Localizing U.S. Foreign Policy, with Kristina Biyad

Sep 22, 2023 33 min listen

What does "foreign policy for the middle class" look like on the ground three years into President Biden's policy to integrate global and local concerns? Foreign Policy for America Foundation's Kristina Biyad joins Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev to discuss her new report "Intermestic Policy Initiative: Local Perspectives on U.S. Foreign Policy."

Biyad spent two years traveling, visiting five cities across the U.S. to speak with a diverse array of community leaders about what issues keep them up at night and how their concerns resonate globally. Her key takeaway: Local participants are eager to partner in developing outcome-driven and locally informed foreign policy recommendations. How will this movement reshape the way foreign policy decisions get made in the future?

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NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming today in a moment Kristina Biyad, the outreach director from the Foreign Policy for America Foundation (FP4A), who will be speaking with us about a new report that she has produced based on her work around the country looking at the connections between domestic and foreign policy.

Nick, I am so excited to speak with Kristina because of our own outreach on this this fall. I want to tell our audience a little bit about it. We are back from Texas and going to Denver.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That’s right. We were hosted by The Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M and had a great conversation there which I think gave us some food for thought about concerns about America’s global engagement and how this ties into issues that they are facing in the Southwest, everything from migration to climate change to economic development and energy policy.

This coming week we are off to Metropolitan State University of Denver with a special focus on examining doorstep questions from the perspective of different communities and different groups that may lead to very different prescriptions for what America ought to be doing in the world based on where you live and what communities you belong to.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Now we are going to ask Kristina what she saw in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Kristina. We are so excited to learn more about your report "Intermestic Policy Initiative: Local Perspectives on U.S. Foreign Policy" because it dovetails so closely with the work that we are doing here at The Doorstep in trying to understand what local communities need and want from our government but also how they are connected globally. Your work in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami is something that we want to hear about and talk about today.

Maybe you can set the stage because some of our audience may not have seen the report yet. Maybe you can give us a little bit of background on how you came up with the concept and where it fits within the Foreign Policy for America Foundation and give us the lay of the land of when these interviews happened too—how recent are they, especially as we look ahead to an election year.

KRISTINA BIYAD: Thank you so much for having me. It is a pleasure to be here with you both.

At the Foreign Policy for America Foundation our motto is that foreign policy starts here at home, and it is this idea that Americans across the country need to be invested in the foreign policy that we are creating here in Washington, DC. About four-and-a-half years ago when I stumbled upon Foreign Policy for America we were a relatively new organization. I was drawn into this idea that foreign policy starts here at home. I have always been in the foreign policy space working overseas or with folks overseas, not necessarily thinking about how the work we were doing was impacting Americans across the country. Of course it was a relatively politically charged time, and I was interested in understanding how we could translate some of this stuff we were working on for Americans.

This idea that foreign policy starts here at home is really what sparked the idea for us for the intermestic project. We tried to think about how do we talk to Americans across the country about foreign policy issues and what issues should we focus on. We wanted to ask: What are the issues that people care about?

A lot of times people feel disconnected from U.S. foreign policy and the foreign policy establishment and are more focused on domestic issues, but we started to think about these issues that cut across the traditional boundaries of foreign and domestic policy—which is where the word “intermestic” came from—things like climate change, immigration, and public health, things that affect local communities and feel a bit more real for everyone. We decided to set out across the country and have conversations with local stakeholders in the cities that you mentioned to talk about those issues, understand how they were presenting themselves locally, and try to understand how they were thinking about these issues and how they were impacting their communities and their lives.

We did not force the issues on anyone. We did not say, “We’re going to talk about these five intermestic issues.” We actually started off the conversations that we had with two very simple questions: What keeps you up at night, or what is an opportunity that you want to seize? That gave people a lot of space to share the core issues that are impacting their communities. Then we listened. We spent a lot of time listening to those answers and then trying to pull out those intermestic issues and start moving forward with the conversation.

These conversations happened between 2021 and 2022. They all started with us going out to these cities ourselves, sitting down locally with leaders, getting to know them, and asking the types of questions that I mentioned. The second half of it included some virtual roundtables where we connected a lot of those local leaders with DC-based policymakers working on each of those issues.

