Diplomats Travel Beyond the Beltway to Explore the Laboratories of Democracy

Participants from the day-trip to UVA prior to touring the Rotunda. Photo by Megan Devlin.

“Real public service is done in the offices closest to the people,” proclaimed David Ramadan (Virginia House of Delegates, 2012-2016). Yet, foreign diplomats working the nation’s capital have little access to these offices. While members of the diplomatic corps based in Washington may be versed in strengthening relationships and discussing policies with the federal government and Capitol Hill, these individuals rarely have the chance to see from a local or state perspective how and why these policies are developed.

More than 30 members of the foreign diplomatic community attended the February 26th event, “Engaging the Electorate in the Laboratories of Democracy,” a day-long briefing and seminar co-hosted by the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics on UVA’s campus. The briefing focused primarily on citizen engagement and top issues for the U.S. at the state and local level in 2019. Participants discussed issues from perspectives not often heard in the nation’s capital and built strong connections with their counterparts from countries around the globe in the process. Throughout the day, diplomats visited historic sites that offered insight into the early beginnings and very establishment of the United States. By leaving the “Washington bubble,” diplomats were able to grasp a more complete picture of the country.

At the University of Virginia, participants were pleased to hear from Dr. Larry Sabato, long-time political analyst and best-selling author, who founded the Center for Politics. Beyond state and local government, there was much to talk about – from the Unite the Right rally in 2017 to the recent turmoil surrounding the state’s Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.

The briefing also included a perspective from former Virginia State Delegate David Ramadan. In underlining the importance of state government, Ramadan pointed to Virginia’s history as a birthplace of several presidents and of the oldest continuous lawmaking body in the new world. Addressing the recent news surrounding top elected officials in Virginia, Ramadan described the current scandals as issues concerning and to be solved by “both sides of the aisle.” When asked how diplomats may be able to connect themselves more closely to state and local politics, Ramadan stressed the importance of diplomats in fostering international exchange within their own countries in order to strengthen ties and understanding from within the U.S.

Andria McClellan of the Norfolk City Council offered a vision of the current focus areas at the local level including education, development, transportation and the lack of funding for these issues due to cuts by the state and the city’s abundance of untaxable federal land. The opportunity to hear this perspective was the impetus for the diplomatic day-trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. In particular, McClellan explained the Dillion Rule, which ties much of local authority to state approval, and its consequences for how her local government functions. She highlighted the need for cities to work together and collaborate across regions to solve the most pressing issues, including climate change. She talked at length about the impact of global warming on Norfolk, which suffers from one of the fastest rates of sea level rise and risk of flooding in the nation, but also is home to a strategic naval base and NATO’s only headquarters in North America. McClellan agreed with Ramadan on the importance of exchange to reach solutions, citing her involvement in the Dutch Dialogues to discuss issues in water management.

Diplomats enjoyed detailed and substantive discussions directly with professors, state and local government representatives, and students. Vice Mayor of Charlottesville, Heather Hill, opened the final session at the University by discussing how citizen engagement has changed the world over the years, particularly with the advent of social media. Hill described the City Council’s approach for the divisive political climate that has recently affected Charlottesville. After her remarks, participants discussed how they engage on the state and local level and what challenges they currently face in this process. Diplomats had much to share on civic engagement within their own countries and why they believe their citizens choose to engage.

Diplomats and officials from Virginia engaging in a hollow-square discussion. Photo by Megan Devlin.

A point of agreement among diplomats, academics, and several local officials, including three mayors, was the importance of a strong governance structure and the value of education.

Finally, a trip to Charlottesville would not be complete without a tour of the University of Virginia Academical Village and Monticello, the sprawling residence of the University’s founder and early U.S. diplomat, Thomas Jefferson. While the tour at UVA provided a background into the importance of education to one of America’s founders, his estate shed light onto the early ideas of freedom and realities of slavery that originated from Virginia and built the United States.

The day-trip was part of the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement’s Diplocraft convening series, which brings together foreign diplomats with organizations and individuals on the front lines of political, social, security and economic issues in the U.S. Meridian is grateful for the partnership with the University of Virginia Center for Politics in creating and implementing this program.

Project summary