Rethinking foreign policymaking

Posted on 15. January 2016

by Linda Ohman

linda-ohmanWorld politics is becoming increasingly tangible to Europeans. Recent events such as the war in Ukraine, deteriorating relations with Russia, as well as the migration wave to Europe bring foreign affairs – and especially conflicts – closer to home. These events not only take place in Europe and its immediate vicinity, but are also increasingly intertwined, succeeding one another at an ever higher pace. Their complexity and the uncertainty brought with it makes foreign affairs more challenging to grasp, but also increases the need for a basic understanding of foreign policy and foreign policymaking.

At the 2015 Berlin Foreign Policy Forum, the events mentioned were addressed along with other current European and German foreign policy issues. High-ranking politicians, government officials, experts, and journalists covered topics ranging from relations with Russia to China’s rise in world politics, demonstrating the wide spectrum of European foreign policy, but also revealing the number of conflict zones in Europe and its neighbouring regions. Conflicts were a recurrent topic throughout the forum, where debates touched upon differing perceptions, underlying disputes dating back in history, as well as actions undertaken to solve them. However, despite the focus on conflicts, the discussions fell short of presenting a clear vision for foreign policy.

But why be concerned with visions when there are attempts to deal with conflicts? Isn’t a solution to a conflict the most desirable achievement of foreign policymaking? It goes without saying that conflicts need to be overcome, but foreign policy goes beyond the field of conflict resolution. Solutions and visions are easily confused with one another, although they represent different aspects of policymaking: while solutions are attempts to settle current disputes, visions present the desired future direction of foreign policy. As compared to the solution which is rather practical in nature, the foreign policy vision is ideational and provides not only guidance when solving a single conflict, but also long-term goals for foreign policymaking that reach beyond the solution of an issue. Thus, a solution is – at its best – part of a vision and not in itself enough to establish credible foreign policy.

Without visions, foreign policy debate gets stuck in the present and past. When lacking a goal, foreign policymaking is reduced to a series of reactions to events. Alternatively, it clings to the past and gets lost in recalling shared historical achievements or indulging in arguments on unresolved disputes. Without the foresightedness that visions provide, foreign policymaking runs the risk of getting comfortable with not addressing the future, nor considering the consequences of political decisions – it is thus reduced to mere foreign policy-reacting.

Recent foreign policymaking has shown signs of both overtly focusing on solutions and avoiding addressing future outlooks. In the case of Ukraine, commentators tend to focus on implementing the Minsk Agreements and less on what will come after that; on migration to Europe, the major debate deals with how to stop migration instead of addressing the causes of migration or the challenges of integrating new citizens; debates on the Middle East conflicts are concerned with the region’s history of conflicts, as well as security concerns of the neighbouring regions. Rather than looking to the future, the future has become something to avoid or even ignore. Whether this is due to political tactics or a lack of willingness, foreign policy debate needs a revamp: scenarios and seemingly wild ideas, foreign policy red lines and values should form a natural part of such a debate. Issues should be dealt with not on the current case-by-case basis, detached from the broader context, but with an overarching goal. In essence, foreign policy needs to be introduced to foreign policymaking.

An open discussion on European foreign policymaking matters not only to foreign policymakers and experts, but to Europeans in general. As events in world politics increasingly affect the everyday lives of Europeans, a demand is emerging for discussions on foreign affairs, solutions to current conflicts and visions for the way forward. As foreign policy is no longer detached from domestic politics and the general public, foreign policy has more than a merely informative function: it not only signals the interests and priorities of a state, but also enables debate on foreign policy. Clear statements allow citizens to agree or disagree on policies, and take action accordingly. Either way, foreign policymaking would benefit from an open debate with broad participation where an informed civil society and the foreign policymaking elite interact. Otherwise, someone else will provide Europeans with visions and ideas about the future.