Research Paper


Exchange programs have long served as a pillar of public diplomacy. Russia’s withdrawal from the Future Leaders Exchange program in 2014 came at a particularly tense time in US-Russia relations, but a deeper look reveals flaws in the program design — not mounting pressure from political tensions — may have spurred its exit. 

Exchange & Public Diplomacy: The Case of the United States, Russia, and the Future Leaders Exchange Program

Robyn Caron


For decades, the United States has sought to engage in public diplomacy as a means of improving foreign relations with Russia. Public diplomacy is a process of building positive perceptions and relationships with foreign publics to achieve foreign policy goals. Long before the term “public diplomacy” came into vogue in the years following the end of World War II, states engaged in such processes, many of which took the form of educational exchange programs, which eventually became known as “exchange diplomacy.” According to many recent scholars of international communication and international relations, international exchange programs have the potential to improve state-to-state relations by creating person-to-person bonds and mutual understanding. There are many factors that can prompt states to reject participation in exchange programs, even at times when programs could be more important than ever.

One example of the breakdown of exchange diplomacy is the case of Russia’s withdrawal from Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) in 2014. Russia decided to end its participation in the program during a particularly tense time for US-Russian relations due to escalating conflicts over Ukraine and Syria. Feelings of trust and goodwill among the populations of both countries deteriorated significantly during this period. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, only 15% of Russians had a favorable view of the US, and a 2016 Gallup poll indicated that only 30% of Americans held a favorable view of Russia, compared to 60-70% only five years earlier. This article will discuss three theories of international communication and apply each theory to Russia’s decision to withdraw from FLEX. Ultimately, this article will conclude that the failure of FLEX with Russia was due in large part to the unbalanced nature of the exchange program design. This article will offer insights for international exchange practitioners and policymakers as to steps the US can take in the future to improve its usage of exchange diplomacy.

Theoretical Discussion

The field of international communication has developed numerous theories that help scholars and policymakers understand and analyze global events. Three relevant theories that can be applied to Russia’s departure from FLEX are international exchanges diplomacy, modernization theory, and strategic narratives.

International Exchange Diplomacy

In “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories,” Nicholas Cull describes how exchange programs function as an element of public diplomacy. Within the field of public diplomacy, Cull defines exchange diplomacy as “an actor’s attempt to manage the international environment by sending its citizens overseas and reciprocally accepting citizens from overseas for a period of study and/or acculturation.” Understood in this context, the value of exchanges is based on the belief that sharing cultural knowledge and building personal relationships across borders will have a positive influence on the two countries’ “attractiveness” to one another. Exchange diplomacy is a long-term strategy that hinges on the idea that everyone involved with the exchange will benefit from increased cultural understanding and respect, and that these feelings will be mobilized to improve international relations.

If exchange programs are to function effectively as a part of public diplomacy, Cull theorizes that they must be reciprocal and that both participating parties must feel valued in the exchange. He offers as an example of a successful exchange the twinning program between France and Germany following World War II, and notes that the primary reason for its success was the relative symmetry of power between nations. Cull defines “symmetry” in this context as approximately equivalent perceived power on the world stage. At that time, France and Germany were both struggling to rebuild after the war and coping with a loss of status in the international arena. This prevented either country from seeking a dominant position in the exchange, which would have made it non-reciprocal. By promoting a balanced flow of people and knowledge, the twinning program offered a platform for participants from both countries to feel as though their contributions to the exchange were equally important.

Modernization Theory

One of the founding theories of international communication, modernization theory developed as a means of directing US efforts to spread democracy and capitalism to the so-called “Third World” following World War II. Scholars such as Daniel Lerner believed that modern forms of mass media could transform traditional societies because Western media would inspire those in the Third World to “aspire to a new and modern way of life.” American politicians rallied around this theory as a means of thwarting the expansion of Soviet influence during the early Cold War years, and from then until the mid-1970s modernization theory thrived in US foreign policy.

Academia has since recognized numerous flaws in modernization theory, principally that mere exposure to Western systems does not necessarily lead Third World countries to institute democratic and capitalist systems in ways that foster general prosperity. Policies branded as Modernization theory have also been criticized for reinforcing systems of global inequality by privileging Western knowledge over non-Western systems of understanding and thinking. Although many scholars recognize the shortcomings of modernization theory as a strategy for foreign policy making, as a theoretical lens it is still useful for analyzing how international actors formulate policy. Even when policymakers do not justify exchanges based on modernization theory, many programs perpetuate the practice of unequal flows of knowledge and information sharing. In the context of exchange programs, modernization theory contends that if the US received Russian students, but did not send American students to Russia, then this implies that only Russians can benefit from learning about life in the US.

Strategic Narrative

Another important aspect of international communication is how actors use strategic narratives to communicate their position in international relations. Strategic narratives are tools “for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.” The actor’s objective is to frame domestic and international events in ways that serve their foreign policy goals so that they can justify their actions and garner the support of others. When used as an element of soft power, strategic narratives also function to “entice and attract others” and to encourage them to “want what you want.”

Like other mechanisms of public diplomacy, strategic narratives are intended to influence the actions of others, but they can also function to structure and limit the actions of the narrator. When the narrative becomes an essential part of the narrator’s identity, it narrows the range of possible actions to those that are consistent with that constructed identity. To maintain consistency, the narrator is bound to act in accordance with the values and principles established by the story he or she tells. Failure to follow the narrative damages the narrator’s credibility in the international public sphere and lead to charges of hypocrisy.

