Most Americans support U.S. involvement overseas for humanitarian, environmental and other social causes, according to public opinion polls. Many support or work on refugee resettlement, peacemaking, and cultural exchange program through churches, civic groups, and universities. Yet they are not organized to influence policymakers, who generally believe that the U.S. public cares little about the rest of the world.
To narrow the gap between citizen concerns and policymaker perceptions, three initiatives have been founded recently. The Global Interdependence Initiative (GII) is a collaborative effort of the Aspen Institute, the Benton Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Better World Campaign (BWC) is a project of the United Nations Foundation founded with a $1 billion donation from media mogul Ted Turner. Global Connections (GC) is a project of InterAction, an umbrella association of U.S.-based nonprofit groups that carry on humanitarian work overseas.
Most Americans believe the US devotes far more to foreign aid than the actual figure.
The primary purpose of all three initiatives is to educate and mobilize constituencies to redirect and improve U.S. global engagement. The BWC is focused on the specific goal of getting the U.S. to pay more than $1 billion in back dues to the UN, while the other two have a related, broader purpose: bringing about a U.S. foreign policy that is more consistent with deeply held American values, such as compassion, hope, justice, and peace.
BWC and GC are relatively short-term efforts, designed to meet their goals in two or three years, while GII will operate over a decade– from 1998 to 2008. Directors of the three groups keep each other appraised of their activities and anticipate no problems with duplication or overlap.
Two of the three initiatives can rely on networks throughout the country, which will facilitate their campaigns at the grassroots level. InterAction, the home of GC, has 160 affiliated nonprofit members with millions of supporters nationwide. BWC draws on a network of 200 UN Association (UNA) chapters across the country with more than 22,000 individual members who support the UN. The third initiative, GII, has an advisory group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including groups such as CARE and the Sierra Club.
All three initiatives seek to educate and mobilize policymakers and the media, as well as the public, to correct misinformation about global engagement and raise its priority in American society. These three actors—the public, the policymakers, and the media—form an opinion loop on which each influences and reinforces the attitudes and behavior of the others, according to GII. The public, perceived as indifferent or even hostile to foreign affairs, has these attitudes reinforced by policymakers who denigrate foreign aid and by the media that present few news stories on international issues.
The three initiatives also have in common the goal of embracing a variety of viewpoints. BWC is creating partnerships with diverse groups ranging from the Rotary, which is active in small towns and has a long history of involvement and support of the UN, to faith-based communities such as United Methodist Women. Global Connections, too, has targeted diverse constituencies ranging from refugees concerned about the countries from which they emigrated to young professionals idealistic about the potential for world change.
GII will encourage diverse viewpoints on topical interests by giving priority to interdisciplinary activities, according to its coordinator, David Devlin-Foltz. For example, a human rights group and an environmental group might cooperate on a project to promote environmental justice, or organized labor and business interests might collaborate around the establishment of minimum working standards,” he said.
“We can’t see a problem whole unless we get a variety of perspectives– the human rights activists, the environmentalists, the development experts. No one group has a comprehensive view,” he added.
The public consistently overestimates the amount the US spends on foreign assistance by a factor of 10 to 20.
A determination to narrow the gap between Americans’ views on what U.S. foreign involvement should be and actual U.S. policy overseas is another strong drive common to the three initiatives. During separate interviews in May, the director of each initiative expressed concern about this discrepancy. Each referred to the “one percent gap” revealed in a study entitled Americans and Foreign Aid which found that most Americans believe the U.S. devotes far more to foreign aid than the actual figure, which is under one percent of the budget.” The public consistently overestimates the amount the U.S. spends on foreign assistance by a factor of 10 to 20, according to GC.
The public looks to policymakers to lead on foreign policy but today’s public officials are less concerned and less informed on global issues than at any time in the last 20 years, according to GC. Most politicians feel no pressure to lead on foreign policy because there are so few organized constituencies advocating the action. Because the public has few sources of information on global issues, the media play a central role in shaping public discourse. They focus on the sensational– natural disasters, famine, and “ethnic cleansing”– and omit countervailing success stories. With appropriate guidance, however, policymakers and the media may be able to stimulate new interest in foreign affairs and eventually influence a more balanced foreign policy that better reflects the interests of the American public.
Formation of the initiatives was prompted by national trends including a sense of the vacuum in foreign policy since the Cold War ended. The Cold War at least delineated U.S. allies and enemies. “There was a perverse security in the simple perception that we inhabited a bipolar world. It is unsettling for us all to have a sense that we don’t know how to control foreign policy any more,” said Devlin-Foltz.
