Traveling Geopolitically on Campobello Island: A Case Study in Bilateral Public Diplomacy

When a North American or European reader thinks of traveling “geopolitically”, they are likely imagining travel to relatively distant locales.

In 2018, George Friedman – the CEO of Geopolitical Futures (GPF), and formerly Stratfor – wrote an article called “Traveling Geopolitically”. The article, per its title, suggests that one way to evaluate a geopolitical situation is through on-the-ground travel and observation. When a North American or European reader thinks of traveling “geopolitically”, they are likely imagining travel to relatively distant locales – to Southeast Asia, to the Middle East, and so on. Yet America’s near abroad, which includes Canada, provides ample opportunities for geopolitical travel. One key example of this opportunity is Campobello Island, a small slice of Canada’s New Brunswick province that is more accessible by automobile from the United States than Canada; and which touts its historical significance as host to the vacation home of former United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This history is honored by the Roosevelt Campobello International Park – its existence an exercise in bilateral Public Diplomacy between Canada and the United States.

The museum at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park is one of the many items in both countries’ shared diplomatic toolkit. It exists principally to remind both American and Canadian visitors of each country’s strong and lasting bond with the other. This is conveyed largely through a discussion of the legacy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, the museum does not only address through biographical film and visual aids the life of America’s long-serving wartime president, but also Canada’s alliance with the United States in broad historical context. This includes, for example, Canada’s extension of hospitality to U.S. air travelers left stranded during 9/11. The museum is, in short, a masterful exercise in bilateral Public Diplomacy between two allied states.

Both countries fought as allies in two world wars. Both are signatories to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which replaced NAFTA in 2020 as the key free trade agreement between the three countries. Unlike the heavily securitized U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S.-Canada border is the easiest for citizens of either country to cross. The border officials in each country often will not even stamp the passports of travelers from the other. Additionally, both countries are not only founding members of NATO, but also the only two NATO members in North America. Historically, the two countries share a bond, which the staff at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park are eager to educate visitors on. The park is funded by the governments of both countries, and the staff consists of citizens of both countries. As such, Roosevelt Campobello International Park is the principal cultural site of interest on Campobello Island.

A visit to Campobello Island is therefore a worthy exercise in traveling geopolitically – not only for the Roosevelt Campobello Island International Park, which forms the island’s cultural centerpiece, but also to observe other geopolitical aspects of this small slice of New Brunswick province. For example, visitors will notice American and Canadian flags displayed side by side outside of residential buildings, a testament to the island’s cultural in-between space, drawing on residents and cultural influences from both Canada and the United States. Visitors will also observe that most of the street signs are bilingual, in English and French; indeed, New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that has chosen to become voluntarily bilingual. This can be contrasted with the bordering province of Quebec – while known for its Francophone population, institutional support for the French language has long been controversial and Quebecois separatist movements have rallied around linguistic nationalism. This is less the case in New Brunswick. On Campobello Island in particular, visitors will catch a glimpse of a locale that has embraced a multinational and multilingual identity. As such, Campobello Island is a location that provides a perfect opportunity to travel geopolitically for Canadians and Americans alike. Those from neither country could also benefit from studying this location if they wish to learn from on-the-ground experience about Canada’s history of multilingualism, or its history of bilateral cooperation with the United States.

It is, of course, to be hoped that most people with any sort of civic education engage in this sort of thoughtful “geopolitical” travel when crossing national borders. Yet the civic perspective entertained when traveling abroad often appears limited, especially from Americans. Consider the profile of Americans who have left home soil for any length of time – usually book-smart (and not often street-smart), well-educated, cosmopolitan, and self-critical. These Americans tend to focus, when traveling or living abroad, on reinforcing their own biases.

Americans abroad are generally interested in seeing how much the residents of whatever country they visit or live in dislike “Ugly American” tourists; they tend to seek out enclaves of foreigners who share their criticisms of American foreign policy as a hubristic Imperial project; they travel with confirmation bias that tells them the grass is greener (particularly where social policy is concerned) in various portions of Europe, Latin America, or Asia; and they tend to seek out criticisms from locals directed against whoever the United States president is at the time, or against whichever major American political party the American abroad least favors. Yet this quest for assisted self-flagellation betrays not only a narrow worldview, but a failure of civic education to instill in Americans a comprehension of their country’s difficult role in the world. Specifically, a role in which the entropic pull of foreign entanglements via trade and conflict is frankly inescapable.

A day’s travel to Campobello Island should, at least temporarily, put some of these biases to rest. Americans visiting the island will be reminded of their country’s long history of cooperation with Canada, their fellow founding NATO member and USMCA signatory to the north; Canadians will be reminded of the legacy of assistance and support with which both countries have provided one another over the years and decades. A visit to Campobello Island in New Brunswick province provides an education in bilateral public diplomacy, especially if a visitor cares to see the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Thus, Campobello Island provides a perfect excuse to – in George Friedman’s words – travel geopolitically.

Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur
Adam Arthur holds a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University, along with a Graduate Certificate in Intelligence Studies. He is an alumnus of internships with Horizon Intelligence and the U.S. Department of State's Virtual Student Foreign Service program. He is a regular contributor to short-term projects for Wikistrat and for United Nations Volunteers online assignments.