Back in 2006, the Brookings Institute published a paper by Lex Rieffel entitled, “International Volunteering: Smart Power.” In the paper, Rieffel discusses the many ways that volunteering efforts improve international relations without big overtures, huge expenditures of taxpayer money, or military involvement. Volunteering is a grassroots citizen-lead peace initiative. Rieffel writes: “The face of America that has been welcomed most enthusiastically in the rest of the world for decades has been the face of a volunteer: assisting with disaster relief, building houses for poor families, teaching English to university students, and so much more.”
People volunteer for such a wide variety of personal and professional reasons, I wonder how many of them think about the impact they are having on our national reputation overseas. As a nation, we spend a lot of time honoring our military. Of course, we should do this. Our troops keep us safe. They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. That can’t be overstated. But our volunteers are making sacrifices too, albeit less extreme ones. They are giving their time and their resources. They are working long hours in difficult places. I think we should spend more time honoring our nation’s volunteers for their critical service. They help keep us safe too. They are also protecting our way of life, our families, and our livelihoods.
While our military is essential, they carry with them the aura of violence and war. I think it is very difficult for a military to evoke feelings of camaraderie in foreign lands. Try as they might, and incredibly some do succeed, they are working under the auspices of enforcement, violence, danger, and forced submission. This is simply the nature of the beast. A military does help to keep the peace but their methods are harsh and desperate. Often they are only involved when a situation has already escalated, when people are already dying. Volunteers, on the other hand, carry the aura of humanitarian aid. They arrive during times of peace. Instead of tearing down, they build. They “effectively [engage] other nations as willing partners.”
Reiffel is calling for a national reassessment of our volunteer force. He wants us to invest in volunteering—to support the Peace Corps and to create initiatives that encourage private involvement in developing new international volunteering initiatives. Surely, since 2006, much of this has indeed happened. The volunteering force is stronger than it has ever been. Americans are working for good all over the world, spreading a message of friendship and peace. Volunteering is also getting publicized more than ever, by bloggers, journalists, keynote speakers, and by the volunteers themselves via social networks. I hope the volunteering universe continues to grow. There is always active unrest in the world. Lets address it through service.