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Taking it Online: Why Pivoting Should be at Center of U.S. Foreign Policy Strategy

June 10, 2021 ~


A year ago this month, I started a series of blog posts around the topic of “Pivoting U.S. Foreign Policymaking”, meant to revisit the Who, What, Where, When, Why and ultimately How, in the context of rapidly evolving global health, economic, environmental and social equity crises. In this month’s blog and with the benefit of hindsight and insights gained from the past year, I further examine the Why – Why Pivoting Should be at Center of U.S. Foreign Policy Strategy. Why is pivoting U.S. foreign policy important or even necessary let alone be center of U.S. foreign policy strategy?


In revisiting the Who, What, Where and When, it is clear to me that a pivot is needed and not only for America, but the world. The threats and dangers as assessed by the Intelligence Community in the ODNI-released April 2021 report are serious and far-reaching as well as cautionary. 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. And that is precisely why pivoting should be at center of U.S. foreign policy strategy.


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines pivot: as a Noun, a usually marked change; as an Adjective, turning on or as if on a pivot; and as a Verb: to adapt or improve by adjusting or modifying (something such as a product, service or strategy). We know and openly acknowledge that we cannot apply the same set of tools to solve new problems and yet we continue to do so.


Let’s take as an example, the U.S. budget process as an integral part of policymaking. The President’s first Budget Request tends to be much anticipated, even though many policy experts consider this document to be largely symbolic. Read the FY22 Budget Request Fact Sheet and a more expansive Budget Request with summary tables for awareness, and for the nitty-gritty details, visit the individual budget requests at the department and agency level. One clear takeaway is the significant level of investment across the board, which should not be surprising, given the Biden-Harris Administration’s immediate priorities. The State-USAID Congressional Budget Justification proposes an 11% increase over the FY21 enacted level and reflects the Administration’s priority to restore America’s standing in the world.


Analysis of the budget request are available from a variety of think tanks, advocacy groups and academic institutions with a range of views, to support and to criticize. It seems to me too soon to fully support or to criticize as we know that many of these complex matters take time to define, negotiate, implement, and monitor and evaluate before the impact of these changes may be fully realized. Testimony by Secretary Blinken to House Committees on Appropriation and Foreign Affairs earlier this week provided a glimpse of what we can expect to see in terms of foreign policy strategy and associated resources under the Biden-Harris Administration, an approach that looks to largely continue operating from the same assumptions as before. More special envoys, offices and personnel as well as funds does not make for automatic success as these tend to compete against each other for limited attention as well as resources. More money doesn’t always fix problems, especially if you’ve not understood the problem and the factors at play.


Of note in terms of a possible pivot is the Secretary’s strong opening statement on performance and use of evidence. This emphasis introduced at the beginning of the CBJ is encouraging as it is a departure from the tradition of being buried throughout the document. This aligns with the Administration’s earliest announcements to restore trust in government through scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking. Having made this very public statement, Secretary Blinken can look to his deputies and senior leadership in place to implement these pivots and changes over the course of the next three months, six months and a year from now.


Around the same time that the President’s Budget was released, new legislation introduced by the House, called the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement “EAGLE” Act and by the Senate, called the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act “USICA being considered and put forward as attempts to respond to the perceived global domination by China or the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While in concept and theory, these two specific pieces of legislation are generally good investments of the American people and does contribute to taking a position in a foreign policy strategy, the language used is overly state-centric and does little to leave room to pivot from this position should the need arise. Words and tone matter for diplomats, but also for you and me and those of us who are not officials, but still represent some part of America.


Certainly not a direct comparison, but let us not forget the hard and painful lessons of WWII when Japan was seen as the threat. It was official U.S. government policy then to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor attacks, but is today widely considered one of the worst U.S. violation of civil rights. We are still trying to overcome those racially charged biases from that era and we face new ones from this era. Our position of strength continues to be our people and all the diversity that we bring. The liberties and freedoms that were hard fought and won are due to many whose lives were lost in combat overseas, but also to many more lives lost in fighting the good fight here at home.


China may be an adversary today in technology, but it must be an ally tomorrow in public health and ensuring for pivoting as center of U.S. foreign policy strategy not only reflects the American inventive and innovative spirit, but also speaks to a constantly evolving and changing global arena.

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