July 23, 2019

What is the best role for citizen voices in foreign policy?

A View From The Cave will be co-hosting today’s question so feel free to check out the discussion over there as well. Here goes:

There are views along a spectrum about the appropriate role for citizens in the foreign policy process. On one view, citizens should focus solely on “noise-making”  – akin to the ‘bumper-sticker’ model the Save Darfur movement was pursuing until 2006. Under another view, citizens should be pushing for specific policies generated by advocacy leaders – akin to the model the Enough Project follows. What are the risks at either end of the spectrum? What would be the challenges in pursuing a middle-ground?


  1. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Okay, so cross-posting here some of the responses in from over at A View From the Cave.

    Dan Razer wrote:

    I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. ‘Noise-making’ is
    important; it builds the political will that makes it possible for
    political leaders to act. And it also builds larger coalitions; people
    are united by a common set of values or vision for what they want change
    accomplish. It’s also true that without a policy specific focus, the
    best means to accomplish the desired end is lost. Subtleties and
    technical knowledge are sometimes drowned out in an activist approach.
    while it’s important for bureaucrats and politicians to be lobbied for
    policy specific change, this requires specific knowledge. It’s difficult

    to build broad coalitions and this approach relies more on specific
    knowledge. You need more committed, issue specific advocates.

    I see it as a ‘Gas in the Engine’ analogy. Gas is the values that drive
    change. I can be used to fuel the foreign aid hatchback, progressive
    health care sedan or climate change compact (yes, feel free to laugh at the analogy now). It’s the same people
    pumping the gas, and without them, moving forward is impossible. But
    you need drivers, in purpose built cars, who know that navigating
    traffic is more complex than flooring the pedal.

  2. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Morgan Ashenfelter wrote:

    The major risk factor I see for the “noisemakers” is that they may not be proposing realistic solutions, especially if their perception of the problem is exaggerated. That could give policy-makers an excuse to ignore them. The risk with only seeking policy-based solutions is that it becomes one more piece of legislation in a long to-do list for members of Congress and without outrage from a large group of citizens, they may not respond since their priorities are more influenced by other factors.

    I don’t think the middle-ground would generate enough “noise” from citizens to compel the government to act. One reason Save Darfur was so successful was because of the use of extreme terms like genocide, which grabs and keeps people’s attention (the keep part being particularly important with today’s 24/7 news attention spans). I think that both noise-making and pushing for specific policies can exist side-by-side and actually help each other achieve their goals. I don’t see any reason why the middle-ground should be taken.

  3. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Scott Delaney wrote:

    As a predicate matter, I think it’s helpful to define the intended audience and purpose of citizen activism. In my view, the primary utility of such activists–which is to say those not directly involved in policymaking–is to create awareness of a problem and therefore political pressure and urgency. Absent wars and existential threats, issue-specific foreign policy platforms aren’t typically the issues on which citizens base their votes. For example, few if any people vote for Candidate A over Candidate B because A wants sanctions against, say, Bahrain, and B wants to rely on back-channel diplomacy alone. Other factors (domestic, etc.) are typically more important in elections. Thus, outside the context of a Big Question of Foreign Policy, there are only two (maybe three) sources of political pressure to solve these problems: (1) lobbyists and special interest groups, which may include NGOs like the Enough Project; and (2) grassroots efforts like those launched by the Save Darfur campaign. (The third is the inherent obligation to address foreign policy crises abroad even in unpopular places, but in politics this isn’t going to animate much discussion.)

    Within this framework, citizen activists can galvanize a movement by pressuring policymakers directly or by aggregating under an interest group and funneling their efforts through the intermediary. In both cases, activists’ primary role is generate energy. They needn’t advocate specific policy solutions; rather, they must only raise their voices to create pressure on those more knowledgeable and better-positioned to make judgments regarding specific answers.

    In this way, I’m not sure it helps to have activists engaged in nuanced advocacy, lest the broader message get lost. “Save Darfur” is a compelling bumper sticker and really says nothing of substance. That campaign was undoubtedly successful insofar as it raised awareness and created a tremendous amount of political pressure where none might otherwise have existed. True, we didn’t actually “save” darfur at all–the problem persists and now it faces the additional challenge of being yesterday’s news–but at the first instance, at least someone gave a damn. I don’t think it would have happened without the grassroots efforts, and nuanced, middle-ground bumper stickers wouldn’t have been as successful–“Demobilize The Tangled Web of Non-State Militias Backed by Regional Governments in Darfur” just doesn’t get the blood flowing the same way as “Save Darfur” (and car bumpers aren’t that big anyway!).

    Thus, the risk of large scale advocacy efforts predicated on nuanced policy prescriptions is that the efforts will never get off the ground (see, e.g., Obama’s first few years in office). They may be more technically accurate, but what’s the point if they achieve nothing? In my view, better to raise general awareness among general activists, then leverage that awareness toward specific ends. The Enough Project gets this right, I think, except that they don’t do enough to galvanize support in the first place. (BTW, I don’t mean to say I agree with all of the Enough Project’s positions, only that I think their mix of advocacy efforts can be, if executed effectively, compelling.)

    A final note: yes, I’m with you 100% on the risks of glazing over the details and/or adhering to extremes merely to garner attention. As someone who has worked for judges, I can say with certainty that advocates lose credibility when they stake out positions far from anything that’s reasonable and attainable. Moreover, provocative positions may provoke, but they do nothing to find precise solutions, manage expectations, responsibly frame the dilemma, etc. The challenge, then, is to create a reasonable message easily accessible by all, yet malleable enough to be sculpted by those more engaged in the issue. Shout “Save Darfur” to grab the spotlight, then settle in over a beer and have a real conversation about the middle ground and the best way forward.

    (and with that, i’ll quit inflicting myself on all the good view-from-the-cave readers!)

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