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Event recap: DC conference sheds insights into ways to restore public confidence in foreign policy experts

May 14, 2019

Congressman Adam Smith (WA) video statement
Congressman Adam Smith (WA) gives a video keynote address at the Jackson School's D.C. International Policy Institute Conference, May 2, 2019. Photo by Monique Thormann

How can we restore public confidence in foreign policy experts? That is the question that senior-level international affairs representatives from the U.S. Department of State, American University, University of Maryland, Elliott School of International Affairs, UW Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation tackled on May 2 in Washington D.C. with over 50 members of the public and national and international organizations and universities.

Watch a video of the conference by following this link*Note* You can skip to each speaker in the timeline provided beneath the video screen

See the full agenda here.

Jackson School Faculty Daniel Bessner speaks about the history of the role of foreign policy expertise

Jackson School Assistant Professor Daniel Bessner speaks about the history and arc of the role of foreign policy expertise, May 2, 2019.

The public forum, hosted by the Jackson School in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, featured Congressman Adam Smith (WA-9th District) via video along with academics Nora Bensahel, Senior Fellow and Visiting ProfessorJohns Hopkins School of International Studies; Jackson School Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor of American Foreign Policy Daniel Bessner; Christine BN Chin, Dean of the School of International Service at American University; Chris Kojm, an international affairs professor and Director of the Elliott School’s Leadership, Ethics and Practice Initiative; and, Henry Nau, a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Michael Ratney, U.S. Department of State Special Envoy to Syria and Senior Foreign Service Officer, also served as a panelist.

The event was made possible through the generous support of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York. Additional support was provided by the Jackson School’s Title VI National Resource Centers: Center for Global Studies; East Asia Center; South Asia Center; and, Southeast Asia Center.

After opening remarks by Graham Cornwell, Assistant Dean of Research at the Elliott School of International Affairs, along with Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba and Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, the panelists looked to lessons from history and successes and failures in bridging the gap between the public and foreign policy elites.

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director, Henry M. Jackson Foundation, as moderator

Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director, Henry M. Jackson Foundation, moderates the panel discussion on lessons learned on the role of U.S. foreign policy expertise. May 2, 2019. Photo by co-host GWU Elliott School of Public Affairs

Lessons learned from foreign policy expertise engagement with the public
The four panelists tackling the issue–Bensahel, Bessner, Kojm and Nau–emphasized the need for academic and policy experts to make foreign policy meaningful to fellow citizens and their lives, noting “that more of a problem today is the extent to which scholarly advice is being listened to at all in the public arena,” said Nau.

“Foreign policy experts have for too long isolated themselves from the public,” said the Jackson School’s Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor of American Foreign Policy Daniel Bessner in his statement. “Experts have failed to engage citizens where they live and work. Worse, they typically tell the public what must be done instead of presenting multiple choices from which they can choose…”

He went on to propose the Iraq War as a significant reason why the American public has lost faith in foreign policy experts, as well as its use by President Trump in his presidential campaign win in realizing that “the American public has neither forgiven nor forgotten in initiating one of the longest and most frivolous wars in U.S. history.”

The group all agreed upon the need to engage the public in new ways, including listening and learning from citizens and presenting choices, as well as presenting meaningful material in “plain English.” They spoke of the need for social scientists to recognize their own political bias, and that experts have not been self-critical enough in presenting facts. One key question that emerged was what do we [foreign policy experts and academics] do when facts and expertise don’t matter.

Moderator Lara Iglitzin also questioned the panel on the role of Congress, who represent the public, in outreach and engagement efforts by foreign policy experts.

Other specific suggested actions for foreign policy academics and experts to restore public confidence included: 1) Admit failure, and tell those stories; 2) Be more humble that we don’t have all the answers; 3) Listen more than we preach; 4) Share personal on-the-ground experience more; 5) Help reporters get the story right: Ask the journalist the main thrust of the story, and shape that with a relevant comment.

Jackson School Director Resat Kasaba moderates the panel session on educating the next generation of foreign policy experts

Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba moderates the panel session on educating the next generation of foreign policy experts, May 2, 2019.

Educating the next generation in an era of public distrust toward the expert
“It is an incredibly challenging moment [in diplomacy],” said Congressman Adam Smith, via video, in his remarks thanking the UW Jackson School and Elliott School for hosting such a timely event given a challenging moment in U.S. foreign policy and a changing world. “We need partners. We need allies. It is impossible for the U.S. to do it all on its own. The rest of world is going to want to be included in the discussion.” He emphasized how critical it is for the U.S. to develop diplomatic skills and knowledge about other nations “to give us a more prosperous world and advance U.S. interests.”

In looking at how schools, think tanks and bureaucracies attract and train high-capable diplomats, defense experts and international economists in an era of isolationism, Michael Ratney, U.S. Department of State Special Envoy to Syria and Senior Foreign Service Officer, underscored the need for language skills and “being comfortable going into a setting wherever it is” as two key fundamental traits of someone successful in diplomacy while Christine BN Chin, Dean of American University’s School of International Service, highlighted the need to pay attention to the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence in diplomacy training and engagement.

This led to further discussion on opportunities and challenges for Schools of international affairs, ranging from how should we anticipate and respond to AI in curricula and related to that, the kinds of jobs in which to train foreign policy experts over the next five to ten years.

Other topics included the need to expand affordability and accessibility for international affairs students, and to increase the depth and breadth of academic training to address complex transnational issues, such as pandemics, international migration, environment challenges. This includes ensuring students are exposed to a range of different industries so they can understand and choose for themselves an appropriate career path, such as learning from a retired general who can share global military experience to someone working on the frontlines of Ebola.

Jackson School Director Kasaba, who moderated the panel, closed the conference by thanking the panelists and audience for their contributions, and those who hosted and organized the event.


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.