I have to say I am proud of Foreign Policy for America leading in this space and trying to understand the way that foreign policy impacts people across the country, and I am proud to be building a community of folks across the country who want to engage on foreign policy. I think it makes our foreign policy stronger and makes our country safer if we start to build the foreign policy community that we need that is representative of local leaders across the country.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The description you gave of the choice of the term “intermestic” is interesting. We had Nahal Toosi from Politico as one of our first guests on The Doorstep when we got started, and it seems to align with her concept of “omnipolicy,” that there are these issues that do not neatly fit into a domestic or foreign policy silo, so it is interesting to see that that discussion is moving forward in many different areas.

In these regions that you traveled to where you had these listening sessions, these dialogues, and you made these connections, did you get a sense from people on the ground that they feel that these considerations are in fact being listened to in Washington or that the Washington approach to foreign policy is going to be more informed by these local perspectives?

KRISTINA BIYAD: That is a great question. Sadly the answer is no in the earlier aspects of our conversations and the earlier timeframe. It took a lot of time for us to build trust and to establish ourselves for local stakeholders to trust us enough to even come into a room. Now it is on us to continue to hold their trust by delivering, by making sure that our colleagues here in D.C. are actually listening to some of these perspectives and are actively going out to connect with these communities in growing the project.

I think over time I have seen their optimism grow of how much we are listening to those local perspectives, but early on there was a disconnect. I had a lot of folks say to me, “This sounds great, thanks for reaching out, but nothing that I do is related to foreign policy.”

One example was a reverend I think outside of Dallas. I invited her to join the conversation, and she told me, “My work is not related to this at all.” Meanwhile she is working on anti-racism work, racial equity, and racial justice locally, and that is an important aspect of U.S. foreign policy and having to push people to say: “Look, we want to build an anti-racist foreign policy. This is a part of it. We want you at the table. We want to hear your perspective.” People did not see the connection all the time, and they still feel like there is a disconnect between their everyday lives and what foreign policy decision makers are doing, but I do think we have a good shot at changing that if we continue to listen to their perspectives and engage them.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is interesting, and I wonder if it is because the definition of foreign policy does not engage people, or the term “foreign” just seems too foreign. In your report the concepts that you touch on—let’s just take immigration. I am based in New York City, and all we talk about are the asylum seekers here.

All we are talking about now—in fact, when I looked up Biden’s work visas for thousands of Venezuelans, all the people who were covering it from Milwaukee to Chicago to The New York Post were all local daily newspapers because it impacts our worker population in the city.

I wonder if there is something more we can do to say: “Hey, maybe this is not foreign policy. Let’s find a different word because this is your neighbor or your potential employee because there is a labor shortage.” That resonated through your report, this idea that especially business leaders know that it impacts them, but also education and housing. It impacts every aspect of life here in New York City. We have been having protests here in New York City because I don’t think people understand that connection, which you do point in the report, that the policies, like sanctions, that are made at the federal level really do impact the local level. As you think about your report, its impact, and discussions, have you thought about redefining this idea of “foreign” and that in fact it is not foreign at all?

KRISTINA BIYAD: Yes. That is why I appreciate the word “intermestic.” It is probably not going to stick across the world. I am not naïve in thinking that we are going to have people who are intermestic policy experts, but it is an important word to me for us to continue to us because it throws some of those definitions out the window, and we are talking about issues that impact people’s lives. If immigration impacts your local economy, it is a personal issue. It is a kitchen table issue. If they are connected to those day-to-day issues that are keeping you up at night or standing in the way of different opportunities you want to seize, those are kitchen table issues. Those are your day-to-day issues that you want to address.

If we had all the time in the world and all the resources in the world, there were so many issues that could have fallen into this category of intermestic, and there are so many sub-issues within the broader ones that we explored, like misinformation, cyber and tech more broadly, the rise of artificial intelligence and the way that is impacting education systems and raising your family.

Those are all issues that we cannot just address alone as the United States. They are global issues, but they are also kitchen table issues. They are also the things that are keeping people up at night, and I think as foreign policy experts or foreign policy makers we want to make sure we are making that connection with people.

