Burst the Bubble: We Need to Discuss Foreign Policy Outside the Expert Circles
Source: Auswärtiges Amt
Amidst all the uncertainty introduced by the age of Trump, two realizations have reached this side of the Atlantic. First, Germany and the European Union as a whole will have to increase their engagement in foreign and security policy. Second, voters feel left behind here, too. Mistrust of politicians is growing and increasingly fostered by right-wing populism.
Against this background, explaining German foreign policy at home is becoming an increasingly vital task. Berlin’s role in the world has changed at an enormous speed; the next few months will only accelerate the pace.
Yet so far politicians, policymakers and experts in think tanks and civil society have lacked the courage to explain, for fear of voter disapproval. You can experience this in every expert debate on foreign policy, which almost always includes the moment at which the limits of the politically possible have – supposedly – been reached. Yes, it would save so many lives and be so much cheaper if we invested more money in preventing crises rather than always reacting to the next disaster. But the pressure from the voter! Yes, it will do more harm than good if we try to impose our systems on a fragile state and, for example, insist on elections immediately after a conflict. But this is impossible to explain to the German electorate!
Is it? How many of us in the Berlin foreign policy community have ever tried? Most often, all attendees shrug at this point and move on, instead of confronting the more actionable conclusion: Politicians, i.e., parliamentarians, party members, representatives of the federal government – need to explain more often and in greater detail. To do so, they need the backing and support of those that work on these issues every day: in think tanks, universities and civil society organizations.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has emphasized the importance of taking up this challenge. In a recent op-ed, he wrote: “If our aim is not merely to negotiate rational solutions, but also to be able to count on support for them in society, we must manage to communicate the give and take of diplomacy clearly and credibly.” In the context of the debate on more German responsibility abroad, Steinmeier led the “Review2014” process, during which the foreign office organized a series of events to discuss the role of foreign policy with a broader public. That was progress. But a few more speeches or events are not enough – and, critically, they will never reach those that are not already interested in foreign policy.
So, what can be done? A political and strategic signal from the top would be a good way to start. The federal government is currently working on a new strategy document to guide its action in crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding for the next decade. The document is a great opportunity to signal that strategic communication should no longer be treated as an accessory, but as a core element of foreign, security and development policy. The German government promised a communication strategy for its activities in crisis prevention ten years ago that has yet to be developed.
Furthermore, with enough financial backing from parliament, the foreign office and the development ministry could substantially increase their own contributions to elucidating foreign and development policy by following the example of the defense ministry. For more than 50 years the ministry of defense has sent at least two so-called “youth officers” to each German state. Working full time, these officers have the sole task of explaining security policy and answering to the public’s difficult questions. Why do we need NATO? Is not the United States as corrupt as Putin? Why not simply close all borders and ignore the rest of the world? With 2016 coming to a close, these questions are more important than ever before. How is it possible that it is mostly the armed forces and not the foreign office that invests in this kind of communication? Where are the diplomats that are deployed for two years? Why are they not in schools, universities, unions, retirement homes?
If the German government wanted to encourage debates on the instruments and dilemmas of foreign policy with the general public, it could easily utilize the basic infrastructure already in place, including six political foundations, the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), the German UN Association, the “ifa” (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) and countless NGOs, many of which are partly or fully funded by the federal government. All of these organizations could not only increase their dialogue work on foreign, security and development policy, but also target a wider audience. More time for foreign policy in schools, expanding exchange and work abroad programs, digital platforms to learn about world affairs, more partnerships between individual German states and developing countries – once you start taking communication seriously, there are many places to start.
But the federal government should not have to take up this task on its own. The world of experts in think tanks, universities and NGOs (to which I also belong) should join a larger public debate on the possibilities and limits of Germany’s role in the world. Why do we, the experts, bring our ideas for improving policy to politicians only, and never to the people voting on them? When drafting our policy recommendations on policy in fragile states we are sure to point out the need to support the societal change, through the political process: in short: by convincing people. The same is true in our own society.
While we should join in the collective ‘explaining’ effort, we might discover in the process that the job is not so straightforward. We do research and consulting on foreign policy, but if we are honest with ourselves, since entering university we have hardly ever left the bubble of those that have a vested interested in the subject – in policy briefs and academic debates on ever-more specialized policy areas. “Public relations” is part of the portfolio of many think tank employees, but this means the occasional interview on talk radio or placing an op-ed here and there on our specific subject matter. If somebody asks us why we still need the European Union, we gasp. And do not really know where we should even start.
All of us in the world of experts could change something here. We could start with small, personal decisions to step outside of the bubble – for example, by giving a talk at your old school. In the long term, institutions could make an effort to change: think tanks and universities could incentivize engagement, rewarding researchers for spending time in local associations instead of attending the twentieth conference with the same people. We would all profit from that.
This is an English version of a commentary originally published by Tagesspiegel on December 13, 2016.