When foreigners ask if it’s safe to visit the United States
If the Friendship Force were a woman, she would be the empress dowager of Atlanta’s ambitions to become an international city.
The foreign exchange network made its debut 40 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, during a White House ceremony presided over by two of Washington’s newest residents, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter.
The concept was novel. Rather than stay in hotels, troupes of regular Americans without rank or government status would bunk in the homes of foreign hosts. The same hospitality would be offered here in return.
In its early days, when the Friendship Force became a vehicle for penetrating the Iron Curtain, journalists embedded themselves within the group. Later, headlines would tell of the World War II vet making a first, mind-changing visit to Japan or the former Vietnam War grunt hosting a woman from Hanoi.
There have been diplomatic gaffes and glitches. And 9/11, too.
But never before has the Friendship Force had to cope with a challenge like the one posed by President Donald Trump, his bleak take on immigration and his America First policy.
The Friendship Force is in 66 countries now, with 15,000 members. “Many are asking for a position statement on the things that are going on in this administration,” said Jeremi Snook, the president and CEO of the organization, which is still based here. “I don’t want to say that they’re panicking. But I will say there is certainly a state of anxiety.”
Via Skype, Snook said he thinks he has persuaded the Friendship Force “club” in Mexico not to join a boycott over the southern border wall that Trump intends to build. But clubs in Morocco and Turkey, where Islam dominates, have raised concerns over Trump’s first and second travel bans aimed at seven, then six Muslim-based countries.
International and national tourism agencies have already seen indications that the U.S. is about to suffer a Trump-related drop in travel into the U.S. But given that the Friendship Force specializes in home stays, concerns are of a more intimate nature. The direction of that concern has also changed.
Heretofore, Snook said, security questions have been raised by American travelers (and others) headed for more troubled corners of the world.
Now, the world has seen an Indian immigrant killed in Kansas. Mosques have been put to the torch here and there. “They’re asking: ‘I just saw this thing on the news. Am I safe coming to the U.S.?’ ” Snook said.
“I find myself scrambling to go to try to find those three or four other news sources that they can go to, to try to get an understanding about what’s really going on here. So they can make an informed decision,” he said.
“You find yourself defending the safety of your country and having to question it — because of the things that you’re seeing, too,” Snook said. “You have to ask, where are we right now? Have we overturned a stone and realized that there’s a really ugly side to the U.S. that maybe I didn’t see before? It’s really kind of hard for Americans to process, let alone people outside the United States.”
Snook told of an encounter with a Friendship Force board member from Switzerland who pointed to Trump’s slogan of America First, a phrase that has its roots in the isolationist aversion to joining Britain’s lonely battle against Nazism in World War II.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who would say that we don’t want a more economically stable country, that we don’t want a prosperous future,” Snook said. “But there’s a danger, I think, that when you begin to turn inward, you might find yourself with your back toward the world.”
Let’s go back to that “position statement” that Snook spoke of preparing at the outset of our conversation. He might have found the thread last week, on a trip to Lincoln, Neb., to help a local club celebrate its 40th birthday.
’You can’t assume just because we’re a peace-making organization advocating for cultural understanding that our membership is Democratic — that there’s a direct line there,” Snook said. This was conservative Republican territory, a fact that was reflected in the crowd.
“I said the mission of our organization transcends politics and religion and those things that might divide us. I had to say it three times. I beat my hand on the podium. By the third time the crowd was clapping,” Snook said.
You will have to pardon the head of the Friendship Force if his anecdotes draw on annoyingly exotic time zones. It’s an occupational hazard. But before Snook signed off, he told of a recent trip Down Under. He had climbed to the back of a van headed for the airport in Brisbane, Australia, without saying a word that would betray an American accent.
Others followed. The topic of foreign political doings rose up. American ones.
“They were very informed,” Snook said. “One person said, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the United States.’
“Another person said, ‘Oh, you mean the Divided States of America.’ And they all started laughing,” Snook said. “It was really sobering to hear this.” Chastened, he kept his mouth shut the rest of the way.
But it raises the possibility of a new frontier for the Friendship Force for its fifth decade: a domestic version, in which red America takes a chance and visits the homes of blue America, and vice versa.
Lord knows we need it.