We can continue to look at it as a global issue because we have to. We do have to work with the international community to address a lot of these issues, but we want to talk to people about it in a way that makes sense to them, in a localized and domestic way. We do not want to talk about cybersecurity in the way we might in a thinktank conversation. Talking about cybersecurity is about keeping your grandma safe online and keeping your kids safe online. It has to be about the core kitchen table issues, and then we can still look at it as a global issue that requires global solutions.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that is a great point, the kitchen table and doorstep connectivities for these types of issues.

I did want to ask you a bit about the Miami meetings that you had and Dallas as well. We just came back this past week from a Carnegie Council Doorstep engagement that was hosted by The Bush School at Texas A&M, and something I was struck by was the sense that if the U.S. Capitol was located in a different place than D.C. you might have a different perspective.

In Texas—and I assume you found the same thing in Miami—these are the parts of the country which engage with the larger Hispanosphere. They think much in terms of the United States being intricately interconnected with Latin America in a way that may not be the overarching perspective in Washington, which tends to think horizontally, across the oceans, rather than vertically.

Are you getting a sense from the work that you have been doing and with this report that different parts of the country have different foreign policy orientations in a way that U.S. foreign policy, instead of being seen at the country level, we may need to be thinking about multiple U.S. foreign policies for different regions of the country?

KRISTINA BIYAD: That is a great question. Miami, South Florida more broadly, and Dallas as well are very unique places. I am so grateful for the local stakeholders we connected with there because they helped us to understand those local nuances that you do not get when you are not from there or do not spend a lot of time there. If it was not for them, I would not have any of this knowledge. I just want to put that out there.

I will start with Miami and South Florida. We worked with an incredible woman there, Evelyn Perez-Verdia. She runs a group called We Are Más, which works with the Latin American diaspora in Miami and South Florida and really across the world. She says two great things, and I will paraphrase. She says: “Folks in the diaspora see U.S. policies through the lens of the country of their origin, where they come from, whether it is the family they grew up with here in the States or the country that they emigrated from.”

That is an important piece to understanding Florida politics and U.S. foreign policy in Florida. It is something that I think a lot of policymakers overlook. They are not having enough conversations with the diaspora to understand how even the language we use to talk about different policies in the United States is not translating for people. It is hitting people differently, and they are looking at it through a different lens. We need to understand the dynamics of the different diasporas, especially in places like Dallas and South Florida to be able to build a foreign policy that works for them.

The other thing I will say about South Florida is that it is one place where you cannot disconnect the foreign and domestic. There are issues on their shores that are foreign policy issues here in DC that maybe we are overlooking, but they are affecting their day-to-day lives. Think about the trafficking of weapons from South Florida into Haiti fueling gang violence and in turn increasing migration of Haitians to South Florida. That is an important issue, and you cannot separate the foreign and domestic there for them because it is right on their shores.

The same is true with Dallas. I think, very similarly to Miami and South Florida, we have to be talking to the diaspora and understanding how they are thinking about foreign policy or U.S. policy through that lens of their country of origin.

It is also incredible how closely intertwined the economy is to Mexico and South America. The Dallas economy and Texas economy more broadly is reliant on this cooperation between the United States and Latin America, and local folks in Dallas feel the impact of that. That is a day-to-day issue, and that is something that does require some unique U.S. foreign policy in Texas to ensure that the economy is running strong. It requires a unique U.S. foreign policy in South Florida to try to thwart the arms trafficking and the growing violence in Haiti.

I think you are right. I do not know the exact answer of what those U.S. foreign policies will be, but we need to talk to them. We need to at least understand how it is impacting them and how we can fix it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What do you think of the idea that our representatives can do more? For example, in August—it did not get much attention—Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. There was not much press, but those who covered it covered this Latin America connection, the new idea of how we engage with Latin America.

I wonder if there is an opportunity for our local representatives to do more to promote those links and to promote the idea, whether it is intermestic or omnipolicy, that the United States needs to engage with the world because it impacts you at the kitchen table, your doorstep issues, and we—the representatives—when we speak about climate change or public health are also speaking to you about our impact on the world. She has done more of this in the last year or two than she did in the beginning, and I wonder if there is an opportunity to engage the broader House. What do you think about that?

KRISTINA BIYAD: I think both for locally elected officials and federally elected officials in the House and Senate in order to incentivize them to do that kind of travel they need a constituency that wants them to or at least sees the value of it.

