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Taking it Online: Foreign Policy from a Public Policy Perspective

February 3, 2020 ~

While the United States and American institutions are once again being tested with the impeachment trial of its President, the arguments, testimonies and commentaries have started to lay bare the many challenges in navigating complex public policy and administration, this has prompted renewed discussion and dialogue surrounding U.S. national security and foreign policymaking. The increased attention and scrutiny, though some unwelcomed, does provide opportunities to elevate discussions and further dialogue, to further assess and evaluate. To what extent the American public are able to process the information, data and evidence as presented by the various parties involved over the course of this trial, as it is not only a trial of a President, but also of his foreign policy, will be difficult to fully analyze or measure, but there is general agreement by scholars and practitioners that sustained and deep cuts to funding of U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid and assistance is reflecting on the United States’ standing and influence in the global arena. If the American public were not aware of these instruments of foreign policy before, they are likely aware of them now.


In this series of monthly blogs, I take this discussion online and welcome dialogue and views. Let us take several steps back to how foreign policy is defined and why we might start by revisiting the term “foreign”, particularly as we enter upon a new decade and continue to face a rapidly evolving global landscape that increasingly blur the lines between domestic and foreign affairs. We see evidence of this across many public policy domains aside from the obvious policies associated with global trade and commerce, science and technology, from public health to education and exchange to environmental health to sports and religion. Nowhere are the political boundaries more blurred than with the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the possible threat this virus has, which started across the globe in Hubei, China, but has clear implications and spreading among the states within the United States. This blurring is not news, as the American public in 2020 reflects a very diverse population that no longer defines domestic and foreign in the same way and that these two simple dichotomies fail to meet the current needs and expectations of the many dimensions of economic and social progress and development that an educated and tech-savvy population in an interconnected world strive for. The reference to a foreign policy or policies is woefully inadequate, but we won’t see use of this term going away any time soon. What we should expect to go away is the mindset that borders or walls will keep disease out.


The key actors engaged in foreign policymaking have also changed and multiplied. Traditionally, foreign policy has been crafted and carried out by the state or government of a country, not only by virtue of the rights and authorities of the Office of the President as its chief diplomat, but also extends to the tremendous resources needed to mobilize, pursue and enforce such policies. The United States stands apart in that the subnational levels of government wield enormous power and influence, which at times, has been at odds with the national government on foreign policy and practices. With the U.S. government continually paralyzed by continuing resolutions and partisan politics bolstered by a strong federalist tradition, it is no wonder that subnational governments have taken their own initiatives. Yet there are other actors outside of government flexing their power, including non-governmental organizations and private corporations as well as academic institutions, and even supra-governments like international organizations. These actors may not be domestic actors, but are they so foreign? The world and her people can no longer be defined using such absolute terms.


Foreign policy is a national security matter that has gone relatively unquestioned over the years; however, it is also at a more fundamental level, a matter of public policy and of valid concern to representative government. Securing the nation in these modern times goes beyond defense and armed forces and to state so is oversimplifying the reality of the times. The tools and instruments of foreign policy like public diplomacy, foreign aid and assistance, economic sanctions and trade barriers and tariffs, and the circumstances in which they should be deployed need to reflect multi-stakeholder views and equities. Approaching foreign policy in accordance with public policy enables and empowers transparency and accountability. Policy feedback (Mettler and Sorelle, 2014) is to enhance policy analysis by explaining how policy designs affect political actors and therefore governance, and policy process by explaining how existing policies affect the probability and design of future policies. Determining the right measures and what the thresholds are for success and failure are an integral part of the policy process, and foreign policy should be held to similar if not the same principles of accountability and transparency as other policy domains. After all, funds allocated to foreign policy are public funds and these are subject to Congressional oversight. Analysis and evaluation involve assessing, within a rigorous and systematic framework, the strengths and weaknesses of individual policies and programs, and organizations to improve their effectiveness, efficiency, and possibly value.


The below logic model illustrates in a visual way how knowledge, data and evidence in the public policy domains might feed into the available resources, priorities, goals and objectives of policymaking. In the process of decision-making, consideration of the viable foreign policy instruments contribute to possible outcomes, not displayed in any priority order and not exhaustive in this depiction. The faded borders denote outcomes that reflect more accurately the fact that we rarely experience absolutes. It is also important to note that the process in reality is a dynamic one, with actors acting and reacting to contexts and motivations as they emerge and evolve.


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