A Populace-Centric Foreign Policy

A Populace-Centric Foreign Policy
"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
-- Barack Obama, Feb 5, 2008. Reports of the demise of the Westphalian system are premature, but the shifting of the relative balance of power between states, threats to states, and the populaces these threats emerge from is undeniable. A "populace-centric" approach to foreign policy would recognize the emergence and enduring nature of popular power, and free U.S. interests from becoming mired in fleeting governments or threats. The Westphalian system is premised on the concept that all sovereignty over any particular populace is vested in the state. This system places strong importance on the location and control of borders, and empowers a single "sovereign" to speak for the entire populace. A number of recent cases suggest that a focus on developing relations not with the state, but with the underlying populace from which the state is formed, would provide the greatest leverage to achieving the fundamental goal of any strategic policy, which is to change the behavior of nations at the lowest possible cost in national blood, treasure, or credibility. The American public should demand answers from our national leaders to two very pointed questions regarding the static nature of how America engages the world. First, why is the U.S. national security apparatus still largely based upon a view of the world as it emerged from WWII some 65 years ago? Second, and perhaps even more important, why is almost the entire family of policies, priorities, institutions, authorities, and relationships that shape U.S. engagement with the world virtually unchanged from the Cold War, which ended nearly 20 years ago? President Barack Obama enters office with a stated priority to set a new course for this nation, one that is more appropriate for today's globalized world. An opportunity exists to go beyond the standard adjustments of bureaucratic structure and budget that occur with a new administration. The United States has a chance to finally shed its Cold War baggage and build a new system of national security and foreign engagement. This system can be called a populace-centric approach to foreign policy. At the core of a populace-centric approach is the powerful human emotional requirement of respect. It was a strong sense of disrespect that sparked the American Revolution against her British sovereign in the 1770s. Much attention is currently paid to attending to more basic needs to ease human suffering around the world, but it is typically those needs at the top of psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs that inspire populations to violence and rebellion. A populace-centric approach would shift the focus from one of seeking mutual agreement at the governmental level regardless of consequence, to one that premises such state-to-state agreements on ensuring mutual respect between the affected populaces. Leadership for this change falls to the president's primary agents for designing and implementing foreign policy, the secretaries of state and defense. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is tasked to head a department that is state-centric in its approach, with its focus on the relations between governments. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates retains lead of one that is threat-centric, with a focus on the deterrence or defeat of particular threats. This two-pronged approach was well suited to the classic Westphalian model. The world, though, continues to evolve. Taking into account the factors of globalization and the nature of recent conflicts, a new approach may be more appropriate for the world we live in today. Globalization is giving rise to two powerful new dynamics: the rise of non-state actors, and the general empowerment of populaces everywhere. Combined, these dynamics are eroding the Westphalian construct of sovereignty as vested solely in the state. In this new competition for sovereignty, it is ever more important to both understand and address the concerns of the people of other nations in the design and implementation of foreign policy. Taking the will of the people into account is not simply more important than it used to be, the will of the people is now the most important factor in formulating foreign policy. Embracing Change Means Relinquishing Control While states remain the focal point for sovereign power, the world is evolving in ways that empowers populaces to vest portions of that power in an array of non-state entities that now compete for their support. Such change is inevitable, and not of itself bad. It should not be resisted, but embraced. By considering alternatives to the traditional state-to-state model, the U.S. can develop new tools of national power to compliment those designed for engaging states. Historically, states with the greatest power tend to cling to the status quo, and commit their efforts to sustaining the environment from which that power is derived. Rising states are far more likely to embrace the evolution of the state system, as a means to propel their growing power. Meanwhile, the United States is committing tremendous blood, treasure and credibility in a Global War on Terrorism that is as much about sustaining a Cold War system of governance across the Middle East -- built to serve U.S. national interests there -- as it is about defeating the popular movements that are emerging to challenge that system. Other nations seeking to improve their relative power, notably China and Iran, feel no such compulsion to cling to existing systems. They not only embrace such change, but encourage it. Joining in this competition for the first time are non-state players, ranging from international corporations to criminal networks, to politically