Presidents Obama and George H.W. Bush: Building Bridges Through Service

President Barack Obama’s visit to the George Herbert Walker Bush Library in College Station, Texas this week highlights the crucial role of America’s volunteer traditions in addressing critical issues at home and abroad. The two presidents will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Points of Light movement, championed by the 41st president, and advance the United We Serve initiative of President Obama.

Michelle Nunn, CEO of Points of Light Institute and daughter of former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn noted in Huffington Post that “demand, idealism and presidential impact are leading American volunteerism to its…most important stage – the movement of service to a central role in our nation’s priorities.”

The bipartisan nature of America’s vibrant service movement is also reflected in the landmark Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act signed into law by President Obama earlier this year and pending Global Service Fellowship legislation introduced by Senators Feingold and Voinovich.

In a recent Brookings Global Views policy brief, “International Volunteer Service: A Smart Way to Build Bridges,” Lex Rieffel, Kevin Quigley and I articulate policy options for the new administration to advance President Obama’s call for engaging service on the global level. President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 called for turning “dialogue into interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action – whether it is combating Malaria in Africa, or providing relief for a natural disaster.”

Following the president’s Cairo speech, the administration assembled a laudable Global Engagement Initiative across the administration to implement and track results in scaling up initiatives of service and interfaith action. The potency of coupling American service with foreign assistance was documented in Indonesia and Bangladesh through successive Terror Free Tomorrow polls showing increased favorable ratings for our nation and decreased support for terrorism.

The Building Bridges Coalition has organized an impressive array of over 210 organizations dedicated to expanding American volunteerism internationally, as part of a new “Service World” policy coalition gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. This new “international service 2.0” incorporates NGOs and faith-based groups, universities and corporations as new development actors advocating multilateral service and achieving impacts on issues ranging from Malaria to peacebuilding and climate change.

A Foundation Strategy Group report commissioned by Brookings and Pfizer, “Volunteering for Impact” assessed best practices in the increasing array of international corporations engaging volunteers such as IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, GE Volunteers and Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows.

Around the globe, initiatives such as Cross Cultural Solutions and an emerging global service and peacebuilding alliance in hot spots from Kenya to Mindanao are giving substance to the president’s call in Cairo. The collaboration of Presidents Clinton and G.H.W. Bush on humanitarian assistance after the tsunami, and this week’s service dedication with the Obama administration and former President Bush, bode well for the bipartisan extension of our nation’s noble voluntary service traditions in the international context where they are urgently needed.