Don’t Just Make Foreign Policy for Working Americans. Engage Them in It.
The Biden administration’s new mantra falls one step short.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his national security team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have promised to deliver a “foreign policy for the middle class” that will complement the administration’s domestic focus on protecting jobs and delivering benefits to working people. In addition to instructing senior policymakers to use the interests of workers and the middle class as a lens to guide foreign-policy decisions, the Biden administration has an opportunity to engage middle-class Americans on foreign policy directly.
Here are two outside-the-box ideas for Blinken and his team.
There are over 180 U.S. ambassador positions, some of which are vacant at any given time. Ambassadors typically return from their overseas posts to the United States several times a year—once or twice for work, and often on additional trips to visit friends and family. Blinken could divvy up the ambassadorial corps, permanently assigning three or four ambassadors to each U.S. state, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. He could charge each of them with visiting their “adopted” state on one of their trips home—at least once per year. These visits need only last a couple days, during which ambassadors could speak to and field questions from students at high schools and universities, meet with state legislators and chambers of commerce, visit small businesses that export overseas, talk to retirees and civic groups, sit down with newspaper editorial boards, and otherwise engage with local communities in their assigned states.
During their stays in their adopted states, the ambassadors’ goals should be twofold. On the one hand, they can demystify some of what the State Department and other federal agencies do abroad. On the other, they can better understand the lives of some of the Americans they represent when they serve overseas. If every state had several ambassadorial visits each year, there would be hundreds more opportunities for senior U.S. diplomats to hear from those middle-class and working Americans whom Blinken and his boss have told them to put front and center. And there would be hundreds of opportunities for local government leaders, employers, and students to learn about the—often unseen—ways in which diplomats engage on issues that matter to them, help keep them safe, and support local job opportunities. Perhaps a few young people from the communities the ambassadors visit might even find their career stories attractive and be inspired to pursue a public service career and take the foreign service exam.
At the same time as he sends ambassadors to fan out across the United States, Blinken could also invite all Americans who travel abroad to help represent their country. While international travel has paused for most people because of the COVID-19 pandemic, at some point travel will likely return to pre-pandemic levels, when more than 40 million Americans traveled abroad every year.
A U.S. passport contains a written message from the secretary of state directed to those whom U.S. travelers might encounter overseas. It requests that the passport-bearer be allowed to pass “without delay or hindrance” and that, if needed, they be given “all lawful aid and protection.” What if Blinken invited U.S. Sen. Jim Risch—the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—to join him in signing a cover letter that would be included with every new or renewed U.S. passport and addressed to the bearer of the passport?
That letter could congratulate the recipient on their new passport and encourage them to make use of it to visit other countries and learn about other cultures and societies. It could also ask the recipient to serve as a “citizen ambassador”—and to remember that whenever they travel abroad as Americans, they are representing their country. Whether they are traveling for business or pleasure, whether it’s a short weekend getaway or a long stay to study or work abroad, the people they meet in other countries will appreciate honesty, respect for local customs, and being treated with dignity and politeness. And when Americans travel that way, it will positively impact not only how people welcome them to their communities but also what they think of Americans and of the United States. It’s become common for polling organizations to track how attitudes toward the United States in various countries change over time and under different presidents. Of course, most people overseas never meet the U.S. president. But hundreds of millions of them meet Americans every year, and each traveler has the opportunity to leave a positive impression.
It is often said that voters in the United States do not care about foreign policy, at least not enough to cast their votes based on foreign-policy issues. This is sometimes depicted as a deficiency—of education, of worldliness, of understanding—among voters. But it is at least as much a failure of the foreign-policy establishment—historically populated by the group we’ve come to call the “coastal elites”—to reach out to and engage so-called everyday Americans. Blinken gave his first major speech in March, addressing not world leaders or foreign dignitaries as some of his predecessors might have, but rather the American people, and committing himself and his team to serve their interests well. He now has the opportunity to use his tenure to build new links between the American people and U.S. diplomacy, too.
Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomatic fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer