related to the use of information and communication. Some of the projects include Children’s Art Exhibit and Book, US-USSR State Bridge Citizen Diplomacy, Moscow-DC Live Broadcast: Soviet Citizen’s Summit, Peace Lines: Computer Supported Net-working, US Kids to Siberian Computer Camp, Electronic Peace Mail Project, Video Conference: Doing Business with USSR, and World Civilization and Education Centers.

The collaborative projects themselves are subject to enormous challenges. Simply meeting with people from "the other side" presents great obstacles (including financial costs, legal restrictions on travel to — and within — the other country, privacy of communications, and access to people). Furthermore, any collaborative project, unless it is done clandestinely, will exist "at the pleasure" of the powers-that-be. In fact, one of the ultimate risks inherent in a project like this is that individuals being used or manipulated by the powers-that-be (such as the media, state power, think-tanks, political parties, or religious institutions) in ways that simply overwhelm the hopes and energy of the citizen-diplomat.

Since the unraveling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, the global situation as noted above has changed considerably. The rough parity of power (exemplified to some degree by the size of their nuclear weapon stockpiles) between the Warsaw Pact countries and the NATO countries and the promise of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (or MAD) helped prevent direct confrontation and led to numerous "proxy conflicts" which were sponsored in part by the combatant's respective superpower allies. The military parity has now largely dissolved and the arms race between the US and the USSR has given way to a one-sided arms race where the US appears now to be competing with the rest of the world; its military expenditures (including several new nuclear weapons) now amounts to nearly half of the world's military expenditures.

Finally it must be said that it's not obvious that collaborative projects like these will yield any long-lasting benefits. An interesting example is that when the US media entered the Soviet Union after Glasnost, they followed the routes that the citizen diplomats has established. While it's true that relations were finally normalized between the two countries, the citizen-diplomat may be well-advised that setbacks may outnumber the gains.


Establish contacts and develop collaborative projects between individual citizens and groups in countries or regions where relations are severely strained or non-existent.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

The unique powers of individuals to help overcome antagonism between nations by calming tempers, building ties, promoting reason and dialogue, or healing wounds is rarely acknowledged or promoted. Citizen Diplomacy offers the promise of peace by building on actual, hopeful and optimistic face-to-face encounters by citizens of the designated enemy states.

Pattern status: 
Information about introductory graphic: 
Code Pink,