Why Small States Matter to Big Powers
Washington does a good job of making and keeping its partners, but why settle for good when it could be great?
Step 8. Get Governance/Human Rights in the Right Place on the Agenda. On the one hand, not all of the small states that the U.S should partner with are free of internal strife. On the other hand, not every time America has tried to assist with such issues has helped. The Bush administration had a troubled democracy-promotion agenda. Obama made an impressive speech about freedom in the Muslim world that was followed by very little effort to advance the cause of freedom in the Muslim world. Instead of explicitly focusing on promoting democracy and the trappings of democratic practice (e.g., elections and political parties), the American agenda ought to concentrate on the fundamentals of freedom: (a) governance, e.g., battling corruption and protecting the infrastructure and institutions that strengthen civil society and (b) fundamental human rights.
Here, no one-size-fits-all policy will work—for instance, in some cases, the priority might be advancing religious liberty, in others, it might be economic freedom that comes first. In some cases what’s needed is quiet in diplomacy, and in others, the U.S. government should name and shame. When it comes to U.S. engagement efforts, issues about freedom and human rights should always be on the menu—that doesn’t mean they should all be the first course.
America ought to get its partnerships right as well. In some cases, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) make good partners. In others, to be honest, they create more problems than they solve. The Open Society Foundation (OSF) is a case in point. OSF and one of the organization’s largest benefactors, George Soros, are a subject of considerable controversy. Some have called attacks on George Soros’ support for such groups as “the demonization of philanthropy.” This debate aside, there is an honest question to be asked if OSF is a good fit for a non-partisan American foreign policy. After all, the U.S. government ought to ensure that its partnerships with NGOs are productive and consistent with American interests.
Step 9. Do Better at Public Diplomacy. There is little question that President Trump views strategic communications as an important tool in advancing his policies. But, he appears to have little interest in promoting a grand strategic narrative about anything—let alone how to handle small states. Trump uses the voice of the presidency for a variety of near-term tactical purposes. The U.S. government cannot rely on the power of the White House pulpit to paint the narrative of how American will team with small states. The public diplomacy part of this effort won’t work top down. There needs to be an integrated public diplomacy strategy to account for this, and a lot of American voices have to be part of small state outreach.
Step 10. Go on the Offense on BRI and Russian Economic Exploitation. Small countries are particularly vulnerable to the malicious effects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The good thing is that the downsides of the initiative are becoming increasingly evident. BRI lacks transparency and brings with it corruption and mounting debt. This creates opportunities for the United States to go on the offensive with information campaigns that highlight China’s illiberal influences. At the same time, Washington should also help U.S. partners identify the risks of Russian influence and economic investment in key sectors like energy—risks that could threaten the national security and good governance of small nations.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano oversees the think tank’s research on issues of national security and foreign relations