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Educating Americans to Think about Foreign Policy

Sep 25, 2012 Written by  Ronald E. Neumann, Guest Contributor

Educating Americans about Foreign Policy“The basic problem is that we don’t have our priorities straight.” This statement has recurred frequently as the Arab Spring unfolded but it has been applied to other foreign policy issues as well. More often than not, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy and the real tasks of diplomacy.

The United States rarely has the luxury of being able to have one priority that trumps all others. In the case of Egypt’s ongoing struggles the U.S. has a clear interest in democracy. It has an interest also in safeguarding the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that has avoided major war between these powerful countries for over 40 years. And keeping the Suez Canal open to oil shipments, so vital to the economic wellbeing of individual Americans, is so clearly a legitimate interest that any administration would be deeply faulted for imperiling it. Thus the task of effective United States diplomacy is to advance all U.S. interests, sometimes giving one more weight than another but never losing sight of the fact that all need to be pursued.

The example of Russia helps make the point. We have differences over human rights. We need Russian cooperation to pressure Iran on nuclear matters, to find a solution to Syria, to work on North Korea, deal with climate control and a host of other issues. This list does not and should not mean that human rights issues fall to the bottom of the list. What it does exemplify is that no single list of priorities can do justice to our national interests or the requirements of our diplomacy.

Not understanding the issue of managing priorities and advancing interests is only one of the ways in which many seem to be poorly educated about the realities of foreign affairs and diplomatic work. At a seminar jointly organized by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the International Center for Jefferson Studies numerous former senior diplomats now teaching at the university level reported that their students have difficulty formulating simple “what is to be done” responses. Even more difficulty is encountered when students are asked to describe how to make a policy work. How would they overcome the obstacles to a recommended policy posed by other nations and interest groups?

In a brief period of my own teaching I found similar problems. The papers I asked for were generally some version of “what policy would you have chosen to deal with x and how would you have implemented the policy and overcome opposition.” My students told me they enjoyed the challenge of thinking in this way but it was new to them. They were graduate students of international affairs and had never been asked to think about how to make a policy work.

The frequency with which these problems occur even at the graduate student level suggests problems with the way international affairs is currently taught. When students are asked to think about policy only within the limited context of what one “ought to want” they are not being taught to think realistically about achieving policy goals. Even worse, they are being directed in a way that encourages cynicism. I say this because when one learns to speak of desired policy only in terms of an ideal good or of a single issue priority then all too often the next step is to decide that ideal policies are not carried out because of hypocrisy, or an underperforming bureaucracy, or some conspiracy or lobby. All those things may exist but the first step ought to be to consider whether the policy chosen was remotely realistic. Were the means in place—whether time, or money, or allies, or commitment—to make it work? Is or was it really reasonable to push aside complicating, additional policy interests?

The point is not that every policy is justified or every interest good. Nor is it that the world must always be accepted as it is. It is simply that more discussion of policy needs to include an examination of how it can be implemented. More realism about implementation and about how to pursue legitimate but conflicting interest would make for a more informed and a less cynical foreign policy discussion. Teaching students to think at this level of reality needs more attention in our universities.

Now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Ronald E. Neumann served as U.S. Ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan and was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.

Tagged under Egypt    Russia    Israel    Suez Canal    North Korea    Syria    American Academy of Diplomacy    universities    graduate    bureaucracy    Algeria    Bahrain    Afghanistan   


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