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The Challenges to a Shared Problems Approach to Foreign Policy

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

Theoretically, there is no question that a “shared problems” approach is a wise strategy for linking civil and political with economic rights, and for promoting social development as well as human rights in both Asia and the United States. But there are real difficulties in terms of moving that set of insights into the policy-making process, particularly in today’s policy environment. And so I would like to pose an operational question: How do you nudge the U.S. government toward a shared problems approach? I have some recommendations, but first let me lay out what I believe are the obstacles to this approach.

One is that, with the exception of labor rights, which have immediate and obvious implications for our foreign as well as our domestic economic policies, there is a serious lack of connection in daily policy making between foreign and domestic policy. People in the State Department do not usually have contact with people in the Department of Housing and Human Services, for example. There is no regular or routine communication to support a shared problems approach. Indeed, it is alien to those working within the U.S. government because the bureaucracy is so large and so specialized.

Second—and this is delicate, but it merits some candor—members of the American professional class in the 1990s are not as mobilized for activism on issues of economic and social justice as they were in the 1960s. Foreign-policy makers therefore feel no particular domestic push for a shared problems approach. It would take considerable choreography to bring these arms of policy together, because these communities are less connected than they once were. Americans who are concerned with economic and social justice in the United States often move in very different circles from those concerned with foreign policy issues, and vice versa.

The third difficulty is that the more a government focuses on a problem, the more that problem is likely to become “official,” and essentially taken over by the government. I am a fervent believer in nongovernmental organizations and in NGO-government linkages, some of which need to be reconfigured in this country. But we have seen that many policy objectives that in the 1980s were handled indirectly, and in my view more circumspectly, through NGOs have suddenly become official foreign policy priorities in the 1990s. This has several drawbacks, not the least being that the United States feels obligated as a result to take a megaphone approach in instances where a quieter one would be more useful.

That said, there are three things that can be done immediately to encourage the U.S. government to include a social dimension in its foreign policy agenda. Some of them need to be jumpstarted by groups outside government. First, the U.S. human rights community, both in and out of government, needs to be engaged in direct dialogue with Asian counterparts about the shared problems approach. In my opinion, it will not come naturally to some quarters of that community. Ironically, in certain instances the U.S. human rights community might even be against such an approach, not only because of the time lines and the policy instruments involved, but also because it has developed advocacy styles that are quite different from those used in social development issues.

At its best, human rights policy can be flexible and responsive to problems as they arise. At its worst, it can be ad hoc and unable to deal with long-term or even mid-term approaches. My reading of the shared problems approach—which tries to connect human rights across the board with social development, and tries to link civil and political rights with economic rights—is that it is really a longer-term approach than some in the U.S. human rights community would like it to be. So U.S. government human rights functionaries as well as human rights NGOs will have to be persuaded of the ultimate value of the approach, requiring some frank talk about trade-offs. While pursuing a single-policy objective is difficult, following a multipronged policy is even more so because of the built-in tensions between short-term and long-term approaches. A dialogue with the human rights community should seek to identify mid-term activities and viewpoints that are acceptable to all.

Second, although it’s paradoxical, the bilateral policy apparatus is more likely to be useful in a shared problems approach than the global issues bureaus. From my experience in a State Department global bureau, I know that it is logistically impossible to take a focused, integrated approach to a problem when one is rushing from a meeting on Kenya to one on Russia to one on the Philippines, all within an afternoon’s work. Regional bureaus, on the other hand, exist to put various issues together for a given country or region, in order to make e our foreign policy more coherent and consistent.

However, the U.S. government does have an ongoing mechanism that would fit the shared problems approach very well. That is the Common Agenda process, which at the present time is only used for Japan in the Asia region (although it is also used with Russia, Ukraine, and South Africa). Under the Common Agenda framework, the United States and another government agree to meet once a year for dialogue on a range of issues, some of them social, environmental, and economic. NGOs may be included in some sessions. With Japan, the emphasis is on coordinating donor assistance rather than on identifying problems common to Japan and the United States, but this framework could be expanded to include domestic issues. Asian governments, NGOs, and Americans who are concerned with U.S.-Asia relations could press the U.S. government to apply the common agenda mechanism to several Asian countries. It is easily done: it is not expensive, it is addressed organizationally at the working level, and it would provide an ongoing, rather than an ad hoc, way to handle these issues. In sum, the common agenda process is the best short-term solution for institutionalizing a shared problems approach at the government level.

Finally, on the subject of nongovernmental organizations, for several decades the U.S. government has had a very good mechanism for using NGOs to mutual advantage in foreign affairs. Unfortunately, this mechanism is significantly underutilized. Known legally as quasi-nongovernmental organizations, “quangos” receive funds from Congress to use for programs of their own design, although they consult with the executive branch on overall policy goals. They plan and implement programs with a long-term perspective and tackle issues too sensitive for official relations. One of this conference’s sponsors, the U.S. Institute of Peace, is a quango.

Quangos have very definite advantages in achieving solutions to shared problems, particularly those organizations that work in the field and maintain a field presence. They can handle high-profile issues in a low-key way and reach out to both host country governments and nongovernmental organizations. Admittedly, less foreign-assistance money is spent on government-to-government aid now, and more is being channeled through NGOs by the U.S. Agency for International Development. However, in the majority of such programs, the framework is defined and designed by USAID. A quango arrangement enables the U.S. government not only to apply funds to a particular problem, but also to enable civil society organizations to bring their own experience and judgment to the problem. Taken together, the common agenda and quango models could form the foundation of a solid new social dimension to U.S. foreign policy.

Read More: Justice, Global Economic Justice, Human Rights, Labor Rights and the Global Economy, U.S. Foreign Policy, United States

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