(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares likes to take his beekeeping expertise on the road. He’s visited hives in Mexico – and most recently he engaged in a little bee-diplomacy in Macedonia.
(MARES) I have just spent a week in Macedonia with the Vermont National Guard…..as part of the State Partnership Program.
I knew a bit about the country. Until 1994, Macedonia was one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia. I knew that Mother Teresa, an Albanian Catholic, was born in the capital of Skopje. And I knew that Macedonia and Greece are arguing over the name of Macedonia and the fame of Alexander the Great. Little else.
Macedonia is about Vermont’s size, but with four times our population. It’s craggy and mountainous like Vermont – and looks even more rural because so many people live in the cities, 600,000 in the capital of Skopje.
The "State Partnership Program" was the brain child of Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later Secretary of State. He wanted to link state national guards with the former subject nations of the Soviet Union (and later the disintegrating Yugoslavia) and bring them into NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Over 15 years, the Partners project has grown to involve almost all states and 61 countries.
During that time Vermont and Macedonia have carried out 600 exchanges, with several thousand participants in both countries.
On this trip, which was one of the largest military-to-civilian exchanges to date, Vermont Guard engineers helped do environmental assessments of school renovation projects. Three doctors helped establish a tele-medical link between Skopje hospitals and Fletcher Allen. Lawyers from the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Department of Homeland Security lectured on how to combat money-laundering. Officials from the state Parks and Historic Sites departments worked with their counterparts on tourist initiatives. My cluster in agricultural businesses focused on helping the Macedonians improve their wine and specialty crops exports, including honey, my area of expertise.
"This is not ‘training’ or foreign aid in the traditional sense," said Major John Geno of the Vermont National Guard. "This is about building relationships with people in shared activities and classes on topics where Macedonians and Vermonters can learn from each other."
Personally, I had fun hanging out with Macedonian beekeepers and meeting people from a new country. But it was also fun to work with these Guardsmen and other civilians in a foreign policy blend of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye calls "hard power" and "soft power."
You never really know how you are perceived when you go abroad, but I agree with Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Darrow, who says, "I hope the Macedonians learned that we are not as arrogant as we may appear, that we try to keep open minds, and that we are eager to discuss common interests and learn about their country."