Americans Grow Weary of World Stage: Where Does That Leave The Peace Corps?

Americans want to disengage from the world is the word from a new poll done by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News. Half of those surveyed want the US to be less active on the global stage. The poll also shows that approval for Obama’s handling of foreign policy sank to the lowest level of his president, with 38% approving.

Well, what does that mean to the Peace Corps?

Well, it means a lot.

The first question we all hear: Is there still a Peace Corps?

The second question: Are Volunteer women still being raped and murdered overseas?

The third question: Why do we still have a Peace Corps?

The tide is against Americans who thinks he or she can change the world.

Of course, we all know that we can’t change the world. In fact, all we can do it change conditions at little bit in two years.

The WSJ article two days ago (4/30/14) says in bold headlines: Americans Grow Weary of World Stage.

Of course, most Americans see the involvement of the U.S. in wars as fruitless, see the Russian intervention in Ukraine as another example of how no one is afraid of America, and no one listens to what America’s preaches, or cares what we think.

Still, everyone wants to live in America! The Russians are buying up properties in Manhattan, forcing wealthy Americans to Queens and Brooklyn.

On our side, we are divided over the benefits of international trade and globalization. In fact, 48% viewed globalization as bad for our economy according to this latest poll.

Instead of Yankee Go Home…It is more like: Russians Go Home! (Or Chinese…Japanese…etc.)

Still, why does all of this matter to the Peace Corps?

It matters because the groundswell of Americans being interest in, or concerned about, the ‘other half of the world’ is no longer part of our DNA.

In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy challenged us: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

And then Kennedy and Shriver gave us the vehicle, the Peace Corps.jfk-peace-corps

We have the ‘vehicle’ in which to “do something for our country” But do Americans still want to ride on it?

We all did for decades.

Now Kennedy is a footnote in history. How many college students graduating this spring turn to their parents and says, “I want to do something for my country.” More likely, the Grad will wonder, “Do you think I can get a job at Google?” Or. “I hear they’re hiring lawyer again. Maybe I’ll go to law school.”

Theses Grads aren’t alone. Read the polls. Americans want to turn their backs on Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and say: “We’re done being No #1. We’re folding out tents and we’re locked out boarders behind us. It’s your turn China to lead the world.”

The Peace Corps certainly isn’t getting much support from the Obama Administration (or Congress!) to change the world. Our President was even afraid to meet with RPCVs (who, by the way, mostly voted for him) at the 50th anniversary in Washington, D.C. Afraid to meet with an agency because of the ‘bad’ press when a PCV had her throat cut when she went out on her own to defend girls being sexually abused by their teachers.

If we can’t honor this courageous PCV, then who should we give all our Peace Corps and NPCA awards to? The last time I looked, there was no place of honor for Kate Puzey in the Peace Corps building. No photograph of this woman in the lobby. Bad PR, I guess. At least at the State Department, they recognize the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

So is this the way the Peace Corps ends? “Not with a bang, but a whimper,” to steal the line from T.S. Eliot.

I think not. And here’s why.

Regardless of the WSJ/Washington Post poll say, and the fatigue of so many Americans who just want to call it quits, there’s hope in this new generation, the Millennials. In my mind, many will be as bold as we once were, all of us Silent Generation (didn’t we show them?) and understand that the Peace Corps is the way to be in touch with the world that awaits them, whether they know it or not standing around in their caps and gowns on the college quad still smoking grass.

This generation, these Millennials, will see that a Peace Corps ‘engagement’ is their salvation. The more they know, the more they travel, the more they are in touch with other nations, will enrich their lives and make them, as Bill Moyers said decades ago, “citizens of the world.” By leaving America and going to where the world needs them, not with a gun, but with a helping hand, they will changed their lives. They will be, as we all were, enriched and educated by the experience. I’ve come to that conclusion from raising a Millennial kid and by working at a college for the last ten years.

So if the Obamas and Boehners and Bushes, all those Tea Partiers, as well as the Isolationists, and even the Liberal Elites, don’t recognize the value of having a new generation schooled in the developing world, these Millennials will join the Peace Corps, and they will come home changed by the world and be better citizen than those of their generation who were afraid to leave America.



