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Taking it Online: Foreign Policy and Public Audiences

March 2, 2020 ~

Last month, I wrote about foreign policy from a public policy perspective. This month, I write about foreign policy and public audiences, that is, audiences with backgrounds and whose expertise are not in national security and foreign affairs, but are predominantly in domestic matters and affairs. These members of the public are the audiences not familiar with the vernacular or jargon of international relations. Many of these members of the public are the audiences who believe the U.S. federal government is already removed, let alone other countries yet more distant. These members of the public are the audiences who make up the vast majority who don’t own passports and won’t likely own passports in the near future. So, why should the national security and foreign policy community bother to speak to and with these audiences?


I was reminded of why it remains important to speak to and with these audiences at last week’s inaugural event of the Quincy Institute on Responsible Statecraft and in partnership with Foreign Policy and others. The forum entitled “A New Vision for America in the World” pulled together an interesting program and attracted what looked to be a diverse audience of a few hundred. Many in the audience as well as on stage were familiar to international relations and foreign policy, but it became clear that the ideas expressed were not especially new, though climate change as a key issue was repeatedly raised as one of the foremost issue of our times and rightly so. It was also clear that there’s still much blame to go around, pointing to retired generals to politicians to foreign policy experts, who were perceived and continue to be perceived as silent in speaking up against endless wars with huge implications for U.S. domestic welfare and the overall cost to American public health, education and the environment. As the afternoon wore on, it became more clear that there is still considerable group think as neither the audience who raised questions during Q&A nor the invited speakers brought in perspectives for a new vision. The closing session on ending endless wars was probably the most illuminating, prompting discussion on how the term war itself has been defined too loosely and ought to be revisited. As a result, the theme of a new vision didn’t quite meet expectations for me – envisioning a new approach can’t really be done persuasively through similar, if not same pairs of eyes, seeing from a relatively privileged stance and from endowed think tanks, academia and government institutions based in or around the nation’s capital, particularly when the rest of the country is looked upon to sacrifice with “blood and treasure.”


What happens with many of these types of fora is that that there is little follow up and follow through, but as a three-month old organization, however, the Quincy Institute has momentum and energy on its side as an emerging think tank and potential amplifier in advocating for “responsible statecraft”. I’d like to hear more about what the Quincy Institute means by responsible and statecraft. If I were to assess or evaluate for the effectiveness and impact of this inaugural event, some of the questions I would want to ask of the Institute and its partners might be:


· What was the purpose, goals, objectives of this event?

· In what ways were they achieved? Not achieved?

· Who were the target audiences?

· To what extent were the audience members influenced by the dialogue?

· Why did audience members attend and for which sessions?

· How was the effectiveness or impact measured and with what metrics?

· What are the unintended consequences?


These are a sampling of questions for consideration. We know that what drives questions will largely be driven by the audience and what motivates them, but we also know that questions can be framed in such a way to lead and mislead and that questions asked in a certain order can influence how audiences answer.


I spent my most formative years outside the beltway, in Minnesota and South Dakota, in small towns that are predominantly agricultural-based and then on to Iowa for university and Kentucky for graduate studies and eventually to Washington, DC for work. I often think of family and close friends in these states and how foreign affairs and policy might mean to them and the implications for these policies and programs. How do U.S. foreign policies and programs impact agriculture and farming and the livelihood of farmers and their families in these regions of the country? Similarly, what is the impact on education for teachers and their students as well as on public health for doctors and nurses and their patients? A lot has been written about how much aid and assistance is spent in engaging foreign audiences, but relatively little about how much is invested in engaging American audiences. Engaging and drawing from American audiences helps prepare the United States to engage with foreign audiences. One example of a program designed to engage American audiences is the State Department’s Diplomat in Residence (DIR) program, which places diplomats on rotation at various academic institutions throughout the United States, but there are only 16 DIR’s who cover all 50 states, primarily to promote careers in the U.S. foreign service. I’m pleased to see that State is recruiting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on March 3 at the Business, Industry and Government Career and Internship Fair. Indeed, there are many American public audiences and if speaking to and with these divergent audiences is unrealistic, perhaps the next best thing for the national security and foreign policy community to do is speak as if they would be addressing public audiences, in terms that provide more clarity and are presented in context.


Public diplomacy examples are compelling stories and offer some of the most impactful lessons. It is not only important to speak to public audiences, including those who don’t or won’t agree with you, but it is a necessity in a representative democracy. To learn from past errors, there must be honesty in how foreign policy decisions were made, with what information and under what circumstances. Reflecting on this during Women’s History Month, I highlight the contributions of Eleanor Chelimsky, who is recognized for her four decades plus work in evaluation at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And in closing on more common ground, I celebrate March as National Reading Month. Dr. Seuss still has it right after all these years, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”


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