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Taking it Online: Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking

June 1, 2020 ~ On the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States woke up to a nation in terror, trauma and turmoil beyond belief. However incomprehensible and incomparable, the fact that these acts of terror took place on American soil and the anxiety that followed in the days, weeks, months and years after was immensely consequential to Americans and undoubtedly consequential to many individuals around the globe. I distinctly recall those defining first moments, days, weeks and months nearly 19 years later. Those were hard and difficult times that called much of what America stood for into question and, in hindsight, a realization of our vulnerabilities. Aid and assistance from U.S. allies during that uncertain time was unwavering and unequivocal. Much of America has since recovered, rebuilt and proven resilient.

Once again, Americans are questioning what we stand for as we face and are humbled that while we have wealth and power, we cannot overcome all threats. The COVID-19 pandemic and crisis has shaken our sense of peace, security and safety, though at extraordinarily different levels in comparison. As a growing number of local and state governments across America gradually eases public health restrictions and re-open businesses, there has been much discussion and ideas emerging around what the new normal might be and how we might do better as societies and on a more systemic scale. We risk repeating past errors in the absence of reflection and appropriate action to correct these mistakes. Private businesses and non-governmental organizations are leading the way, pivoting, not just in marketing and business development, but also in innovating business models and plans to this effect. The federal public sector is and has been slower to pivot, but these agencies are also gradually adapting and learning.

The U.S. foreign policy apparatus, too, is in critical need of a pivot and possibly even a reboot. Decision-makers must find a way to pivot foreign policymaking to reflect the new normal in which all of us are expected to function. Now is precisely the time to take up and ask tough questions outside of the proverbial box and to insist on bold, but actionable ideas. We should aim to ask probing questions of our leadership, such as the following:

· Which foreign policies and programs have worked in the past and would some of those lessons learned be applicable today?

· What are the roles/limitations of public institutions and international public institutions moving forward in the new normal of foreign affairs?

· In what ways can U.S. foreign policymaking pivot to advance results and outcomes that concurrently benefit all Americans and non-Americans?

To start answering these questions, leaders and decision-makers might rethink the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How.

Who – Stakeholders and actors involved in foreign policymaking and implementation have evolved over time. Statesmen represented states or nations in a now outdated paradigm and have paved the way for art, music and sports ambassadors and even youth and youth movements that have helped to influence the global agenda and mobilize change. These global influencers work through networks and not through nations. Suppose the United States takes a networks-centric approach as opposed to a nations-centric approach or some combination in the new normal.

What – The primary issues of international engagement and affairs, as a result of increasing globalization and interdependence, have become less visible, multi-dimensional and extremely complex. We’ve moved well beyond defense and physical security to cyber, climate and health security. Global crises, real and perceived, have shifted, from tangible to intangible factors. What foreign policy instruments and tools do we have or need to develop to respond to these new challenges?

Where – Where are the venues or fora for future engagements in the new normal to take place? Out of these incredible circumstances, it is 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 agreements and treaties will require new technologies and infrastructure that is enabled by a secure and reliable environment.

When – In the information age and high-speed interconnectedness, we’re expected to be on all the time, 24/7. Fortunately, the foreign policy community has mechanisms in place working from different time zones and accustomed to acting in crisis mode. As a result, there is little space or energy for mid- to long-term planning when priorities may be set and policies, programs and efforts evaluated for effectiveness and improvement. Pivoting foreign policymaking to a more proactive stance, rather than a reactive stance, creates an environment for better management and initiating change to keep up with issues as they emerge.

Why – Why is pivoting U.S. foreign policy important or even necessary? Not only because of the issues facing all of humanity, but also because of our values. U.S. participation and engagement in international affairs offers opportunities to employ expert and financial resources in pursuit of shared solutions to global problems. As the largest financial contributor to most international organizations and in foreign assistance and aid around the world, America will continue to have a strong interest, and stake, in international affairs.

How – How to pivot U.S. foreign policymaking to reflect the new normal will not be simple or easy. Those objects and outcomes truly worthwhile rarely are. The pivoting of U.S. foreign policymaking must include, at a minimum, a foreign policy community that represents the authentic diversity of America, inclusive and rich in perspectives, backgrounds and approaches, throughout the ranks. She can benefit not only from experts in foreign languages, political science and history, but also from public health, engineer and IT specialists. The successful launch of NASA/SpaceX shuttle over the weekend makes space diplomacy through public-private enterprises that much more real.

These are tough questions, among others, that we look to our leaders to take up and to chart a course for pivoting U.S. foreign policymaking in the new normal and beyond.

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