The trends that produced these three projects have more ominous implications, however, according to J. Brian Atwood, departing administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In a farewell speech to the Overseas Development Council on June 29, he noted that the politics of the budget process is producing “backdoor isolationism” in the United States. The budget surplus of more than $1 trillion over the next 15 years is more than the combined GNPs of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, he said. “Yet we continue to run our government under budget caps set when we had a deficit.”
“Despite our prosperity today,” he warned, “we are in a negative spiral. We are already fast approaching a world where 10 percent of the people control 90 percent of the wealth. We hear rhetoric about a more equitable world where America’s vision of a democratic, market-based globe can be realized, but it is not matched by resource allocation. Our own political system and our press seem to miss this credibility gap, but the developing world does not.”
GII: Framing a New Foreign Policy
The first priority of the institutions and senior NGO representatives who have collaborated to found the Global Interdependence Initiative is to create a new foreign policy framework expressed in compelling, metaphorical language that makes global issues more salient to Americans.
Opinion polls indicate that Americans’ attitudes are based on a framework of underlying interests such as livelihood, security, and community, and values such as fairness and justice. These interests and values have implications for how the United States should conduct itself in an age of globalization. “We need to discern the message behind what people are saying. We’ll then be able to recast the issues in terms that people are using in daily discourse,” said Devlin-Foltz. GII labels this process ‘framing foreign policy.’
The Benton Foundation, one of the founding institutions, will lead the GII effort to collaborate with public opinion experts, linguists, psychologists and media scholars to find the most effective metaphors, the best comparisons, the most persuasive voices to use with various audiences to promote cooperative international engagement.
Benton has worked for five years to document dominant media frames and to devise new ones through focus groups. Under Benton’s leadership, GII will continue that work, reviewing research to see how the public interprets global issues, commissioning papers on the world views associated with desirable policy outcomes, testing model frames through focus groups and surveys, and creating a strategy for communicating global engagement.
“We intend to work with the media to help them see the marketability of a different approach, rather than to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong,” Devlin-Foltz said. “The media recognize that they need to improve their coverage. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, for example, is saying that newspapers are doing too narrow a job [covering foreign affairs]. Foreign correspondents are frustrated by their shrinking news hole.” Devlin-Foltz acknowledged that the goal of guiding the media to a different approach is “extraordinarily ambitious.”
According to Devlin-Foltz, “GII is not trying to create new knowledge or new values, because the knowledge and values are there. We are trying to raise the salience of values already dear to Americans,” he said.
“There may be broad public support for the UN, for example, but it is not raised to the level of a voting issue. To the extent that the UN is a voting issue, it’s the anti-UN, anti-development zealots who have had influence. Elected officials respond to zeal and passion, to what they hear at the town meeting back home and on their answering machine. And they assume that those views represent a sizeable ground swell. When they’re given no evidence to the contrary, that’s what they remember when they vote.”
An example of an overarching framework for cooperative global engagement might be “making globalization work for everyone.” This frame could evoke the notion of a shared enterprise whose partners must treat each other with respect and reciprocity.
“The US is in a desperate situation–approaching a time when we could lose our vote in the General Assembly.”
The Aspen Institute will house a small secretariat; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) will provide leadership; and the Benton Foundation will lead development of a new foreign policy framework and help design public education programs. RBF and an anonymous donor provided the initial funding. Two-thirds of the approximately $3 million for the first two years of the decade-long campaign is already in hand or firmly pledged, according to Devlin-Foltz.
By the end of 10 years, GII hopes that Americans will be able to recognize how international policies and behaviors reflect or fail to reflect their interests and values. They anticipate that existing constituencies will have expanded and new ones formed that can mobilize quickly to advocate policies that promote global interdependence. A final goal is that U.S. policy direction more strongly favor cooperative, inclusive, and broadly conceived approaches to global problem solving.
BWC: Saving the U.S. Seat in the General Assembly
BWC is a two-year project with an urgent mission. “The U.S. .is in a desperate situation—approaching a time when we could lose our vote in the General Assembly,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of BWC, a project of the UN Foundation’s Better World Fund. “As one of the nations that founded the UN over 50 years ago, we helped write the very rules that would cause this to happen.” (The UN Chapter, Article 19, states that nations that fall more than two years behind in the dues lose their vote in the General Assembly).
“We would endure enormous shame and embarrassment is we joined the list of small impoverished nations who have lost their vote, such as Haiti, Iraq, Rwanda and Yugoslavia,” she said. Driven by this urgent situation, the staff of four, employed in March 1999, has already made strides in raising the visibility of the UN arrears issue and strengthening the growing consensus that the United States should pay its dues.
