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Foundations Role in the Making of Foreign Policy

The Role of Foundations in the Making of Foreign Policy

Honorable Mitchell B. Reiss, Director, Policy Planning Staff
Remarks to the German Marshall Fund
Washington, DC
December 6, 2004

Thank you very much for that kind introduction. I am grateful to Craig Kennedy and the German Marshall Fund for inviting me to speak to such a distinguished group of foundation leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. I also have to confess that it is an added pleasure for me to be dining at Nora's, which I can't normally afford to do on a government salary.

We all know the excellent work of GMF, but, during my time as Director of Policy Planning, I have become even more deeply impressed by the Fund's work. The findings of the Transatlantic Trends survey of public opinion in the United States and Europe have influenced the policy recommendations I have sent to Secretary Powell. I have also had the pleasure of speaking to a group organized by the Transatlantic Center in Brussels and benefited from discussion with that impressive group of opinion makers and opinion shapers GMF gathered together. And, I realize my exposure to GMF represents the tip of an iceberg that is both deep, in terms of the large network of Marshall Memorial Fellows, and wide, in terms of the scope of GMF's work, as the Fund prepares to open a new office in Turkey. Craig, it is a testament to your leadership that GMF has developed from a philanthropic source to a genuine leader in analysis and in facilitating substantive exchanges over the past several years.

I am honored to be addressing such a distinguished gathering. I have never had the privilege of working at a foundation, but I've had two other vantage points on foundations. I have been both a grantee and a consumer of work you fund. I have to confess that I enjoy being a consumer more than I did being a supplicant.

Foundations do many things, from educational outreach to community service. What I want to address this evening is the aspect of your mission that tries to influence public policy. The work you do and the work you support through grants to talented men and women around the globe creates new intellectual capital, generates new ideas for solving some of the world's most difficult problems, and informs government officials so that we can adopt new policies to resolve these challenges.

I remember well my many years as a supplicant, seeking funds from foundations for projects on nonproliferation and regional security. A common requirement from the foundation community was: How will this project influence American foreign policy? My project, I would dutifully write, will fundamentally change the course of human history -- or at least receive a respectful hearing from a desk officer at the State Department.

Of course there are limits to what any one person, or any single grant, can accomplish. But the question forced me to think long and hard: How do you influence American foreign policy, or the policy of any government, for that matter? How can my ideas impact public policy? How can I persuade officials to adopt my recommendations?

In my current position as director of policy planning, I'm entrusted with helping Secretary Powell "look around corners," to see what's coming, and prepare for it. My responsibility is to help the Secretary identify trends and anticipate the implications and consequences of the decisions he makes and, not least, to provide him with new ideas.

In this role, I often meet with people outside of government, including some of your grantees, to listen and learn about their ideas, and to understand how other people see the world and the problems we all face. My motivation is clear -- we at the State Department don't have all the answers. So to best serve the Secretary, I need to meet with creative, out-of-the-box thinkers to seek out the best possible ideas; it is part of my job.

That said, it is with some large measure of regret that I must tell you that the ideas put forward by many members of the community you support have been disappointing. To be blunt, they have been irrelevant to the work we do. Much of what I see is heavy on criticism and light on constructive suggestions.

Why is that so? There are four basic reasons:

First, few grantees have had government experience. While this is not essential, such experience is undeniably helpful. Grantees do not understand how decisions are made or who makes them. They do not understand the appropriate entry points into the system to maximize their effectiveness. They do not know whether to target a desk officer, office director, deputy assistant secretary, or in-country ambassador. And the deficit here relates not only to the executive branch. Congress is a critical player in the making of foreign policy and grantees need to think about how to engage Members and senior staff as advocates of their recommendations as well.

Second, the focus of many policy recommendations is too short-term advice on what we should do next week or next month. This may not be the fault of the grantees. The conditions of the grant may demand short-term deliverables op-eds, monographs and the like. The problem with this analytical timeframe is that there is an enormous imbalance in information between those inside the government and those on the outside. It is virtually impossible for someone outside of government to have better tactical information than we do, where one key fact can alter a policy recommendation. If you want to wage a tactical battle over policy, it is a battle you are unlikely to win.

Third, many outside analysts are "outside" because they are not in the political camp of the incumbent administration and do not share key strategic principles with government analysts. In such cases, those who write to get something off their chest, or to patronize anti-establishment sponsors, may make themselves feel better, but they have virtually no chance of persuading people in government of their views. I'm afraid that rather a lot of think-tank products fall into this category. Alternatively, analysts of the same political party as those in power often are reluctant to be critical either because they hope to get a position in the administration or because of personal friendships. These contributions also do little to further policy formulation.

Fourth, in many cases, outside analyses, even of longer-term issues, are simply not detailed enough, specific enough, to fit into a decision-maker's world. General analyses can be very influential if they frame reality in a new and illuminating way. But advocacy that lacks a hook into the policy process is not likely to be influential. "Nice argument," a busy policymaker might say, "but it doesn't give me any idea of what to do." Such analyses fail to illuminate in practical terms how to translate theory into policy.

The present approach may be fine for training young minds, and there is nothing more important than building human capital. It may work to build a communal feeling among those out of government. It may in some way affect the broad intellectual milieu in which policy is made. But as a way to influence public policy, it is an approach that isn't serving you well, and it's not serving those of us in the government well either. You can do better, and we need you to do better.

If I may, let me offer some modest suggestions on a way forward.

Never compete on tactics, compete on strategy. In other words, your comparative advantage is helping us understand longer-term trends and developments. Outside of the Policy Planning Office, very few places in government have either the time or the capacity for such thinking. And I know that you do fund this type of research on the impact of changing demographics in Europe in the coming decades, for example.

