US foreign policy community must improve communication

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The US foreign policy community spends little time thinking about how to communicate with the American public or how to better listen to American voters. This is problematic, because American voters elect the leaders who shape foreign policy. When American voters feel that their country’s foreign policy uses resources while yielding no tangible benefits – and perhaps actual harm – it erodes their faith in their governing institutions, leaders and foreign policy principles.
One problem is that foreign policy experts – in government, academia, media and think tanks – make huge assumptions that the American public might not agree with. Such experts often assume that the public will quickly understand and agree with precepts about international norms, key allies and competitors, core principles and so forth. They often use jargon or refer to key ideas such as “global system” or “treaty allies” without bothering to explain what the terms mean or why they matter. Foreign policy experts need to “banish stale organizing principles for US foreign policy” when communicating with the American public, as a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated.
Some of the reasons for this disconnect are understandable and difficult to fix. Foreign policy is a complex topic and practitioners and experts require years of study and experience to master specific policy issues. Just a small sampling of foreign policy topics includes nuclear weapons, diplomacy, trade, military power, migration, bilateral relations, multilateral relations, international law, terrorism and cultural exchange. Furthermore, each of these topics could be broken down into more specific areas of expertise.
Just as a patient hopes that a surgeon has an excellent education and experience, so the American people – and, indeed, the world – should want US foreign policy practitioners and experts to have deep expertise.
Additionally, government officials and many others in the foreign policy community often must cope with constant demands on their time and attention. They are human beings, with their own personal and professional concerns. Government officials must work within large bureaucracies; they often lack the resources and institutional support to adapt to changing circumstances or put forward new ideas and perspectives.
Some other reasons for the disconnect between the foreign policy community and the American people are less excusable. The community tends to draw from elite institutions and personal networks that exclude the perspectives and experiences of most Americans. The field tends to draw heavily from a small number of elite colleges. For most of the foreign policy community’s existence, white men with elite educations, primarily from the eastern United States, led the field. In recent years, that has started to change. Today, more women and members of ethnic and racial communities have joined the ranks of the foreign policy community, and the number of educational institutions contributing to the field has expanded. Still, many American subcultures lack much representation in forming foreign policy.
The lack of diversity in the field is a problem because it means that the community shaping foreign policy often has no personal understanding of how those policies affect many Americans. Furthermore, experts whose personal networks are solely based around American and international elites will struggle to explain foreign policy to the broader public.
There is a growing awareness that Americans have lost faith in their government’s foreign policy – that many Americans question the benefits of globalization, military interventions and the US role in the world.
Donald Trump tapped into that sentiment in an instinctive way with his America First rhetoric, but the emotional approach lacked grounding in policy and did not reflect what many Americans want. Polling and other research shows that Americans tend to support global US leadership (but not overreaching military interventions), global trade (with limits) and working with allies.
The Biden administration recognizes some of these problems. From 2018 to 2020, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conducted a major project on “US Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” collecting information on the perspectives of middle-class Americans and how foreign policy affects them. Jake Sullivan, now national security adviser, was on the project’s task force. In 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech on “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” in which he acknowledged that “those of us who conduct foreign policy haven’t always done a good job connecting it to the needs and aspirations of the American people.” He attempted to directly connect Biden administration foreign policy principles with American interests.
These are important steps forward, but the US foreign policy community needs to do more to communicate with the American public in ways that both respect the public and present complex information in clearer ways that directly relate to Americans’ concerns. Dialogue must also be a two-way street. Foreign policy practitioners should listen to the American public.
For example, many Americans increasingly consider border security as a key foreign policy priority rather than just a domestic concern. While many Americans still believe in the value of democracy and supporting allies, they are less attracted to Cold War-style ideological competitions.
The US foreign policy community needs to diversify the perspectives on which it draws to better connect with the concerns of the American people. Important steps include actively recruiting capable students from public universities in different parts of the country and providing paid internships so that such experience is not limited to wealthy families. Providing opportunities for experts to interact with a range of Americans is another useful idea. Softening the distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” policy and highlighting the links between them is crucial.