Popular Diplomacy: The American Public and US Foreign Policy

By Rubin, James P. | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Popular Diplomacy: The American Public and US Foreign Policy


Rubin, James P., Harvard International Review


JAMES P. RUBIN is US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.

People say that all politics is local. Well, much of US foreign policy is domestic. As America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has already logged enough international miles to impress even the most seasoned traveler. In the past twelve months, she has been to Paris, Moscow, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem--all likely destinations for a Secretary of State. Now add to that list Miami, Boston, Nashville, Columbia, Raleigh, Louisville--stops generally booked by administration officials responsible for domestic affairs--and you may wonder: why has the Secretary of State made it her priority to go out and talk to the American public about our interests abroad?

Interactive Policymaking

The only sustainable American foreign policy is one supported by our public. The American people call the shots; they live with the consequences of the decisions we make, and if they are not happy, they can hire someone else to make the decisions. So, as the Secretary has said, "we have an obligation to explain the who, what, when, and especially the why's of US foreign policy."

Direct challenge from a rival superpower is no longer a threat to American values and security. Today, we face a multitude of new threats--potent threats rooted in international developments ranging from drug trafficking and crime to environmental degradation and terrorism.

As Secretary Albright said at Harvard University's Commencement last year, "Today, the greatest danger to America is not some enemy; it is the possibility that we will... forget what the history of the century reminds us: that problems abroad, if left unattended, will all too often come home to America."

Consider: when financial markets in Southeast Asia took a plunge, we witnessed a rapid chain reaction that spread within hours to the New York Stock Exchange, affecting prices and potential profits for US investors, businesses, and traders. If financial stability is not returned to Asia, there could be significant long-term effects on our economy. And if the United States does not take a leading role in the international community's efforts, the chances for recovery will be greatly diminished.

Weapons of mass destruction, once only the province of major powers' militaries, are now in the hands of ruthless dictators and could even fall into the possession of lone individuals. So, when dictators like Saddam Hussein threaten international security with these weapons--nuclear, chemical, or biological--we must stand against him, prepared to use force if necessary.

We must aggressively address the spread of terrorism, organized crime, drugs, and violence, both at home and abroad. We have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that attacks like those on the World Trade Center or in Oklahoma City never happen again. Our citizens must be protected against the threats of biological warfare. But these threats must also be tackled beyond our borders in order to make the entire world safer for American citizens to travel, explore, invest, and conduct business. We must work against an international environment plagued by chaos, violence, and economic instability, and toward a world in which our companies can grow and our people can prosper.

When we act to counter the impact of these destructive forces, as we strive to facilitate the opening of markets and the integration of a global economy, we must do so with the support of an informed American public. For this reason, our national conversation about foreign policy must be a dialogue, not a monologue.

An informed and active American public is vital to the conduct of our foreign policy. People's lives are often directly affected by the decisions that diplomats make at the international level. Their support makes diplomats more credible at the international table and is a requirement for political leaders and policy makers alike back at home. …

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