Power to the People: Taking Diplomacy to the Streets

A more nimble, realistic foreign-policy strategy requires diplomacy with civil society. At best, it will contribute constructively to political change brought about by domestic actors, serving more liberal rule and U.S. interests.

March-April 2015

TODAY, AMERICAN diplomatic compounds around the world resemble armed bunkers, resting behind higher and higher walls, literally and figuratively, than ever before. After the tragic 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed, politicized criticisms of how he perished led to calls for fortress diplomacy. Whatever intelligence or operational failures occurred in Benghazi, a clear-eyed view of the tragedy would recognize that Stevens was doing precisely what American diplomats must—talking with local players. Stevens clearly understood that his mission required him to talk to Libyans, to venture beyond the high-walled safety of the embassy.

In fact, lowering the metaphorical walls guarding U.S. diplomacy by developing a strategy of engagement with civil society is overdue. “America must always lead on the world stage,” President Barack Obama stated at West Point in May 2014. “U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.” He went on to allude to soft-power tools, arguing that the United States forms alliances “not just with governments, but also with ordinary people.”

Civil society–focused diplomacy offers good value. Enlarging the space for civil society can catalyze change at a minute fraction of the cost the United States pays to maintain its military dominance. It also aligns with U.S. values, since aiding civil society is a way for the United States to bolster universal human rights and cultivate democratic aspirations. It is good for America’s image in the world—scenes of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton meeting with Afghan women leaders, holding roundtables with Burmese activists and dancing with Malawian farmers have helped restore America’s reputation as a force for good. Above all, it can serve a dynamic understanding of U.S. interests by anticipating and, where possible, influencing shifts in countries’ leadership.

The Obama administration launched its “Stand with Civil Society” initiative in late 2013, but it has yet to satisfactorily articulate or implement a detailed vision for what such a “societal diplomacy” should involve. What does such person-to-person diplomacy entail in practice? What can it achieve? And what happens when societal diplomacy comes into tension with traditional government-to-government diplomacy?


THE IDEA of “societal diplomacy” is a simple one—it rests on the notion that America’s international relations need not be limited to other sovereign governments. Rather, the U.S. government must engage and build relationships with civil society, which encompasses the broad general public, political activists and human-rights defenders, the legal community, businesses, academics and independent media. Washington should, moreover, aim to liberalize governments and protect civil society’s agency.

The first major goal of societal diplomacy is to carve out space for civil society worldwide, especially in countries where illiberal governments are seeking to monitor and shrink the space for civil society to dissent, resist and rally for reform. Openness and free expression facilitate reform and innovation, which, in turn, spur economic development and prosperity. An empowered citizenry may also be more likely to question going to war, which incentivizes more peaceful and cooperative behavior among states.

Second, societal diplomacy would serve to further U.S. interests by hedging its bets on who will wield power in the future in a given country and enhancing its legitimacy by matching rhetoric about democracy with deeds. The United States can gain flexibility in responding to unpredictable outcomes in countries where current power arrangements may not hold. America should expand its notion of what defines a foreign partner to include liberal opposition actors in order to build relationships that will outlast brittle autocracies. By nurturing relationships with democratic activists and community leaders, the United States can position itself on the “right side of history,” the term Obama so hesitantly used in reference to Egyptians calling for democratic change in 2011.

Finally, societal diplomacy would have positive ramifications for the United States’ legitimacy as a global leader. Popular acceptance of American global leadership has declined over the last decade. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, foreign countries’ confidence in the ability of the American president to “do the right thing regarding global affairs” was dismal during the George W. Bush presidency (in 2005 and 2006, there was not a single nation in which over 75 percent of its population expressed confidence), and has declined throughout the course of the Obama presidency after an initial spike. In acting unilaterally to invade Iraq on a false pretext, violating international human-rights standards at Guantánamo Bay, and instituting a legally and ethically dubious targeted-killing program against suspected terrorists, the United States has lost some of the moral authority that it once claimed as the leader of the free world.