Theories Applied to the U.S., Russia & FLEX

FLEX began in 1992 as a high school exchange program for students from former Soviet Republics to spend a year living in the US. Since then, the program has thrived in many of the participating countries and continues to serve as a model for other youth exchanges launched by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. However, while FLEX has done well in some nations, in 2014, a Russian student was granted asylum in the US claiming he was persecuted in Russia due to his sexual orientation, and Russia decided to end its participation in the exchange. However, considering the political context of the time, Russia’s decision to stop allowing students to participate in the FLEX program was symbolic of the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia. The theories outlined above will illuminate the reasons for Russia’s decision to withdraw from FLEX and, in turn, also highlight the flaws inherent to FLEX’s program design.

Applying modernization theory, the key American motivation for creating FLEX was to advance democratic and capitalist values in the newly independent former Soviet Republics. The explicit mission of FLEX is to “promote mutual understanding between citizens of the US and countries across Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia while giving students from these regions the opportunity to learn about the U.S. and its institutions [emphasis added] while teaching Americans about their countries.” FLEX is premised on the idea that by allowing students to live in the U.S., they will come to see the benefits of American government and economics, and will replicate them back home.

Funded solely by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Russian’s perspective on FLEX was likely always that that FLEX was intended to shape Russia’s “future leaders” to promote American values and systems of governance. By 2014 this became problematic as Russia sought to reestablish itself as a global power by providing support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and invading Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s choice to leave FLEX was driven more strongly by the desire to end its participation in the U.S.’s efforts to “modernize” Russia than by the actions of a single student. While the US granting a student asylum was a pretext, Russia’s decision to leave FLEX was influenced more significantly by its unwillingness to continue allowing its youth to be exposed to American values.

The role of exchanges as a component of public diplomacy is also important to review in context because this theory can best explain why from a scholarly perspective, the structure of FLEX fated its failure with Russia from the start. According to Cull’s taxonomy, FLEX was always flawed because it is a one-way, non-reciprocal exchange. Although the Program mission pays lip service to the idea that Americans will learn about the cultures of the in-bound students, given that the US does not send its own students abroad, the emphasis is clearly placed on cultural information flowing primarily from the US to the incoming students.

Moreover, Cull notes the importance of symmetry between nations for exchanges to be effective. When FLEX was formed in 1992, the US was the world’s sole superpower, having symbolically defeated the USSR in the Cold War. By 2014, Russia sought to reassert itself in the global arena and present itself as an equal to the global dominance of the US. Therefore, ending participation in FLEX can also be seen as Russia’s decision to leave an unbalanced exchange that the Russian government likely found insulting.

Finally, Russia’s use of a strategic narrative to explain its departure from FLEX provides further evidence for how Russia sought to reestablish itself in the international sphere during this period. An incident involving a single student typically would not cause a country to cancel participation in an exchange program that had run for twenty-two years. However, as discussed, Russia had numerous motivations for leaving FLEX. To justify cancelling its participation, Russian officials used a strategic narrative to pin blame for the program’s disintegration on the US. To achieve this, Russia reframed the granting of asylum to a Russian minor as standing in complete opposition to the “moral and ethical principles of Russian society.” The narrative told by Russian officials did not address the issue of LGBT rights, but rather refocused attention on the concept that a minor should not be allowed to make such a drastic life choice without familial consent. Any narrative the Russian government could have told about it being a safe place for those who identify as gay would not have been credible; thus, it focused framing the issue around the rights of parents. The US’ failure to respect the institution of family was an acceptable narrative to Russia’s domestic audience which when viewing the issue from that perspective, could blame the US for wrongdoing.

Analysis & Lessons

Applying theories of international communication to the factors that led to Russia’s decision to leave Future Leaders Exchange offers valuable lessons regarding how the US should engage in exchange diplomacy. First of all, for exchanges to function as an element of public diplomacy, it is vital that they are founded under conditions that promote the equality of both participating countries. Modernization theory also argues that the party that feels less valued in the exchange will be inclined to leave, especially during periods of tension. In this view, Russia’s exit from FLEX can be attributed to Russia’s desire to end its participation in what it felt was a hegemonic exchange as soon as it sought to reassert itself on the world stage.

Russia’s use of a strategic narrative to reframe its departure from FLEX as the result of an American offense and avoid addressing LGBT rights issues within its borders can also serve as a reminder to the US regarding how resourceful actors can be in order to save face.

By using international communication theories to critically analyze Russia’s withdrawal from FLEX, the US can avoid making similar mistakes in the future and create exchange programs that fulfill its public diplomacy goals. Namely, the US needs to be conscientious in how it establishes exchange programs to ensure they are reciprocal in nature and do not overly emphasize US values and ideals. If the US, as a world power, acts as the party with nothing to learn and everything to share, the US will be seen as neo-imperialistic. The case of the U.S., Russia, and Future Leaders Exchange should serve as a cautionary tale for policymakers when crafting exchange diplomacy.


“Future Leaders Exchange”. American Councils for International Education.

Cull, Nicholas J. 2008. “Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 31-54.

MacFarquhar, Neil, and Michael R. Gordon. 2014. “Russia Cancels Exchange Program After A Student Seeks U.S. Asylum.” New York Times 2014.

Miskimmon, Alister, Ben O’Loughlin 1976, and Laura Roselle. 2014. Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and The New World Order. Vol. 3. New York; London: Routledge.

Nye, Joseph S. 2008. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 94-109.

Poushter, Jacob. “Russians warm to China as relations with U.S. cool.” Pew Research Center. July 8, 2015.

Swift, Art. “Americans See Russia Less Negatively, as Less of a Threat.” Gallup Inc. February 18, 2016.

Thussu, Daya Kishan. 2000. International communication: Continuity and change. New York; London: Arnold.


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