Building New Bonds and Exploring Valuable Opportunities

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Feb 15, 2019
by Oscar Tollast
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Building New Bonds and Exploring Valuable Opportunities

Gregory Feifer, executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs, reflects on his work at one of the oldest foreign study fellowship programs and transatlantic trends Gregory Feifer at Salzburg Global Seminar

Between 2000 and 2002, Gregory Feifer was an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow, reporting on the culture and politics in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Just over 16 years later, in March 2018, he was announced as the Institute’s new executive director. It’s not a position he expected to take up – even if others felt differently. Feifer said, “It’s actually interesting [in] that when I was a Fellow, the then executive director said, ‘Someday you will be executive director.’ I don’t know if he was serious or kidding, but I certainly thought he was kidding.”

Prior to his appoint, Feifer had been serving as interim director since June 2017. He had also served as a trustee of the Institute from 2015 to 2017. It’s evidently an organization whose mission he believes in.

Feifer said, “It was started in 1925, and the idea was to enable the US to have a better understanding of foreign affairs at a time that the country had just emerged as a great power and was operating at a disadvantage compared to the traditional great powers because they had very good on the ground information from their colonial administrators in Asia and Africa, and we didn’t.”

Young professionals were sent out into the field in areas such as journalism, diplomacy, business, and law. Feifer said the aim was to “become culturally immersed and come back and function as part of a living endowment of wisdom for the country.” Initially, fellowships were open-ended and lasted as long as seven years, but now they are limited to two. Fellows pick a region or country to live in and a topic to study. After spending two years immersed in the field, they come back and inform the American public.

Reflecting on his own experience as a Fellow, Feifer speaks positively. “I had a terrific experience. I was already living in Moscow, so I was unusual… but I was working for a small English language newspaper that couldn’t afford to send me much beyond the city limits to do any reporting. The fellowship enabled me to travel all over the country and to other former Soviet republics, and it really formed my basis of understanding that served me very well in my future career as a reporter for NPR and other outlets in Russia.”

The Institute’s core mission has very much remained unchanged since its establishment in 1925, but Feifer recognizes the world is a different place. He said, “There are now Americans living all over the world, and you can get the tiniest bit of information from the smallest village anywhere in the world, but we feel that in this time of bombardment of information from all sources, the value of spending two years immersed in a society and really getting to know it is as valuable as ever.”

Feifer attended Citizen Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Activating Networks for Change, a three-day immersive learning program hosted by Salzburg Global Seminar, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance.

More than 40 participants from various foundations and organizations with fellowship programs convened at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, to take part in the program.

Feifer said the opportunity to discuss his work with peers at a “beautiful place” like Schloss Leopoldskron was very attractive. He said, “The ability to sort of hear from many of the participants in a group and then split off and have small discussions and have time to socialize, I think it provides a lot of opportunities to not only learn about best practices but also get a sort of a sense of reinforcement that many of the things one is doing are correct…

“You know we're each running our own programs, we each have a million things to do, and it's very good to be able to come together and to share common experiences and not only learn but also understand that some or many things we're doing aren't all that mistaken.”

During the program, which included presentations, group work, and panel discussions, Feifer took part in a fireside chat on transatlantic trends. Speaking ahead of this activity, he said, “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of great news to report there, but the flipside of that is that the value of civil society, fellowships, [and] citizen diplomats is as great as it has been in recent memory at a time when state institutions and international organizations are failing us for all sorts of reasons.”

In addition to his role at the Institute, Feifer is also a member of the steering committee for the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, a bipartisan and transatlantic group which comes together in defense of democracy, security, and alliances. Making connections between both sides of the Atlantic is key, according to Feifer.

“At a time when our president is one of the chief threats to the transatlantic alliance and to democratic values in general, it’s very important that American send out a signal that we still care about shared values and try to build as many bonds as possible on lower levels and try to effect change that way.”


The program Citizen Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Activating Networks for Change was held in partnership with The German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance, as part of the Global Leaders Consortium (GLC).