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Taking it Online: Getting to Where to Engage in the World?

March 4, 2021 ~


In my June blog, “Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking”, I then suggested that leaders and decision-makers might rethink the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How. I’ve since expanded on the Who and the What. This month, I focus on the Where. Where depends largely on who you speak with and what you’re speaking about, but let’s explore two dimensions of the question of Where to engage in the world.


Where are the venues or fora for future engagements in this new normal to take place? It has become crystal clear that venues of the future will play out online, through video conferencing and social media and possibly even virtual reality one day. In-person meetings and formal conferences long expected of negotiators and interlocuters engaged in foreign policymaking have been disrupted. Pivoting foreign policymaking to encourage online dialogue and negotiations of agreements and treaties will require new technologies and infrastructure that is enabled by a secure and reliable environment. Take for example, portions of U.S. Secretary of State Blinken’s Virtual Trips to Mexico and Canada on February 26 broadcasted via Youtube. It was a good faith effort to profile virtual diplomacy at the highest levels of governments and offered a glimpse of the protocols that typically accompany such official visits.


What comes out of these virtual trips will fall to the designated officials for each of the countries represented for follow up and follow through. These officials may be thinking about how effective and impactful these virtual trips were and in particular, given the emphasis on foreign policy for the “middle class” under the Biden-Harris Administration, questions specific to the impact on middle class may be fitting. In what way did these meetings and engagements have a positive impact for the middle class and in what ways did they have a negative impact? How might these meetings relate to them? Not having been defined yet as far as I’m aware, I interpret “middle class” to be, at a minimum, gender-responsive and equity-focused. Framed in this way, we should be asking questions along the lines of the following:


· In what ways did these engagements contribute to gender-responsive and equity-focused policies, programs and practices?

· What gender-responsive and equity-focused policies, programs and practices might be considered in leading up to the next engagement or dialogue?


These questions are important to consider post-trip, but even more important to consider pre-trip. It remains to be seen if such virtual trips are possible with other countries considered less likeminded and how those relationships will be fostered and developed online with the middle class in mind. The foreign policy community, beyond the State Department, should also be able to look to its own employees for views and expertise that represent the middle class.


An example to highlight of how foreign affairs and policy may be more relatable for the middle class can be found at the local level. The City of Atlanta hosts 70 consular and trade offices of foreign governments and 30 bi-national chambers of commerce, and the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, pivoted to the virtual space, convening diplomatic meetings, most recently with the Consul General of Argentina and Ireland in Atlanta, holding business, educational, cultural and sports events online. This is one example of the creativity and innovative ways that cities have pivoted to the virtual environment. The above questions are relevant at this level too. Measuring the impact of conducting diplomatic engagements had been a challenge prior to COVID when these engagements took place in person. Certainly, measuring the impact of conducting virtual engagements is additionally challenging with technical glitches that may affect interpretation or translation, through verbal language or body language.


Another important dimension to consider is where of all the countries in the world is America to engage? In my opening paragraph, I stated that Where depends on Who you speak with and What you’re speaking about. There is divergence among today’s thought leaders as to what extent the government’s view on where to engage, where to intervene and where to join or withdraw in the case of international organizations and alliances, aligns with the views of the public or middle class Americans. Making the discourse so much more difficult to further is that seldom is the public or the middle class appreciated for its diversity and mix of views and certainly not to be underestimated. These are very complex questions that goes well beyond the scope of this blog, but are important to consider. From what we witnessed on February 18, might possibly the where be - Mars?


Regardless of the where, experience tells us and research studies suggest that ongoing and recurring feedback, assessment and evaluation can be helpful in recommending changes and alterations as the data and evidence are collected and considered to inform policymaking. In public management literature, Rainey and Jung (2014) challenge us to identify levels of goal clarity for different conditions and settings. Foreign policy goals in many shapes and sizes exist in the literature, but the measures and performance metrics, monitoring and evaluation criteria and contextual framework have not received nearly as much attention. The art and language of diplomacy and foreign policy can benefit a great deal from goal clarity and that this burden of responsibility will likely fall hard and heavy on public managers.


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