Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Diaspora Resources

Speaking recently at the Global Diaspora Forum organized by the U.S. Department of State, Secretary Hilary Clinton addressed representatives of diaspora communities in the United States. In some ways, almost the entire United States is a diaspora community, though many seem to forget the importance of immigration in both the founding and the development of our country.

Secretary Clinton makes the case that those Americans who retain ties to their countries of origin are a tremendous national resource. She cites as an example the importance of Irish-Americans in helping to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. She emphasizes the potential role of Mexican-American leaders in addressing some of the very serious bilateral concerns between the United States and Mexico, which I have addressed previously on this blog. Specifically, the secretary announces the Mexican-American Leadership Initiative, which she addressed in more detail in a separate speech last week. The global diaspora forum and other initiatives announced by the State Department last week mark the Obama Administration's welcome departure from the recent approaches that favored isolationism.

Whenever the economy is weak, xenophobia increases as does hostility toward immigrant communities. This is a long-established pattern in American history that often leads us to build barriers just when we most need cooperation with other countries. Public diplomacy, by contrast, encourages citizens to promote better international relations by forming positive relationships with people in other countries. Sec. Clinton is recognizing not only the importance of building connections globally but also the value of employing immigrants and the descendants of immigrants in that effort.

If military spending alone were adequate to secure our interests, it would have worked by now: we spend as much on our military as all other countries in the world combined. Our leaders are right to be pursuing other approaches, and Secretary Clinton convincingly argues for the strong potential of working with diaspora communities.

Our interests, by the way, are not limited to matters of security or short-term economic advantage. As Junot Diaz recently explained in a wide-ranging and insightful discussion about Haiti, calamities like the 2010 earthquake are magnified as inequality increases. A world that is increasingly interdependent and unequal is therefore unthinkably unstable. Working citizen-to-citizen in pursuit of better relationships and common solutions is therefore well-advised.

The Obama Administration's constructive approach to international engagement is a welcome alternative to the calls for isolationism that I hear from some quarters. "Take care of our own first," is a frequent refrain from those who think the United States does too much to help others. The United States does lead the world in foreign aid, but the spending involved is trivial compared to our military spending and is only about one third of the amount that diaspora communities send to their home countries through remittances to family members, as the Secretary rightly points out.

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