motivated networks such as al-Qaida -- all empowered by globalization to act in very state-like ways. As powerful states have discovered throughout history, swimming against the rip current of change leads to fatigue and failure. A wiser course is swimming with the currents of change by adjusting strategic perspective. What a Populace-Centric Approach Is, and Isn't To apply a populace-centric approach to foreign policy, it is important to understand both what it is, and what it is not. The populace-centric approach proposed here is not to be confused with "population-centric" tactics at the heart of the Surge in Iraq. Those tactics are based on the premise that once one controls the populace, all else will follow. Such tactics can indeed produce successful results in a counterinsurgency effort. However, a post-WWII U.S. foreign policy that has often given primacy to the control of foreign populations has contributed significantly to creating the conditions of conflict that challenge the United States today. A populace-centric foreign policy should be premised not on controlling foreign populations, but on understanding them and giving their will and concerns primacy. This concept recognizes that governments come and go, as do threats. Populations, however, though also dynamic, are enduring. Therefore, as populaces become more empowered, the policies, institutions, and practices of foreign engagement must evolve. America's current foreign policy, by contrast, focuses too narrowly on preserving existing government relations and addressing particular threats, and thereby loses sight of the impact such efforts have on the affected populaces. U.S. interests are placed at risk by not recognizing that dissatisfied populaces can readily shift their support to a non-state entity when they feel their state is supporting interests other than their own. This by no means should entail a shift to a charitable, good-deeds approach to foreign policy. The words of Henry David Thoreau are instructive:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. The challenge, then, is to seek to understand what those root causes are, and to ensure that proper energy is applied in the design and application of policy to address them. Popular support cannot be purchased, and poverty in and of itself does not create social unrest. The central question is how a populace perceives its current situation, and where blame is placed for those conditions which they find intolerable. Herein lies the difference between "effective" governance and "good" governance. Government is effective if it provides fundamental services adequately, but it is good if the populace is satisfied, and feels respected. Successful insurgency often arises from effectively governed populaces, but rarely from populaces enjoying good governance. Good governance need not be, and often is not, also effective governance. Government that is both effective and good is preferable, but the necessary condition is "good." Self-determination, regardless of the direction it takes, is the path to good governance. U.S.-style democracy is just one of many destinations at which self-determination may ultimately arrive. In the Cold War, the U.S. often became so entwined with, or opposed to, specific governments, that when those bodies lost their support, the United States could not seem to adjust to the new circumstances, often with tragic results. U.S. support for the Diem government in Vietnam or Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran are examples. This phenomenon continues today, as in the United States' continued unwavering support of the Saudi monarchy, and its equally strong opposition to the current government of Iran. Considering that the populace of Iran is arguably the most pro-American populace in the Middle East and, conversely, that three-quarters of the 9/11 attackers and nearly half of the foreign fighters in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia, these policies are difficult to rationalize. The Legacy of the Cold War America is, and should remain for generations to come, the greatest nation on Earth. Favorable geography, tremendous human and natural resources, and an ideology of populace-based governance -- along with a positive spirit that believes anything is possible -- all combine to give the U.S. a tremendous advantage in a competitive world. Leadership, however, is hard. Coming out of World War II, the U.S. picked up the mantle of Western leadership from Britain, and learned just how heavy that burden can be through the tense, but predictably balanced Cold War era. What many don't appear to fully appreciate is that the Middle East was a major "battlefield" in that Cold War effort. The West had to deny the Soviets control of the region and, in time of war, leaders often have to compromise values and make decisions that can be extremely difficult on the affected populaces in order to preserve the interests and borders of the state. The U.S. was the face of this effort in the Middle East, where such hard decisions were made and actions taken, in large part successfully. The Soviets were denied access to the Middle East, and the West benefited from both that denial and the financial and political alliances that grew out of that 45-year engagement. While the Cold War ended nearly 20 years ago, there was no dramatic tearing down of a Berlin Wall in the Middle East, where instead the conflict simply faded away. With no clear impetus to change U.S. policies in the region, the U.S. opted logically to stay the course. Primary in this decision likely was an appreciation that the same strong financial and political alliances the U.S. had committed so much effort to forge in the first place would be the first casualties of any effort to shift from a U.S.