A capacity crowd welcomed Croatia’s Ambassador to the United States Pjer Simunovic at a presentation on the value of cultural and educational exchanges for both the United States and partnering nations worldwide.
He was joined by a panel of experts gathered for a First Monday Forum event March 2 at the George Washington University School of International Studies – one of a series of events in 2020 commemorating the 80th anniversary of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
You can watch our video of the panel session at https://youtu.be/KHQUTWY9etU?t=1
Ambassador Simunovic has served in various high-level posts in Croatia (among them, director of his country’s National Security Council, Defense State Secretary, Ambassador to Israel, National Coordinator for NATO, and Assistant Foreign Minister). Prior to those posts, Ambassador Simonovic was on the staff of the BBC World Service in London, a reporter for Europ magazine in Paris, and a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) here in the United States in 1991.
The exchange experience “is time-consuming for participants but beautiful,” Ambassador Simunovic said, adding that it “shaped my future.” He recalled that among advantages at the time of his exchange visit nearly three decades ago, “the State Department even gave me a car to explore on my own as I travelled to other cities outside Washington.” His “adventures” in that rental car drew chuckles from the audience. Simunovic concluded, “Meeting others, in other places, helped me understand America.”
The Croatian diplomat was joined by a panel organized by First Monday Forum, working with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Other panelists were: PDC President Dr. Sherry Lee Mueller of the American University, and Teta Moehs, deputy director at State’s Office of International Visitors. Mark Rebstock, PDC board member and Vice President for External Relations of the Meridian International Center, moderated the discussion.
Ms. Moehs noted that over the past 80 years, 225,000 exchange visitors have participated in the program, and “marveled at the often unexpected diversity of our country.”
Dr. Mueller pointed out that the public private partnerships underpinning the IVLP are a major contributor to its success and positive impact on both participants and U.S. hosts. From the more than 500 current and former heads of state to leaders in boardrooms, classrooms, community organizations, the arts, and non-government organizations, these alumni are applying skills and fresh insights gained during their conversations here and abroad. Outstanding alumni include former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher of Britain, and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand.
The Power of People-to-People Visitor Exchanges
My own favorite story about exchanges is former South African President F. W. de Klerk, who under State Department auspices visited St. Louis. This was about a half dozen years before Mr. de Klerk ascended to the presidency. He recalls seeing blacks and whites mixing comfortably and even sharing meals in the city’s center.
Later, South Africa historians credited that observation as one of many factors leading to Mr. de Klerk’s historic speech on February 2, 1990, unbanning the exiled African National Congress. He also announced a moratorium on the death penalty, and the end of a state of emergency in South Africa, as well as the release of political prisoners, including those of the ANC. Nine days later, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison on Robbins Island after 27 years, and within three months, the first bilateral talks between the de Klerk government and the ANC began.
As a new prime minister, Mr. de Klerk went on an international tour to determine why the world community had abandoned a National Party government in South Africa. He met then British Prime Minister Thatcher in 1989. According to historian Dirk Kotze, a political science professor at the University of South Africa, Ms. Thatcher minced no words. Apartheid, the historian noted, was one of the most intractable international issues at the time.
People-to-people exchanges organized by the State Department and supported by organizations such as Meridian International, Global Ties, and others have yielded numerous unheralded benefits internationally in both the 20th and 21st centuries. May these intrepid pioneers of constructive change continue to register successes in the 2020s and beyond.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More