Common folks making foreign policy

A 'round-table' approach pioneered in Canada is now getting attention

If war is too important to leave to the generals, foreign policy may be too important to leave to the guys in the striped pants.

Several countries are trying new ways to involve their citizens on international issues - especially the "new" issues less easily addressed through traditional channels, such as immigration, science, and the environment.

Canada has established itself as a leader in this field, sometimes called "public diplomacy."

In round-table discussions and other forums, knowledgeable citizens have joined politicians and diplomats not only to consult but actually to make foreign policy.

Just days after a discussion on East Timor in February, for example, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy issued a statement that followed the citizen recommendations very closely.

Both the statement and citizen recommendations supported the United Nations tripartite process, demanded an immediate cease-fire, and called for establishment of a UN presence in East Timor.

Moreover, the Canadian model is having wide influence. "We consider Canada among the pioneers of this concept, especially since Minister Axworthy took over," says Rdiger Lemp, an official at the German Embassy in Ottawa.

As an example of German initiatives inspired by Ottawa, Mr. Lemp cites a broad public forum in Germany this month on global issues, including the environment.

One center's key role

The Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development (CCFPD) is at the heart of Ottawa's efforts to include citizen policymakers. Over the past 15 years, says CCFPD national director Steven Lee, "There's been an awareness that the public can add value to thinking about foreign policy."

Canada's internationalism is related to its nationalism, reflecting both altruism and the desire to make a distinctive, maple-leaf-shaped mark in the world. Axworthy has cut a high profile by championing such "human security" issues as banning land mines and controlling small arms.

His ideas about "soft power" have been criticized by conservatives as naive or worse. But in the main, his approach connects with deeply held Canadian values.

Last spring the center held a series of discussions called National Forum Meetings to gather citizen input on Arctic policy. Local government officials, economic development activists, journalists, academics, and even a sprinkling of high school students took part.

Results included a discussion paper candid enough to ask whether circumpolar policy has "any relevance or importance for the overwhelming majority of Canadians," and to ask further, "If so, what is it, and how can Canadians be convinced?"

More recently, the center held a day-long citizen roundtable on global water issues (see related story, this page).

Early signs of impact

Mr. Lee hesitates to connect policy elements too directly to specific citizen inputs. "That would be unfair to the dynamic of the policy process."

But he cites a number of examples where they have made a difference. "On small arms, for instance," Lee says, "including people outside of government gave us the medical perspective, and the gun-control/policing perspective."

One of the many countries watching Ottawa's efforts to include citizen policymakers is Slovakia. Its government in Bratislava has two main foreign-policy goals: entry into NATO and entry into the European Union. Strengthening the country's democratic culture is critical to both.

Thus, says Peter Hulenyi, second secretary of the Slovakian Embassy in Ottawa, "Our ambition is to involve and attract the public and the NGO sector in foreign affairs.... We are thinking of inviting Mr. Lee to Slovakia."

Interest elsewhere

Britain is another country whose representatives in Ottawa have looked closely at the CCFPD. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook have just in the last year launched the Foreign Policy Centre in London, intended, like the CCFPD, to provide government with an alternative stream of policy choices.

Coordinator Kate Ford says one initiative that has caused "quite a stir" recently has been a paper titled, "Making the Commonwealth Matter," recommending that the Commonwealth nations - those once part of the British Empire - have a political head able to speak out on relevant issues.

The Commonwealth, headed by the apolitical Queen Elizabeth II, currently tends to take a "softly, softly" approach on any controversy, Ms. Ford observes.

"New style" policy development appeals to governments because it fits well with "new style" policy issues.

These tend to involve more parts of government than just a country's foreign ministry, and to be less "vertical" or hierarchical, and more "horizontal" - like the intellectual culture of the Internet.

The appeal of citizen-influenced foreign policy appears poised to spread. Two other countries whose diplomats have consulted at the CCFPD are Norway and South Africa.

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