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  • An intriguing and useful discussion!

    It causes me to think – again – about ‘privatizing’ Peace Corps. Give it some thought…. Its revolutionary and possible. Take the ‘government’ out of Peace Corps, make it truly people to people, give it a context where strong, competent leadership and management will make a difference. Time to think more about it????

  • Ken,
    I think that is already happening. With the so-called partnerships with big business and universities as well as NGOs, Peace Corps is phasing out, in my opinion. That may well be Carrie’s job….just like it took Republican, anti-communist Nixon to “open up” China, it may take an RPCV to retire, with honor, Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

    I would prefer, however, that the brand name “Peace Corps” not be included in this transfer.

    To add to this discussion that John has started, in my opinion, today’s Peace Corps is safe for men, it is not safe for women.

  • The official Peace Corps website is full of self-congratulatory pieces. John’s statement that “…..because of the ‘bad’ press when a PCV had her throat cut when she went out on her own to defend girls being sexually abused by their teachers.

    If we can’t honor this courageous PCV, then who should we give all our Peace Corps and NPCA awards to? The last time I looked, there was no place of honor for Kate Puzey in the Peace Corps building. No photograph of this woman in the lobby.”

    Not only is that sadly so true, but on Peace Corps Passport “blog” there is a glowing report by Kellie Green on how there has been a “cultural shift” in how Peace Corps treats sexual assault victims. Ms. Greene neglected to mention Kate Puzey, our Peace Corps martyr, neglected to mention that this so-called “cultural shift” was mandated by Congress in the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Protection Act of 2011, and neglected to mention that evidently, that legislation has not yet been fully implemented by the members of the “cultural shift” at PC/HQ.

  • No one is listening, John!!!!!! The lament of RPCV’s.. Today. RPCV’s are not even asked or invited to show slides ( or their equivalent)at the weekly Rotary meetings .

    Now is the time to speak up. For fifty three years RPCV’s are curious “why no one form State or the USG has asked them about their experience in xyz.” Hey, without jobs in America, xyz isn’t important!!

    I blame the Peace Corps and the NPCA ( I am a current Board member) for creating a “don’t rock the boat” attitude…Time to speak up.

    Dennis Grubb
    Colombia I

  • I have noticed, in eight year administrations, that when all else fails in foreign policy Presidents turn to the Peace Corps as a kind of last resort. Almost by definition, Peace Corps can’t fail. A few volunteers might not make it through the experience, and some might not accomplish much, but most will do something positive, and some with do work in their host countries and here at home over time that borders on the spectacular.
    I expect to see President Obama emphasizing his commitment to the Peace Corps within the next year.

  • John C. Kennedy,
    I am not sure I agree with your analysis…..could you give some examples from Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 2? Thanks.

  • Once more,the Peace Corps as a development agency is small potatoes, dwarfed by such as Catholic Relief. The importance of the Peace Corps is as a shining example of America at its altruistic best. No longer can it improve the lot of the world’s poor substantially, no longer is it the best way for others to learn about Americans or Americans to learn about others. I would suggest that sports does this better, e.g. Tanaka pitching perfect games for the Yankees. No, the value now is its image of well meaning Americans trying to help others, regardless of actual results.

  • I’m curious. What is the average age of RPCVs posting here? I’m 68. How about each of us contacting an under-30 (or so) to respond to the Babble. This coming Saturday, our local rep (Erica Wrona, Fort Collins, CO) has organized a Potluck in the Park, co-hosted by GAIA, the Global Awareness and International Affairs student club. I will go and ask. Who knows what we will learn?

  • And at the risk of being accused of blaming the victim, Kate Puzey, I would like to add something to the list of Peace Corps failures: cultural training. Somehow, our trainers failed to understand that they needed to tell all volunteers, especially women, that any report of sexual misconduct (as we see it) must be delivered in person and in private. It is possible that the abusive teacher would have had to be left alone. Anthropologists run into domestic abuse (for example) that they really can’t do anything about. It is a terrible ethical dilemma, with no clear solution. Sue Fox’s book, LITTLE WOMEN OF BAGLAN, deals with the delicate matter of young girls and how to negotiate with the men who control their lives. And what are we to make of the kidnapping of Nigerian school girls? Maybe the big failure is a lack of outrage on the part of all of us who feel outrage for the death of Kate Puzey.