This is where the difference in the U.S. government between foreign relations and foreign policy really comes to the fore. I think it is fair to say that most of the people at the State Department do foreign relations the short-term day-to-day management of our relations with the rest of the world. Very few think about foreign policy. This is where there is a real need for creative thinking.

Why does Henry Kissinger, at the age of 81, still have interesting and important things to say? Because he focuses on the strategic level, not the tactical level. It is no accident that many believe him to be the foremost strategic thinker of our age. Does anyone ever call him or anyone else the foremost tactical thinker of our age? If they did, would Henry take that as a compliment? He wouldn't, and he shouldn't.

But even if you agree that there is a need for a more strategic perspective, where do you place your bets. Even the wealthiest foundation has limited resources how do you spend them?

Obviously, each foundation's direction is established by its mission and its Board. But again, let me suggest some areas where we need your assistance.

Bridging the divide between science and technology on the one hand and public policy on the other leaps to mind. This is an old story, well told many years ago in a famous book by C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures. The two cultures exist today, and I fear the gap is growing. (Alas, political scientists like myself aren't really scientists.) The generation of Scientists/Statesmen that cut their teeth on the Manhattan Project have almost completely passed from the scene. Is there anyone with similar stature today to speak authoritatively on issues of science and public policy?

I know that many of you recognize this need and support programs to address it. These are all worthwhile. But may I suggest that what is required is a larger effort to endow university chairs so that faculty members from the sciences can be formally encouraged without the threat of tenure hanging over their heads to branch out from their narrow disciplines and immerse themselves in those topics where science bisects public policy.

There is another divide that handicaps our policy making the gap between the civilian and the military worlds. Again, this is not new, but the divide is large and it is also growing. There has been a steady decline in the number of Members of Congress who have served in the military. In my own building, I wouldn't want to bet on how many would know the difference between a brigade and a battalion. We civilians owe a duty to ourselves, to the men and women in uniform and to the country to learn how the military operates, to understand military doctrine and tactics, and to recognize the limitations of even the world's greatest fighting force.

Again, I know that some foundations have programs to teach civilians about the military. More needs to be done.

Finally, for those of you representing foundations that fund work on transatlantic relations, it is critical not only to fund work on European integration or the Balkans, but also to fund thinkers looking at what the United States and Europe can do together in the wider world. The Europeans are our closest partners in rebuilding a free, democratic Afghanistan. And, yes, even in Iraq, Europeans are there with us on the ground. The European Security Strategy, agreed by the European Union last December, identifies Weapons of Mass Destruction, terrorism, and failed states as the top three threats facing Europe. The ESS has many similarities to my own Administration's National Security Strategy. These are the top threats facing the United States as well. We have done an excellent job on both sides of the Atlantic describing the challenges we face. Now, we need to work on forging common prescriptions to deal with those challenges. This is where the debates will be in the coming years over the policies we need to adopt to address these global challenges. Here, again, we need fresh thinking.

And fresh thinking is needed most urgently in another area as well. For the coming decades, probably for the next few generations, the main strategic focus of the United States and Europe -- is going to be that part of the world we refer to as the greater Middle East, from North Africa to Afghanistan. It is the world's most volatile region. It is a cauldron of sectarian rivalries, religious disputes, ethnic conflicts, and clashing historical experiences.

The region's difficulties are compounded by a host of social, political, and economic problems. Throughout the entire region, including all 22 Arab countries, only Israel and Turkey are genuinely democratic. In fact, the combined gross domestic product of all the Arab countries is less than that of Spain. Almost a quarter of the Arab world's population is illiterate, and 15% of it is unemployed.

To all of these troubling statistics is added a looming demographic crisis. At present, over half of the region's population is under the age of 22, which will cause the total population of the Broader Middle East to nearly double over the next 25 years. Arab economies will need to grow by 5-6% annually to absorb all these new workers, a pretty high bar for a region where many economies are currently flat. And it is impossible to maintain, after the September 11 attacks, that the problems of the Broader Middle East can be contained. In a globalizing world, they can't. Over the next 25 years, one of the most difficult challenges for American foreign policy will be to find a way to reach out to the many diverse people of this region. Helping these people create a better future for themselves is not just a moral luxury. It is a strategic necessity.

But are we equipped to do so? It is one thing to identify a problem and quite another to marshal the resources to address it. Specifically, do we have the intellectual capital to allow us to engage in meaningful ways with the diverse peoples of this region? We have all read the 9/11 Commission report lamenting the lack of trained linguists in the American intelligence community, and we have all read the news reports about our inability to quickly translate communications and documents, because the FBI does not have enough language specialists to translate them.

But there is not just a need for specialists to help us on the battlefield. How can we interact with this region, how can we have a conversation with the people of this region, especially the young people, if we don't speak their language, if we don't understand their culture, if we're ignorant of their fears and aspirations? The short answer is: We can't. We literally have nothing to say to them.

This has to change. And to be sure, the U.S. Government has a role to play here, just as it did after Sputnik in providing federal funding for the Russian language and Soviet studies. But the foundation community has a role to play also. It can lead the way. Again, I know that many of you have already adopted programs to address this need. And again, I am saying that we need you to do more.

I have another confession to make. To all the leaders of the foundation community I envy you. All of you have the power to change the world. All of us in government need your leadership, your vision and your continuing support for scholars, academics and other experts who are also struggling to make sense of the swirl of events around us. To figure out ways to safeguard the planet, to provide peace and security around the world, and to promote our values -- respect for human rights, religious freedom, and representative democracy. The challenge is large. The need is great. All of us in government need your help. Thank you very much.


Released on December 7, 2004

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