“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view,
to be useful to the modern traveler.” – Henry Glassie, US Historian
Welcome to a new TalkDiplomacy series that aims to trace the roots of current events, issues, triumphs and failures to important historical happenings. Twice a month, readers will receive a snapshot of several influential events that occurred during the corresponding time period in modern history, and an analysis of how these decisions, actions, and ideas have shaped the course of events leading up to present day. A special emphasis is placed on events that influenced current-day diplomacy all over the world.
10 minute read
March 1st, 1872: Yellowstone is established as the world’s first national park
March 1st, 1961: The United States Peace Corps is established
March 12th, 1930: Gandhi stages the Salt March, a peaceful protest against British rule in India
March 1st, 1872
Yellowstone is established as the world’s first national park
History One hundred and fifty-one years ago, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, making the wild and beautiful region spanning three states the first nationally-protected public area. Regarded by the majority of sources as the oldest national park in the world – with specific attention paid to the distinctions of both national and park, as opposed to reserve or protected area, and under the definition provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Yellowstone remains one of the jewels of the U.S. National Park Service and a shining example of wildlife preservation across the globe.
The park’s 2.2 million acres is home to a vast array of flora, fauna, and hydrothermal activity, including hot springs and over 500 active geysers, as well as the heat-loving microorganisms that play an invisible but imperative role in the incredible Yellowstone ecosystem. Thanks to the efforts of biologists and conservationists dedicated to the National Park Service mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources…for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” the iconic gray wolf, originally placed on the endangered species list in 1973 after the natural population in the park dwindled to almost zero, has made a miraculous recovery, as have other species (National Park Service, n.d.). Yellowstone National Park and efforts like gray wolf recovery have hence become models for similar efforts around the world.
Present Today nearly 6,000 national parks exist in over 100 countries and on every continent but Antarctica. Australia boasts the highest number of national parks with 685 parks, Canada has preserved the largest amount of land area with 377,000 square kilometers of national park land, and Zambia has allocated the highest percentage of country area to national parks at around 32% (Safaris Africana, n.d.).
Not only do national parks and affiliated conservation projects present natural spaces for the public to enjoy and protect habitats in which wildlife can thrive, but these activities also promote what is known as eco-diplomacy. Recently coined by the U.S. Department of State, eco-diplomacy describes “the practice of conducting international relations by facilitating and advancing a shared commitment to conserving natural resources through sustainable operations and responsible environmental stewardship” (McIntire, n.d.). Eco-diplomacy is a restatement and renewal of environmental diplomacy, a term from the 1990s which refers to the practice of implementing global policies, initiatives, and recurring conventions that address the risks posed by climate change (AICGS, 1998). The United Nations, European Union, other regional coalitions, and individual states engage in environmental diplomacy, though it remains a relatively underemphasized diplomatic practice.
Is it necessary to have such a distinct diplomatic classification? In the past, we have repeatedly seen environmental issues scrubbed from agendas, often due to the perception that other issues are more pressing, or negotiated into oblivion, suggesting that realistic solutions are too complex to reach. While it’s true that the progress made over the last several decades is unprecedented, the world was starting its climate recovery from a very low point, and thus there is still much more to be accomplished. It seems, then, that public servants dedicated to making progress in the environmental realm are an asset to governments attempting to reach climate deals and work cooperatively toward a sustainable future. As discussions regarding climate security and sustainable development are increasingly prioritized at multinational conferences, diplomacy centered on these matters is a pertinent addition to any country’s foreign relations toolbox.
Sources, and to learn more about…
Yellowstone, visit https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm.
The national parks of the world, begin by visiting https://worldnationalparks.com/.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, visit https://www.iucn.org/.
Eco-diplomacy, read Donna McIntire’s piece for the American Foreign Service Association, and Cassie Rudolph’s 2019 post for a George Washington University blog.
Environmental diplomacy, begin by reading the AICGS 1998 Environmental Diplomacy conference report.
March 1st, 1961
The United States Peace Corps is established
History The Peace Corps, known by many around the world as a merry band of American volunteers dispatched to spread knowledge, expertise, and help tackle pressing problems at the ground level, is in fact an independent agency of the US government and an instrument of its foreign policy. The idea for such an endeavor came unexpectedly to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in a brief late-night speech, in which he asked university students how many of them would be willing to “contribute part of [their lives] to this country” and “spend [their] lives traveling around the world” as doctors, technicians, or engineers. Moreover, the Cold War was in full swing in the 1960s, and concerns about the spread of communism certainly influenced the American government’s desire to proactively demonstrate soft power around the world (Melillo, 2020). Thus, less than two months into his presidency, JFK transformed words into action, and the Peace Corps was born.
Peace Corps volunteers engage themselves for months in a community abroad, learning from and assisting local leaders in solving issues of importance to them. Their mission? To help people worldwide meet their need for trained workers, promote a better understanding of Americans by the people served, and provide Americans with a better understanding of other cultures. By August 1961, the first volunteers were deployed to Ghana as teachers (possibly with the lofty underlying goal of nation-building). Since then, hundreds of missions have taken place, involving nearly a quarter million Americans in over 140 countries. Ongoing global initiatives address issues like malaria and AIDS prevention, food security, and small business growth.