  • I have no information about official plans to phase out the PC but after catching the traveling Aaron Williams (former PC Director) and Kevin Quigley (former RPCV Director) lecture on the future of the PC, I had the impression that community development and technical health services were being retired. Other agencies are poised to supply architects, engineers, surveyors, doctors and nurses.

    Violence against PC volunteers is really not new but extremely under-reported. The Acting U.S. Inspector General submitted a 43 page report to Congress in 1992 within which he warned of a “marked increase in violent acts against volunteers worldwide.” Some training is self-defense is probably wise for all volunteers. I realize the pioneer volunteers may be offended by this suggestion. However, those who served during the Kennedy years did so while the world still celebrated the end of a horrible war. It was before the Vietnam War even began. Since then our government has invaded at least three countries, been involved in two more wars and countless “incursions.” The American government and its representatives are not viewed the same as they once were.

  • Jane,
    ….. “Somehow, our trainers failed to understand that they needed to tell all volunteers, especially women, that any report of sexual misconduct (as we see it) must be delivered in person and in private..” This is an interesting observation.

    If you are talking about a Volunteer who has been sexually assaulted, then there are, finally, protocols supposed to be in place that allow the Volunteer to report it so that she/he may received immediate medical attention as well as be protected from retaliation, regardless if the perpetrator is American, a host country National, or someone else. Delivering such information “in person” may not be feasible. In the case of Kate Puzey, she requested confidentiality and had ever reason to believe that her email request would be respected.

    If you are talking about a Volunteer who observes sexual conduct or who is approached by host country nationals and asked to advocate on their behalf, that is a different circumstance. It goes, in my opinion, to the heart of what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, a so-called “agent of change.” Change always has consequences and those may be bad, as well as beneficial. This is totally absent, in my opinion, from the consciousness of PC/HQ or the literature that is used in training. For example, Kate Puzey was presenting information that referred to HCN who were associated with the Peace Corps and so it could be assumed that Peace Corps could do something. However, if the abuse or exploitation or the bad consequences of change, promoted by Peace Corps, was occurring within the host country, Peace Corps has not developed any way, as far as I can find, to deal with those kinds of consequences….many times, much to the disappointment of the HCNs who may have believed that Americans had tremendous power and influence.

    Finally,in my opinion, there is a cultural bias among Americans, Peace Corps staff and Volunteers, both past and present, and particularly among Anthropologists that I have known, that somehow behavior that we perceive as abusive or exploitive is really normal and accepted within a particular culture and we should not try and “impose” our values, Or that, resistance to the change that Peace Corps Volunteers are trying to promote is due to superstition and ignorance.

    I think this is an excellent and long overdue discussion. Thanks to John for beginning it. I hope it continues.

  • I think there is a difference between not “trying to impose our values” and being stuck in an ethical dilemma. What anthropologists (at their finest) try to do is hang in with the culture long enough to figure out how change can occur that makes sense to the culture in question and that can endure. I do believe that there was a culturally appropriate way to remove the abusive teacher in the Puzey case without putting Katie’s life in danger. We had an early warning with a similar PCV murder. So why weren’t we prepared?
    Kate Puzey should have been told never to expect privacy with email. Never. I think we all know that anything that is written in an email has no hope of being private. (At CSU, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts feels perfectly justified in snooping the email of faculty. Really?) And for the entire time I lived in India, I was pretty sure that someone peeked at my incoming mail. Outgoing seemed unmolested. A face to face conversation with a non-local person (i.e., someone from the USA) in authority is the only way to secure a conversation and begin to figure out a plan.
    I agree that letting repellent cultural practices (e.g., female circumcision/mutilation) get a cultural pass is unaccepted. But we can’t just pull out that one thread and expect the “healthy” parts of the culture to continue to function well. There is a famous article “Steel Axes for Stone–Age Australians” that demonstrates how well-intentioned cultural interventions can wreck whole societies. We need to educate ourselves about our own cultural biases (how do we feel about the practice of having multiple wives in Islamic systems? is that a bad thing per se?). Then we can put our voices together to, perhaps, say something about the kidnapping of Nigerian girls.