-led, Western-controlled Middle East to a Middle East allowed to fully self-determine in accordance with the will of the populaces of the region. Viewed through a state-centric or threat-centric lens, this decision to simply sustain the status quo makes perfect sense. Support friendly governments and assist them in defeating those internal and external threats to their stability: this is the heart of the Westphalian model. In 1989, no one could predict the impact that the populace-empowering forces of globalization would have on this model. No one could predict the rise of non-state entities like al-Qaida, capable of waging campaigns of regional, unconventional warfare to rally disaffected populaces throughout the region to a common cause. The decision of the Clinton administration to not direct and lead a complete overhaul of U.S. policy in the Middle East is as understandable and flawed as the decision of the Bush administration to set out to militarily defeat the resultant threats. Implementing a Populace-Centric Foreign Policy Implementation of a populace-centric foreign policy would take many forms. The critical first step would be twofold: first, to produce and publish a Grand Strategy for the United States that takes a populace-centric perspective; second, to conduct a holistic review and assessment of all current institutions, policies, and relationships to bring them into alignment with that strategy. The U.S. does not currently possess a Grand Strategy, and as a result has drifted from doctrines of "containment," to "intervention," to "preemption," all under an overarching concept of preserving U.S. interests through the control of states and threats. A new populace-centric grand strategy would set the course of change. Many worthy institutions, born of the Cold War, are now struggling to remain relevant in a world environment that has little relation to the one they were designed to address. A comprehensive review is 20 years overdue and should commence immediately. In addition, the United Nations must be redesigned to support a globalized, multipolar world. A revamped international approach to international problems might entail decentralization, cultivating regional leadership and regional responses rather than global efforts. While the U.S. national security apparatus is rooted in the Cold War, national security is now far more a function of non-military factors like the health of the economy and national credibility. Likewise intelligence today requires a shift in focus from threats to tracking and understanding populaces. After all, if President Obama begins each morning with the same threat-focused intelligence brief that was presented to President Bush, how long before he, too, will begin to see problems in a similar light? It is also time to recognize and implement new forms of sovereignty. Such innovative constructs are essential to enable new rights for historic populaces currently divided by modern borders. These divided populaces and the growing strains they place on the states that were formed around them are at the heart of much of the world's tension and conflict. A way must be found to build strong states while at the same time recognizing distinct populaces. For example, the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be far more likely to see a successful conclusion by recognizing and unifying the Pashtun populace with some lesser form of embedded sovereignty than by enforcing a Westphalian border through the center of that population's traditional homeland. As the U.S. prepares to shift emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, such a change of perspective would set a new tone for that operation. Instead of a focus on preserving the current governments of both states by attempting to make them "more effective," while suppressing the Pashtun populace to make them less resistant to the course the U.S. has plotted out for them, a populace-centric approach would seek to understand and address the root causes of Pashtun popular discontent. Brokering a new form of sovereignty for this important regional populace, while at the same time working to strengthen and enable good governance on both sides of the border would perhaps bear more enduring results. In today's globalized world, agreements between state leaders that do not have a mandate from the populations affected by them just don't have the same validity that they enjoyed even 20 short years ago. Similarly, given the tremendous advantage that the United States currently enjoys in the realm of state-on-state engagement, the greatest threats to U.S. interests are both less likely to be state-based and less likely to even have state support so much as populace support. Shifting to a populace-centric perspective would change the dynamics of U.S. foreign policy from a focus on balancing U.S. national interests with the interests of the other governments of the world, to one of balancing U.S. interests with those of the various peoples of the world. Such engagement would still need to be communicated through governments, but would be based upon the will of foreign populaces, and not that of any given leader. If leaders opt to ignore their populaces in lieu of their own self-interests, they do so at their peril. It behooves the United States to be clearly viewed as being on the side of the populace. Robert C. Jones is an Army Colonel of Special Forces and strategist, with particular expertise in insurgency, its causes and implications. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent the positions of the U.S. government, DOD, or U.S. Special Operations Command. Photo: Village elders, western Kabul Province (Flickr user TKnoxB, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License).

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