Best Defense

The administration wants private folk involved in foreign policy. But how?

The administration wants private folk involved in foreign policy. But how?

Here my CNAS colleague Kristin Lord, who knows more about public diplomacy than I ever will, points out something that hasn’t been noticed about the Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy document.

By Kristin Lord
Best Defense bureau chief, public diplomacy operations

The Obama Administration wants you to help implement its new National Security Strategy.

That is a little-noted but forceful undercurrent of the new strategy, which calls for the United States to “take advantage of the unparalleled connections that America’s Government, private sector and citizens have around the globe.” These connections, the document observes, will not only help America to address specific challenges such as cyber security and pandemic disease, they are a powerful and “cost-effective way of projecting a positive vision of American leadership.” “Time and again,” the national security strategy observes, “we have seen that the best ambassadors for American values and interests are the American people — our businesses, nongovernmental organizations, scientists, athletes, artists, military service members, and students.” Indeed, the National Security Strategy calls explicitly for engagement with the private sector and civil society no fewer than 27 separate times and devotes five complete paragraphs to the topic.

This emphasis is not only unprecedented in the short history of national security strategies, it is surely correct. The number of ways America engages the world every day dwarfs the contacts of our government or military — and, with all deference to our armed forces and civil servants around the world — that is a good thing. Engaging broad networks of private and non-profit organizations to help build stronger ties between America and the world is therefore a smart way to have wide influence. Moreover, these organizations are typically apolitical and have their own credible and appealing ties to foreign populations. It is easy for scientists to find common ground with other scientists, journalists to find shared interests with other journalists, and mayors to identify with other mayors who — regardless of what language they speak — all need to get the garbage picked up. Moreover, it is baldly impossible to address effectively issues like cyber security or transforming the energy economy or stopping the spread of biological weapons without the active collaboration of the private sector. The Obama administration, in short, has it right.

But here’s the rub. I’m not at all convinced that the administration — or many others for that matter — really know how to best engage vast numbers of private and non-profit actors to accomplish what are extremely complex tasks with enormous implications for national security. For all the talk of mobilizing the private sector, I wonder how many people in our government truly understand what the private sector actors have to offer and how to incentivize them to cooperate with both the government and, often, their own competitors. Based on countless conversations with private sector representatives, I wonder how often government officials have the knowledge or bandwidth they need to truly take advantage of the valuable information or assistance they get from corporations when it is offered.

Thus, if the administration wants to develop a true strategy to implement its ambitious national security agenda, it must first figure out how — in practical terms — to mobilize private companies, universities, nonprofit organizations, professional societies, philanthropic organizations, medical institutions, and individuals in pursuit of the national interest. And if America wants a government that works, it should be ready to answer that call.