  • Jane,

    We are not in disagreement about respecting cultural values and understanding the ethical difficulty of dealing with HCNs who identify practices as abuse and look to Volunteers for help. I do not think that Peace Corps have ever adequately acknowledged these dilemmas.

    I am not familiar with the logistical situation in which Kate Puzey found herself. But, email and other media technology is exactly how serving Volunteers are communicating as well as receiving technical information. There was a recent note on the Peace Corps webs that in country material was all moving from hard copy to digital. I don’t know in 2009 how Volunteers serving in Benin were supposed to communicate, let alone travel outside their site. I do, think, with all respect, that you are inadvertently blaming the victim.

    You said that there had been another such murder of a serving Peace Corps Volunteer. Are you referring to the murder described in “American Taboo” that happened in the South Pacific in 1977 or is there another such crime? If the latter, please tell us about it.

  • Again,PCVs serving in different cultures expect different rules. We can try to help change them if possible. But we should first learn to respect and adapt to the situations. I do not mean adopt the rules and customs, but adapt to them, e.g politely refuse to eat sheep’s eyeballs.

    I find the Peace Corps practice of assigning women to serve in communities by themselves to be a bit naive. I would not even do in most parts of the USA. I would hope that all female PCVs are assigned in teams to their locations of service.

  • Hi Joanne Roll,
    You asked: I am not sure I agree with your analysis…..could you give some examples from Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 2? Thanks.
    Here are some anecdotes. Short of a word analysis of Presidential speeches this is as good as I can do.
    In a 1998 radio address for the U.S. Virgin Island, as reported in CNN, AllPolitics, Bill Clinton asked Congress to approve a $48 million funding increase for the Peace Corps, an agency he described as “one of the finest examples of citizen service.”
    He called for bipartisan support for putting 10,000 Peace Corps workers overseas by the year 2000.
    “In a world where we’re more and more affected by what happens beyond our borders, we have to work harder to overcome the divisions that undermine the integrity and quality of life around the world, as well as here at home,” Clinton said. “Strengthening the Peace Corps … is both an opportunity and an obligation we should seize in 1998.”
    Later he did sign into law a measure that increased funding and funded the Peace Corps through the year 2002.
    George W. Bush was a fairly consistent supporter of his vision of the Peace Corps. I do think he began talking even more about it late in his second term.
    As reported on the Peace Corps site,“ACCRA, GHANA Feb. 20, 2008 President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Pamela Bridgewater met with current Peace Corps/Ghana Volunteers and Peace Corps/Ghana Country Director Bob Golledge today to thank them for their service and discuss their projects around the country.”
    Ronald Reagan was also a supporter of his vision of the Peace Corps. I think it had something to do with spreading the gospel of free enterprise. (If you will allow me another unsupported assertion I think Presidents can have their visions but the PCV is the one who determines what the Peace Corps is.) I haven’t found any specific examples of an uptick in Reagan’s support toward the end of his second term.
    Richard Nixon was the one President who would have liked to have ended the Peace Corp but found the political price to high. We will never know what he might have done in the last two years of his second term.

  • John C. Kennedy,

    Clinton certainly supported the Peace Corps but I don’t think his administration was having difficulty with their foreign policy. Clinton’s action with NATO in intervening in the Balkans is perhaps the last great foreign policy success the United States has had. In 1998, Clinton had facing impeachment over his personal conduct. However, you are right that in August of 1998, two of our embassies were bombed in Africa. But whether that was a failure of foreign policy or part of the Bin Lauden campaign to drive American military off of the Arabian peninsula
    could be debated.

    I think that all Presidents, with the exception of Nixon, supported the Peace Corps and most called for increased funding. But, I would argue it was never seen as the “last resort” to improve foreign policy, during the end of the second part of an eight year administration. i don’t think the evidence is there.

  • Joanne, you are right, I should have removed the words ‘foreign policy’ in my initial post, at least in the case of President Clinton. Thanks.

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