There is a lot of great work being done on subnational diplomacy, and I talk about this throughout the report. Ambassador Nina Hachigian, who is the first special representative for city and state diplomacy in the State Department, is trying to build out international affairs “bureaus,” if you will, in mayor’s and governor’s offices. That is important because it will push a mayor to go to the Conference of the Parties. It will push a mayor to go to the Cities Summit of the Americas that I was just at in Denver, an incredible convening of mayors and governors from across the Americas. In order for a governor or a mayor to do that or even a member of Congress their constituencies have to see the value of it.

What I am trying to do through this work is build a constituency of people who do see the connection of their day-to-day lives with U.S. foreign policy and do want their locally elected officials to look into global solutions to the climate crisis and they do want their locally elected officials to coordinate with mayors and governors in Latin America to address migration. If we do not have local leaders pushing for that, there is no incentive, and it will fall apart. A mayor is not going to move forward with an international affairs bureau in their office or a deputy mayor of international affairs if no one wants it. They are then going to try to address the other issues that their constituents are saying they care about and are going to focus on that. Until we build the support locally or in different districts, cities, or states I think local or elected officials more broadly are going to be focusing on what their constituents want.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Is there something more the media can do? As a journalist I am always asking the question: Is it how people are getting information that may not be driving constituent demands in an area where they should be making connections?

KRISTINA BIYAD: I am not sure I know the exact right answer there, but I will say that local media has been incredibly supportive throughout this project, especially in Miami and South Florida in just understanding the dynamics on the ground. I do not know if there is a way—at least from where I sit here in DC—we can better amplify some of these local journalists and local outlets to ensure that the stories that they are writing about the issues impacting their communities get amplified to policymakers.

I think that is one area where we can be helpful. One of the things I have started to do is get my news from local outlets and try to understand if I am going to be working in those areas what is impacting them. To the extent that national outlets can coordinate with local journalists to amplify those stories I think that would be very helpful. The media can probably do more to celebrate some of the locally elected officials who are engaging with the international community. I know that the Denver city summit got some coverage, but I definitely did not see as much as some of the other big meetings that we have seen across the country.

That was an incredible convening where you had Republican and Democratic governors in the United States and across ideologies from Latin America and South and Central America coming together to talk about what their people need and how they can cooperate. It was a great opportunity to highlight the different aspects of this work, and hopefully there will be future ones, so I would say covering that more and trying to understand what elected officials are doing together and then highlighting the voices of people in the community. I know local journalists do this relatively well, but the more we can center people, real stakeholders, the folks who are living day to day in different communities, the better.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I want to pick up your point about the Denver summit and of course the work that Nina Hachigian is doing. She came out of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office as a deputy. She had been part of the Obama team in Washington, so she is moving back and forth and I think trying to build these stakeholders.

It does seem that this disconnect is still there in terms of, as you said, the Denver summit did not get the coverage that you might think it should have given the importance of these topics. It also seems that the DC foreign policy community remains more outwardly focused rather than connecting inwardly so that you do not get a lot of sense that our Asia, Europe, Africa, or Latin America experts who are based in Washington are traveling to different parts of the country where these linkages exist. We start with diasporas certainly, we look at places where there are economic and business relationships, and yet it seems that there is almost a mental block where people say, “I would rather go to a summit in Brussels rather than go to Denver,” because of the perception that that is where the real foreign policy issues happen.

As a result of the work Foreign Policy for America is doing and the efforts of the Biden administration to make a connection are these having any noticeable effect yet or is it too early on reorienting people who work in the foreign policy community in Washington to think naturally about parts of the country other than the Washington-to-New York Acela corridor as being places they need to be engaged in?

KRISTINA BIYAD: I think there here has been some progress. The Biden administration and Jake Sullivan especially with this idea of “foreign policy for the middle class”—I mention this throughout the report—is groundbreaking in a lot of ways to start thinking even in small bits how we can build our foreign policy to work better for Americans. That is the first step.

One of the examples I may have mentioned in the report is the global minimum tax credit that President Biden has pushed for, another thing I think probably did not get as much coverage as it could have. That was a huge move. It forces businesses to come back to the United States and employ Americans. It limits the ability for companies to go overseas and evade taxes. If they are going to make money in the United States, they are going to pay their taxes in the United States.

