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American Engagement: Dialogue with the Newport Circle of Scholars

March 7, 2018

This article was first published on March 7, 2018 on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in dialogue on the question of what role America ought to be playing in the world with the Newport Circle of Scholars. The Circle of Scholars is one of a multitude of civil society/public associations that serve as a bridge between the affairs of government and the general public. It was an excellent starting point to engage in a dialogue about the types of narratives needed to sustain popular support for continued American engagement with the international system–with people who are active and engaged citizens and voters, who have an interest in matters of public policy but are not in any way members of the "foreign policy community." Normally, with groups like these (or various World Affairs Councils) an expert comes in, delivers an address, then takes questions; in this case, the "audience" itself took center stage.

In the course of this dialogue, I posed the following questions, familiar to anyone who has been following my threads of the collapse of the narrative on American engagement at this site:

1) Did the narrative in the 2016 campaign that the U.S. is being taken advantage of by other countries (security free riders, unfair trade deals, etc.) resonate with you, or friends and family. Why or why not? 2) What do you think ought to be the U.S. role in the world? 3) Are foreign policy issues "voting issues" for you, or your friends and family? To what extent do people in your circle vote, and on what sets of issues? 4) Do you and others trust in the efficacy and expertise of the U.S. government and expert community in foreign policy and national security matters? Why or why not?

What struck me about the conversation was the mix of pragmatism and idealism and the appreciation for balancing good intentions with reasonable expectations for achieving success in the answers. The audience, as a whole, tended to avoid the caricatured extremes often deployed in Washington arguments (i.e. interventionism means America as "global cop" with the only other option a withdrawal into complete isolationism).

Some preliminary conclusions from the dialogue–which will be the first in a series of conversations convened around the country:

–continued U.S. engagement is needed to support and sustain an international system that the U.S. itself derives benefit from, but the United States cannot solve every problem and cannot be the sole or principal billpayer.

–the United States must become more adept at determining when and where to get involved and more importantly be able to apply "sunset provisions" where a particular program, intervention or action can be terminated after a period of time, especially if there are no results. Here, the sense that the U.S. government is primed to continue involvement even when the situation screams NPH (no profit here) reflects a concern that foreign policy/national security policy professionals are less attuned to the reality, particularly in the business world, of cutting losses and moving onward.

–values matter and U.S. foreign policy should be guided by them, but with a requisite dose of humility that America cannot change other societies overnight and that different sets of values and interests may be in contradiction with each other. Linked to the first theme, it is also important both to be ready to experiment and take reasonable gambles but also to be able to move on if they do not produce results (for instance, supporting attempts at democratic breakthroughs but not pouring in massive resources to prop up a government that is not succeeding).

–foreign policy matters will never be the leading issue on which people cast ballots but foreign policy matters are subsumed into larger questions of trust of representatives who are chosen–in other words, the judgment and instincts of candidates matter even if specific policy propositions are not voting issues. In turn, the proper deployment of expertise is crucial. Trust in both judgement of politicians and advice of experts has been damaged by some of the recent high-profile perceived policy failures and will need to be recultivated.

–the United States had a much clearer narrative of why it was involved in the world during the Cold War, and since the fall of the Soviet Union a new narrative explaining why and how U.S. involvement matters has not emerged that enjoys broad-based acceptance, either one based on idealism (creating a better world) or fear (here is an existential danger to the country).

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