TCS Daily

Privatizing Foreign Policy

By Robinder Sachdev - June 21, 2004 12:00 AM

With all due apologies to Daniel Webster, some words need to be re-defined. Maybe we could start with the word "diplomacy". The classic definition of diplomacy as n. 1. The art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations (particularly in securing treaties), including the methods and forms usually employed is a mindset that needs reform to reflect the changed world of today, and the expected challenges of tomorrow.

The notion that relations among nations are guided by negotiations between plodding, methodical, and politically correct bureaus is a very correct one. Unfortunately it is also becoming archaic. Relations between nations today are guided by markets, free or yearning to be free; communications; and creativity. The classical notion of nations and territories, of courtiers and missives, and of formalistic engagement of nations, is a framework that needs renovation in the 21st century. Perhaps the last paradigm shift in diplomacy came around with World War II, when both the Allied and Axis powers realized the value of targeting the hearts and minds of people in enemy nations, and the art and science of propaganda joined the repertoire of tools of foreign relations during turbulent times.

Diplomacy has long been the preserve of the state -- and of an elite that attempted to carry the burden of national interests in global markets and communities. By and large the masses were content with the quality of their life in the New World, and did not wish, or need, to concern much with developments outside of America.

But times are changing. The battle now is for the hearts and minds at the grassroots in global communities, and not one of relation building with the state. Though some, or several, states may need to be prodded, most states worldwide are on the same side in the war on terror. Also, importantly, with the spread of democratic thought and information flows worldwide, grassroots are gaining clout in forcing the state in the conduct of its foreign relations. The traditional diplomatic method of placing the counterpart state at the center of the framework of foreign relations is no longer adequate.

It is a recognition of these constraints that is leading the US to focus on public diplomacy. From Congressional committees to appointing Madison Avenue executives, from funding media in the Arabic world, to enhanced engagements with think tanks worldwide. Unfortunately, there are assets going unused in this war for hearts and minds in foreign lands -- assets that have been overlooked due to the state-centric thinking of traditional diplomacy.

America is blessed with a wide range of ethnic communities, and there are hundreds of thousands of Americans working in foreign lands. These are two clear cut assets that have not been leveraged. The challenge is to harness both for the good of America, and the global community. These assets require a complete framework of thought, action, and synthesis with global aspirations.

Consider the asset class of ethnic communities in America. The majority of people in ethnic communities keep in touch or are concerned with happenings back home, and two-step communication links are often there. In addition, ethnic communities are perhaps best placed to understand and communicate between the culture of the US and the culture of the land of their forefathers as far as grassroots are concerned. The foreign affairs elite in both countries are often too absorbed in the esoteric. This asset class is ripe for picking. These communities in the US and the grassroots in the country of their origin have relationships; social, religious, and cultural exchanges; academic and research initiatives; business promotion and economic development; etc. But they remain fragmented and disorganized.

The next underutilized asset class is Americans working abroad. They have personal relationships with their counterparts, exchanges in the business, cultural, and social arenas, and a good understanding of the culture they operate in. Expatriates are less relevant for reaching the grass roots in foreign lands, but are more useful for having an ear to the ground. In addition, this asset can play a vital role in soft technology transfer, i.e. bringing ideas and intellectual capacity to the fast rising and entrepreneurial middle class in foreign countries.

From a philosophical perspective, advocacy for increased participation of the public in "public diplomacy" begs the question: if limited government is good, then why is foreign relations only the domain of the state? Granted the state has its obvious role, but a case can be made for increasing the private participation of the public in building bridges with and among nations.

The founding principal of The Imagindia Institute at New Delhi, the author is also a founding member of the Washington, DC-based US India Political Action Committee, and an Adjunct Faculty in communications at American University, Washington, DC.


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