Present While the Peace Corps maintains a “superb reputation” by most accounts, the scale of the agency is not large enough to contribute significantly to the overall diplomatic prowess of the US (Rieffel, 2003). However, there is an important niche within which the Peace Corps thrives: citizen diplomacy. The Center for Citizen Diplomacy, a Washington, DC-based organization that acts as a conduit for global engagement, describes citizen diplomacy as “the concept that every global citizen has the right, even the responsibility, to engage across cultures and create shared understanding through meaningful person-to-person interactions.” If the Peace Corps can be labelled an “effective diplomatic weapon,” it is due mostly to the favor volunteers gain from citizens of other countries towards Americans themselves, rather than toward any US policy (Strauss, 2008). Thus, Peace Corps volunteers can be considered visible agents of citizen diplomacy.
This idea of ground-level diplomacy is growing rapidly, not only in the US but around the world. Ever-increasing connectivity via technology and social media, transnational travel, and supply chains allows us to be highly informed about global events. Ideas and information flow between regular citizens, which can lead to increased cultural understanding and awareness of injustices across the world. It is important to know that each of us has a role to play, should we accept it, in positively boosting our country’s diplomatic impact. There is power in citizen diplomacy; it can be an effective way to utilize everyday connections to impact global politics that often seem out of reach.
Sources, and to learn more about…
The mission, history, and achievements of the Peace Corps, visit https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/.
How the Cold War influenced the Peace Corps, read Wendy Melillo’s 2020 article in The Conversation.
How the Peace Corps are viewed domestically and internationally, begin by reading Lex Rieffel’s 2003 piece for the Brookings Institution, and Robert L. Strauss’s 2008 article in Foreign Policy.
Getting more involved in citizen diplomacy, visit https://www.centerforcitizendiplomacy.org/, and read the 2009 World Vision report on global citizenship.
March 12th, 1930
Gandhi stages the Salt March, a peaceful protest against British rule in India
History Mohandas Gandhi, known and revered worldwide for his practice of nonviolent activism and commitment to political and social progress in the face of oppressive colonial authority, has provided a model of peaceful change since his first acts of resistance in the early twentieth century. He is referred to admiringly as “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul,” and is one of the most recognizable figures in modern history.
One of his most influential and successful campaigns is known as the Salt March. Over the course of nearly a month, Gandhi and several dozen followers walked over 200 miles through the west Indian state of Gujarat, speaking about the unjust taxation on imported salt in India and gaining followers, support, and visibility along the way. Along with increasing popularity among the Indian population, Gandhi and his supporters also received heightened attention from British authorities, resulting in thousands of arrests, including of Gandhi himself. However, this repressive response from the British government simply encouraged more people to join Gandhi’s cause and participate in the satyagraha, or peaceful resistance. While he certainly had plenty of critics, Gandhi’s political involvement and social efforts greatly impacted the withdrawal of Great Britain from the subcontinent and the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.
How did a tax on salt fit into the larger picture of British oppression and eventually spark many Indians’ desire for independence? Controlling salt production and sale was used by the British as a way to maintain power over the Indian population, particularly the poor. Heavily taxed imported salt was the only available option for Indian consumers and many were unable to afford the basic staple. Breaking the Salt Act meant producing or selling one’s own salt. By marching to the ocean, where salt is abundantly caked on the shore, picking up a handful and illegally “producing” his own salt, Gandhi made a statement that defying unjust laws could be done without a weapon.
Present Many modern day movements, civil disobedience campaigns, and peaceful protests walk the path Gandhi paved. The lives of other renowned leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Barack Obama have been influenced by the example set by Gandhi. Though some of his remarks, beliefs, and actions are considered controversial or antiquated by today’s standards, his legacy of inspiring peaceful change and working toward a higher goal should be remembered for what it was – courageous.
It would be difficult to find a time during recent history in which protests, particularly anti-governmental ones, were not being waged. Currently, protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in official custody after being detained for not complying with policy requiring complete coverage of women’s hair and bodies, have seen around 90,000 people take to the streets to oppose the tyranny of the Iranian government. Racial, ethnic, and gender equality protests are being carried out across the globe every day. Climate strikes are gaining traction, particularly with the younger generations. Clearly, the social and political impacts of such protests should not be understated. As Gandhi himself said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
Sources, and to learn more about…
Gandhi’s life, visit https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mahatma-Gandhi.
The Salt March, visit https://www.britannica.com/event/Salt-March.
Gandhi’s legacy, read this 2019 article by Erin Blakemore in National Geographic, and Nishi Malhotra’s 2015 piece for The Better India.
Iranian protests, begin by visiting https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/overnight-protests-rock-tehran-other-iranian-cities-online-videos-show-2023-02-17/ for recent coverage.
Protests happening around the world, visit the interactive Global Protest Tracker designed by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.