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Taking it Online: When to Pivot U.S. Foreign Policymaking

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

April 6, 2021 ~

In Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking, I suggested that leaders and decision-makers might rethink the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How. I’ve since expanded on the Who, What and Where. This month, I consider the question of When to Pivot. The response, it would seem, in the information age with high-speed interconnectedness, immediate access to information around the clock and an Administration that has announced in very clear terms that America is back, to be Now. I suggested then that 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. Proactive is not the same as now. Hom and Beasley (2021), in their study on Brexit, asserts that timing theory changes their perspective on time, from a contextual factor to a tool available to foreign policymakers. Timing as a tool of foreign policymaking is specifically considered in this blog.

Attaching deadlines in international relations and foreign policy dates back to before the modern nation-state was established and can be used to penalize or discourage as well as reward or encourage and in reality, a mix of both have been used. On the former, talking points about the “endless” and “forever” wars of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia are relatively recent cases in point. As President Biden considers the looming May 1 deadline to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the context of his Administration’s “Diplomacy is back,” it may be helpful to consider the following questions and available evidence when pivoting:

  • Does U.S. foreign policymaking and American diplomacy stand to benefit from continued troops levels?

  • To what extent do the tools of U.S. foreign policymaking and diplomacy come as a benefit or cost to American taxpayers?

  • In what ways might a full troop withdrawal result in unintended consequences or civilian harm that exacerbates gender-imbalance and inequities that spill over to other countries in the region?

  • What are the criteria for enduring change towards peaceful and resilient societies in these countries?

  • Under what conditions of diplomacy, development and defense, might a timeline with interim milestones and monitoring be feasible to achieve some elements of change?

On establishing deadlines to reward or encourage, when the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015 by 193 member states to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they were met with mixed reviews from the international community (Pogge and Sengupta, 2015; Economist, 2015 and Renwick, 2015). The goals were designed to be ambitious and to draw attention to the urgency of the world’s economic and social development problems within an agreed upon framework. There was much interest and excitement following the adoption of the goals, and observers of the SDGs called on the developing, along with the developed countries, to take action to achieve the new Global Goals (Martinez and Mueller, 2015 and Donald and Way, 2016). With the benefit of hindsight, leaders in the international community hoped to do better with the next generation of goals which are to take us to 2030.

To make progress on these global matters, timing is not only a factor, but also a viable foreign and public policymaking tool. Consider how both allies and adversaries have used timing to take advantage of periods of transition or instability to further destabilize. As a way to counter these efforts, I return to my original thought on how pivoting foreign policymaking to a more proactive stance, rather than a reactive stance, creates an environment for strategic planning, better management and initiating change to keep up with issues as they emerge. This, no doubt, requires thoughtful study and analysis, so when to pivot needs to be backed by evidence, by data and by knowledge of the history and cultural context.

Another way to approach the question of When to Pivot, consider the Given-When-Then formula as follows:

  • Given the improved and stable social and economic conditions, When local conditions and buy in are present and its allies are supportive, Then the United States will fully withdraw troops.

  • Given the COVID-19 pandemic, When critical regional and global sentiments are integrated and Americans benefit, Then the United States will continue its support and endorsement of the 17 Global Goals.

  • When the policy status quo or pivot contribute to equitable and gender-responsive results, Then the United States will lead and promote these efforts through increased financial and human resources.

As we come up on Earth Day later this month, climate change is yet another global challenge in which timing and deadlines may be a viable foreign and public policymaking tool. Sustainable development has been of importance to local governments in the United States long before the UN SDGs, so local governmental attention to relevant SDGs seems an extension of existing priorities and efforts to coalesce around these global issues. U.S. civil society has historically played a critical role in advocating for social change in the United States, and many nongovernmental organizations have undertaken a range of activities and initiatives in support of the Global Goals that are based on different models of partnerships. For Earth Day 2021, I encourage you to check out the Nature Conservancy’s virtual event “Change Starts Here” to recognize and celebrate these environmental heroes.

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