Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Making Latin America Policy

I recommend Evan Ellis' post at Global Americans on his recently completed year at the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff. He now returns to the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. It is a useful read both for its insider look and its discussion of "why does this matter?"

Here is a key point:
The problem is also compounded by the fundamental orientation of the State Department to tell our partners what we think and want, rather than listening to what they think and want. While seasoned diplomats know better in their personal interaction, I observed the balance of the work that came across my desk to be about “transmitting” rather than “receiving.” Every high-level meeting involves the preparation of “talking points” seeking to advance an agenda, too seldom did they include questions about what our partners thought or needed.
This echoes Lars Schoultz's In Their Own Best Interest, where he questions all "uplifting" aid, the effects of which are never measured. We can check boxes on delivery and execution, but not on whether it actually makes lives better. Making lives better requires starting with what our partners actually want. This has often been true, but is accentuated in the Trump era.
In my own work, I did not see substantial evidence that the strategy and policy documents of each organization are actively used as guides to action by the other, beyond superficial references to fundamental documents such as the National Security Strategy. I also witnessed and participated in the drafting of some interagency documents, but beyond the somewhat useful exercise of meeting and coordinating about their wording, I did not perceive that the result meaningfully impacted the direction of either state or the other U.S. government entities involved.
This is clearly a Trump administration problem, though past administrations were clearly not immune.  Unlike the past, though, the essential problem now is that policy is made by tweet, with government agencies scrambling to interpret it just like the rest of us. How do you feel like you're doing something meaningful when the president ignores you?

I appreciate these kinds of perspectives. As a side note, as he does not address it, I know a number of people who have moved from academia to policy making and back, and I know their view of of the relevance and accuracy of academic work changed dramatically. I have not felt great temptation to try the policy making world myself, even as I recognize that even in small doses it would make us better analysts.


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