Foreign policy is hard. Really. Really. Hard. Public policy, generally speaking, foreign or domestic, local or national, big or small, by the very nature of its process, is not easy. So when we look at what is going on with the current administration’s efforts around governmental policy of every variety (a resounding failure in the First 100 Days), it is worrisome to imagine what comes next.
Before delving into the myriad reasons that foreign policy is so difficult, let’s consider one domestic policy issue that, while clear-cut in its desired outcome, was a very chaotic and drawn out process (State-by-State) with the Supreme Court making the final ruling: gay marriage. This will provide context for the difficulties encountered when leaving the home-land to work on hairy situations.
The crafting of domestic policy is an amalgam that often brings together actors with differing ideas about how to achieve the best outcome, based on their views surrounding the issue. The State of Minnesota used a ballot measure (2012, Minnesota Amendment 1) which allowed the voters to determine the outcome of marriage equality; and many other States used the courts to provide legal status for same-sex marriage, prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling. On one side of the divide was the group that opposed any legal recognition of same-sex couples’ unions. The opposing view held that societal laws have no role in restricting a gay/lesbian couple from carrying out their lives in the same way that hetero relationships are affirmed. Within each camp we found various degrees of difference (domestic partnerships, civil unions, etc, etc); but at the end of the day, one was either pro-marriage for all consenting adults, or anti-same-sex marriage. Even with an issue that was so clearly defined, the messiness and complexity of the legislative affairs and public maneuvering/posturing/messaging led to many heated debates, broken relationships, and fissures that have not yet been healed. And that’s just a taste of what happens in the recipe-making of local domestic policy affairs. Imagine working on this topic with Nigeria.
Foreign policy is a world unto itself. It is, like any policy matter, made more difficult when opposing beliefs or ideas require oppositional actors to find common ground (compromise). Additionally, barriers created by language, culture, and custom, conspire to increase the already difficult job of the principal negotiators. For these reasons, it is best to have learned, seasoned, professionals when attempting any type of serious foreign policy matter (Jared Kushner is not the walking embodiment of these requirements). And… the ability to place everything into the proper context is crucial.
Foreign policy requires a great deal of time and effort, again, like the domestic type, but more so. One can’t simply decide to negotiate arms treaties, agricultural assistance, economic development & trade, environmental concerns, human rights, conflict resolution, foreign aid, terrorism, and many other international public affairs of all form and fashion, without putting in years/decades of research into those matters. It is for this reason (the knowledge factor) that we should act with caution when making decisions that will affect people in multiple countries/world regions both directly and indirectly. The outcomes of these negotiations are potentially far more disruptive to the planet as a whole.
There are many countries with whom we share a long history and have therefore learned how to work together for mutual benefit. When it comes to working out trade deals with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Morocco, Japan, South Korea, China, and many of the countries of the Caribbean, Central, & South America, we usually know what to expect. We have been interacting with these governments for more than a century, in many cases. And, with a few exceptions by a diplomat or politician, we have maintained strong ties, making for fewer hang-ups in any potential agreement. That doesn’t mean that bargaining with these countries isn’t difficult, it just means that we are better prepared based on historical precedent and the faith that our deal-makers are up to speed on the economic conditions, popularity of elected officials, cultures, histories, values, mores, and customs/mannerisms in said country.
Conversely, conducting negotiations and treaties with governments that are not inclined to trust us, find our tactics oppressive or strong-armed, or simply don’t like our elected officials, can lead to obstacles at every turn. We’ve witnessed this play-out as long-standing feuds with established States and seen it happen with newly formed governments (post U.S. exit); the process is also more difficult when working with newly formed countries. With every new unknown comes the potential for error. Whether it is making a favorable reference to an unpopular member of a former administration, a translation gone awry, or a choice of clothing accessory, the pitfalls awaiting a delegation are plentiful. Working with governments that are neither similar in design nor sharing in all of the values/norms that our country adheres to can make for tough— really, really, tough, negotiations. This is the reality of governmental deal making across borders. To say it is different from making real estate/golf course/hotel deals, is to say, LeBron is a pretty average basketball player (and if you’re even thinking about speaking those words out loud, keep your pie hole shut).
Another issue that comes into play is “interests”. While we may have much in common with another nation, our interests are not always aligned with others’ national affairs. This can, and does, make it more difficult for the pundits and other non-actors to appreciate the final arrangement; both for what it accomplished and for what it didn’t unnecessarily involve. Sometimes it means giving up an incentive or condition in order to promote peaceful coexistence between other nations. Sometimes it means waiting longer than is necessary/recommended to take action, knowing that in the long-run, it often is the wise choice.
It is possible to condone while cooperating, control while compromising, and work toward win-win solutions, rather than playing a zero sum game.
We can’t afford to proceed down the path of reactionary policy measures. This not only destroys our ability to shape world affairs (which we must continue to do, given our current place in the global spectrum— whether we want to or not) but more importantly, it weakens us in the most important area of foreign policy negotiations, credibility. If we can’t be trusted, we have nothing. Our military might won’t save us if Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and 47 other countries decide that we are full of shit and no longer worth dealing with. Veracity must be a norm that is not compromised for short-term gains— and it must, absolutely has to, start at the top. This is not optional.
Addendum for anyone working with/near/for the administration:
Alessia Cara is not a foreign policy expert; however, she is a Canadian, born to Italian parents, and she makes music that mentions policy, albeit briefly. Maybe the new administration should take a listen to her music and see what they can glean from the syntax/lyrics. Wild Things Here I mean really, it can’t hurt.
And speaking of the 808 (Roland TR-808, mentioned by Miss Cara in “Wild Things”), here’s another policy lesson. When working on getting a piece of legislation passed, or making diplomatic inroads in a foreign country, one must have a good sense of when a policy window will open, and then have the ability to exploit the opening with Usain Bolt type speed. Listen for the starting gun, i.e. focus on what’s being said and who’s saying it. Kick it MCA… Hold it Now, Hit It.