Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2017 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.
By Robert J. Berg
THE CHALLENGE: Being a superpower is not easy. One is expected to be a true global actor, addressing the issues of almost every country in ways that give recognition of individual needs and opportunities, and that allows for the development of mutual gains. President Obama is leaving important and constructive legacies with the majority of the world: the 120 countries that are neither rich nor very poor.
In the wake of the 2016 campaign for U.S. president, a lot of questions about America’s relations with Middle Income Countries were left unanswered. Do Americans really want to wall off Latin America? Is the U.S. helping Africa and Asia because of intrinsic interests in these areas, or as a reaction to China? Does the U.S. culturally understand that “those people” over there are now qualitatively different than their grandparents: their countries have a lot of high-quality leadership; the worst poverty in most of their countries is on the way to elimination; and there are greater opportunities for mutual gain?
Most fundamentally, does the U.S. recognize that the world is now mainly a middle class and emerging middle class world, and is our foreign policy attuned to this unprecedented situation? Most of the 120 or so countries in the middle would answer “No.” Latin America feels neglected by the U.S. while Africa and Asia wonder if the United States has the willingness and ability to follow-through.
THE CONTEXT: Donald Trump cannot afford a foreign policy in his first year that neglects the hot spots, big power relations, or the deterioration of European unity. But since the Middle Income Countries are our largest potential markets, the majority at the U.N., and in almost all cases actually want closer relations with the United States, he cannot afford to neglect them either — particularly when these countries see themselves as progressing while our closest allies stagnate.
Fortunately, the U.S. foreign policy infrastructure provides a strong base, so a well-run National Security Council managing larger vision and orchestrating departments (as opposed to its more recent proclivity to micro-manage, a strategy that guarantees only being able to focus on a limited number of countries at one time) can in the first 100 days set the stage for more meaningful relations throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
The countries in the middle have been progressing for the past two decades in nearly all areas of importance, but this has not been well appreciated in U.S. policy. It is like parents not noticing when their kids become adults. The old ways of dealing with these countries — aid, Peace Corps, cultural missions — badly need updating. In many countries these old-style programs are looked upon as remnants of the Cold War. One reason China has made so much progress in these countries is that they are seen as engaging not in aid but in advancing mutual interests.
In fact, USAID, for example, has done many things of a progressive nature recently, such as fostering innovation and promoting local social entrepreneurship.
Aid in the future surely can continue to advance sectors of traditional concern — education, health, agricultural development — public policies that foster enterprise. But the stress will increasingly be to move to areas that more openly address mutual interests, that do not substitute for local organizations and local governance, and that can be clearly perceived as steps up from old aid. Aid that draws upon the strengths of U.S. universities, corporations and NGOs is preferable to aid that draws upon high-cost consulting companies. The end point should be longer lasting collaborations, not longer lasting contracts.
New development collaboration needs to address some key problems that have long been neglected, such as making good use of the largest generation of youth in history, of joint discovery of ways to foster broad-based employment, of finding environmental stability and of helping countries towards more equity, all true global problems in which we have large mutual interests.
Mature relations demand trade that is open and clearly seen to be in the mutual interests of the U.S. and these countries. Political leadership inside the U.S. to foster more open trading systems will be deeply appreciated in these countries.
U.S. policymakers need to more frequently ask ‘what do these countries have to offer us’ instead of thinking only what the U.S. has to offer them. The U.S. needs to foster cultural ambassadors from these countries to come to the United States. The United States also needs to build out the most successful inter-cultural program ever, the Peace Corps, so that citizens of talent in those countries can serve in deserving settings in the U.S.
At the same time as more mature socio-economic programs are pursued, the U.S. must remain true to its values regarding governance. There is little appetite to being lectured to about democracy and good governance, but there remain serious obstacles to sound and fair governance in a great many countries. Democracy is on the decline. Civil society is being repressed on all continents. There are increasingly serious conflicts due to climate, over-population and inequality. The U.S. has voiced concern about these matters, but has been too quiet about framing these as threats to political progress and human rights.
At stake in an increasing number of countries is security and stability itself, which surely should raise the interest of our business and other internationally attuned communities. It also should lead to far more widespread application of the lessons of conflict resolution and conflict prevention, as many of these countries are beginning to fray around the edges. Enhancing cultures of non-violence and mature reconciliation could be one of the most important U.S. contributions to security and progress in the decade ahead.
Of foremost importance, political leaders in these countries — while knowing that their country may have only the population of a major U.S. county or state — want political face time with U.S. leadership. They want to be treated with dignity and case-specific attention.
PRAGMATIC STEPS: The U.S. must become far better at managing relevant and mature relations with the Middle Income Countries, including giving leaders of these countries important face time.
In the first 100 or so days of the next administration, the White House should announce a set of sub-regional consultations with President Trump. The White House also should announce a team of high-level emissaries to meet with these countries. These can include former presidents and other highly respected citizens who can speak for the administration in learning exercises to help form new policy.
The National Security Council should launch a learning of the best lessons from bilateral commissions and other oversight processes to hone less labor intensive and more productive consultations. The revised federal budget should resource the State Department so that it can manage more high-level relationships concurrently (outgoing regional assistant secretaries now talk openly about the cut backs — not advances — in getting adequate staff even for old style relations, let alone what is now required).
Overall, many more Middle Income Countries can become best partners and best supporters in achieving trade and other international agreements. Fostering fuller asset values of these countries for the U.S. is doable and can be a lasting hallmark of the next administration.
Robert J. Berg is a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center.