Small Wars Journal

The Forgotten Role of the Peace Corps in U.S. Foreign Policy

The Forgotten Role of the Peace Corps in U.S. Foreign Policy by Bren Flanigan - Washington Post

… There is no such thing as a cultural “ambassador” who can represent the melting pot of the United States, but Peace Corps volunteers are frequently interpreted as direct extensions of American values and principles. That gives the Peace Corps an unrivaled position to promote a positive perception of our country and learn from the citizens of others.

The way to influence societies is not solely through intimidation or economic isolation but also through an integrated cultural exchange, whose effects will endure through political administrations and fluctuating diplomatic relations. No organization does a better job of forging this exchange than the Peace Corps.

In 2016, the Peace Corps published a survey of 21 countries on five continents that studied perceptions of Americans in volunteer communities. More than 60 percent of the 928 host country nationals surveyed reported they had a “much better” or “better” understanding of Americans after having a volunteer, and the trait most frequently used to describe their perceptions of all Americans was “kind.” Even country nationals who worked with volunteers more than five years ago still reported the same level of improved understanding as communities with current volunteers.

Volunteers promote this understanding by entering a society ready to experience everything with their local communities. Living in a family with four wives and close to 20 children forced me to respect a different way of life. Defecating in latrines full of flies and cockroaches, bucket-bathing and sharing the frustration when the electricity or water supply got cut for several hours all taught me to recognize real necessities.

Now, with the largest budget cut for the Peace Corps in more than 40 years proposed by the Trump administration, Congress should not forget that volunteers are immersing themselves and serving in more than 60 countries around the world for modest sums…

Read on.


The Peace Corps is a wonderful cultural exchange program, but it's a bit much to claim it's an arm of U.S. foreign policy. Volunteers don't receive any training familiarizing them with current policy or preparing them to support it, they're not placed in situations where they'll deliberately be able to influence U.S. or host nation policy, and their communications in the field don't support that role. They're basically the adult version of exchange students -- as a former exchange student, that's no insult, but a realistic vision of what they're able to accomplish.