Crowd-sourcing American foreign policy

December 22, 2013

(Associated Press)

This is a guest post by Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and international relations at Duke University.

I’ve just finished teaching my “21st Century American Foreign Policy” Coursera MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). I had more than 21,000 students from all over the world.  While this was a noncredit lifelong-learning type course, there were assignments.  One was to critique an aspect of U.S. foreign policy and propose an alternative.  Here are a few of the students’ ideas that give U.S. foreign policy types a worthy challenge:

(1)  NSA controversy: “How can a champion of democracy credibly criticize China or Russia for cyber-espionage or blocking and filtering the net if that very country itself is a champion of digital surveillance?”

(S)he goes on: “Many of the critical foreign conflicts that the US  faces today and in the near future have to be dealt with collectively. For that the US needs a strong network of partners. This network will be based on common interests. But trust is the glue that holds alliances together.

(2) East Asian security:  One student noted that, despite all the focus on China, tensions in Asia are often rooted in “still white hot” historical animosities against Japan: “How would we feel if thousands of American women had been forced over many years to act as prostitutes for a foreign army, and if the government of the offending country still refused to deal frankly and honestly with this past? I think our animosity would be incandescent.”

The student recommends that the Japanese leadership — including Prime Minister Abe and Emperor Akihito — give a speech akin to German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s  “in remembrance there is forgiveness,” notwithstanding (or perhaps precisely because of) the standard political problems.

(3) Also on East Asia, one student critiqued U.S. policy on Asian regional security as “too much hub and spokes  . . . ensuring the security of East Asian countries through their bilateral alliances with the United States instead of through cooperation and multilateralism with one another in the development of a security community.”

And this was from a New Zealander who ostensibly benefits from being one of the spokes. The student’s call for “building a regional security community to work alongside the existing system of bilateral alliances,” in which the security dynamics do not simply involve the United States and China but also relations-building among the Asian countries themselves, fits with much of what I’ve heard in recent trips to China, Singapore and Australia.

(4) Climate change:  “The US is in a particularly good position to act first to demonstrate willingness to set aside a narrow conception of its national interest in order to encourage other countries to reciprocate. . .  putting the world on the path to solving this vast collective action problem.”

There’s an interesting point here about first-mover advantage, not just disadvantage, as we continue to try to theorize and act to close the gap between the “ought” and the “is” of global public goods.

(5) Cuba: “The current US policy towards Cuba is as outdated as ‘duck and cover drills’ during which frightened schoolchildren would hide under their desks in hopes of surviving a Soviet nuclear attack.”

This student and others delineated an array of potential gains for the United States from a different posture toward Cuba: competing for export and investment opportunities that most of the rest of the world already is pursuing; strategic gains given the issue’s resonance throughout Latin America; making it easier to move toward a post-Castro soft landing. There are even potential political gains, thanks to the generational shift in the Cuban-American community we saw in the 2012 vote, where Obama split if not won the Cuban-American vote in Florida.

(6) Syria:  “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

While many specific Syria policy recommendations were made, this quote from Abraham Lincoln — one of the few not already overused — struck me as carrying the core policy message, which relates to broader scholarly work on preventive diplomacy and the Responsibility to Protect.

To be sure, I’m not ready to take crowd-sourcing too far. There’s also been plenty of overselling of high-tech higher ed.  But there is much to be gained, as I’ve discussed here and here, and as some of ideas show. They are certainly worth injecting into the policy debate.

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