That is an important concept, and it is something President Biden led on because he is trying to deliver for Americans on foreign policy. That is really important. It bugs me that it did not get enough coverage, but I think you can see it working. You can see a few people who are following it and do see that. They are excited, they are ready to do more, and they are ready to work with local leaders.

One of my fears is that in the foreign policy establishment when we get excited about an idea we do not always confirm that everyone else is excited about it across the country. That is a problem.

We could only go to five cities with this project. Five cities is not the whole country. I did my best to be as representative of different regions that are usually not part of the conversation and tried to get as many community leaders as possible, but it is not enough. There has to be more. We have to understand how local leaders are thinking about these issues in order to do this better. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and say: “Okay, foreign policy for the middle class, we’re here, we’re doing it, everything is great. We are all onboard.” We have to get everyone else onboard first and then start to implement things.

I think there is a good number of folks in the foreign policy establishment who are onboard and do see the value in doing this. They see that there is an overlap of our foreign policy and politics and that we do have to build a constituency for foreign policy. We are making progress, but my fear is that we will move too quickly without really understanding what are the core issues, what are the kitchen table foreign policy issues, and how do we now address those and build out this intermestic policy in a stronger way?

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the through lines I saw that I do want to highlight is the importance of looking at race and underrepresented communities as part of foreign policy. I don’t think we hear enough of that talk at all. The thread came through on the Ukraine talk. You mentioned that you did these interviews in 2021 and 2022, so people were already expressing reservations in U.S. support because of the disparity in support of other countries.

We are sitting in UN General Assembly meetings here in New York, and we are still hearing the same narrative on Ukraine that seems dismissive of exactly what you are pointing out in your report, the idea that we cannot just be focused on one country. If we are going to do that, we need to make sure we have a strategy for other countries in need. There were several examples in the report.

I wonder how we can manage that and what some recommendations were from the report you had that we can share with our constituents and listeners across the country. I want them to also know that this is an issue that you highlighted and that we are also looking at, always thinking about what communities we are reaching and that it is not just a college-educated community in DC or New York. We want to make sure that we are listening across the spectrum.

I just want to mention this in particular because the middle class is shrinking here in the United States. According to a Pew report, it is only 50 percent of the population. In fact, the lower-income group is up to 30 percent now, so shouldn’t it be a foreign policy for everyone? I wonder if we need to change that language too, but that is a whole other podcast episode. Maybe we could start out looking at underrepresented communities, race, narratives, and this idea of Ukraine as one example.

KRISTINA BIYAD: A very important aspect of this work and what brought me to it is that there are not a lot of people in the foreign policy establishment who look like me, and that is a problem. There are not a lot of people in the foreign policy establishment who come from backgrounds like mine, and that is a problem. That is why we do not have these perspectives, and it is why we do not have enough people going out to seek them out. I will point to one very specific line in the report from our conversations in Chicago, where someone who works with youth in the city on the Southside said that one kid came up to him and asked, “How can you talk to me about Ukraine when 63rd Street looks like Ukraine?” That is a powerful question, that is an important question, and we need to be asking ourselves that.

That is not to say that the United States should not be showing up for Ukrainians. That is not to say that U.S. support for Ukraine is not instrumental, because it is. I have no doubt of that, and I will defend the United States continuing to support Ukraine each and every day because I recognize the risks of not doing so, but not every American does because their own house is falling apart, their own lives are not going the way that they planned, they are at risk at home, and they are hearing their friends, neighbors, or newscasters talk about why the United States needs to support Ukraine, and they are going to the grocery store and cannot afford milk or they are walking to school worried that someone is going to get shot. Those are security issues that they are facing every day. We can continue to deliver for Ukraine and for the international community and be a leader, but we have to deliver for our people as well.

You are right. It is foreign policy not just for the middle class; it is foreign policy for all Americans, for those who look like me, who look like you, and who look like all of us in communities across the country. If we—as policymakers and elected officials—are not delivering for those communities, we are not going to have the support to continue to do what we are doing overseas.

The reality is that we can do both. We can deliver for our communities at home and we can deliver on foreign policy priorities abroad, but we need to do both, and we need to show folks that we are doing both. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much. I think that is a great point to end on. We look forward to continuing to read your research and to support your work. Thank you.

KRISTINA BIYAD: Thank you guys so much.

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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