“We’ll keep promoting UN efforts that go to core American values such as peace, justice, hope, and stabilization.”
“We’ve been successful in moving the issue to the front burner,” said Brian Walsworth, deputy campaign manager, noting that the U.S. Senate approved legislation 98-1 on June 22 to release $1 billion in back payments as part of the State Department authorization. However, the bill places certain conditions on the repayment including a 5 percent decrease in the US contribution to the UN. The House has appropriated but not authorized funds. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) may link payment of the arrears to unrelated legislation on family planning that has held the UN hostage in the past.
An early BWC action that set the tone for the campaign was a Mother’s Day card that several women members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent to all Members of Congress in May urging immediate action to pay the arrears. The card celebrated the UN’s work for mothers and children such as saving the lives of more than 3 million children a year through immunizations, ensuring safe pregnancies through maternal and neo-natal care, providing food, shelter and health care for refugees, and improving the literacy rate of women in developing nations. (The literacy rate for women rose from 36 percent in 1970 to 60 percent in 1995, according to BWC).
The Mother’s Day strategy of celebrating UN work will be used repeatedly in the campaign. “We’ll keep promoting UN efforts that go to core American values such as peace, justice, hope, and stabilization,” said Cuttino.
BWC facilitated an event that brought UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to address a U.S. Chamber of Commerce business summit on June 9 and to discuss the UN with Chamber President Tom Donahue and other officials.
BWC also includes state and local activities, such as a resolution supporting the UN which has been introduced in six state legislatures so far; a New York outreach to organized labor which has union members calling their members of Congress; mobilization of citizens, especially prominent local leaders, to write letters to the editor in support of the UN; and meetings with newspaper editorial boards to discuss the UN.
In addition, BWC will help UNA chapters link with groups such as the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs to sponsor UN promotions. For example, the UNA of Minnesota gathered in Minneapolis on June 9 to join a UNA-USA campaign called Adopt-A-Minefield. Invitations to the event noted, “If local groups cooperate to clean up a highway, why not get together and clean up a minefield!” UNA-Minnesota pledged to raise $34,200 to clear a minefield in a residential area in southern Afghanistan. (The UN coordinates minefield cleanup worldwide).
BWC works in conjunction with the Emergency Coalition for U.S. Financial Support of the UN, which was established several years ago. The Coalition leadership features seven former secretaries of state who signed a letter that appeared in major newspapers in March urging Congress to fully fund outstanding U.S. legal obligations to the UN.
GC: Targeting Specific Groups
InterAction founded Global Connections after conducting research in 1997-98 that revealed that Americans have a strong interest in engaging in the world, according to GC Manager Pedro Aviles. InterAction had probed the notion that Americans are not interested in foreign affairs through a series of focus groups.
“Focus group participants readily identified the impact of global issues on their lives,” said InterAction Vice President Cherri Waters, who supervised the research. “Yet they continue to prioritize the domestic over the foreign. They want the U.S. to be engaged, but not to do too much or go it alone. While they want to see the human face of all issues and strongly believe that the U.S. should act out of humanitarian concern, they reject the notion that their actions should be motivated by feelings of guilt and obligation,” she said.
“Our research found that some of the most politically active Americans are willing to become engaged on the global issues that are important to them– if we invite them to do so and provide them with the information they need, including the steps they should take,” Waters said. “The Global Connections initiative will do just that: provide information for action on global issues to activists across the US and invite them to become part of an engaged constituency for a better world.”
Based on this research, InterAction sought grants from the Ford and MacArthur Foundations for the three-year campaign now underway. GC will focus initially on five cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Davis/Sacramento, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh. Seattle will be added when additional funding becomes available. Grassroots advocates in these cities will be mobilized, trained, and linked with each other via e-mail and Web networks. At the national level, the project will encourage Congressional visits to developing nations and Congressional staff briefings to help policymakers understand how foreign assistance programs that promote global development advance U.S. interests. To reach the media, GC will organize educational conferences for journalists and media training for grassroots supporters to improve coverage of global issues.
A key criterion for selection of a city was that one or two of InterAction’s 160 affiliated members have headquarters there and are willing and able to provide local assistance and resources throughout the three years. The cities must also have organized groups from the population groups that GC has targeted, as well as institutions (academic, religious or corporate) willing to lend support to local initiatives. The city’s importance in terms of Congressional leadership and media markets was also considered.
With the help of InterAction’s member agencies, GC aims to mobilize community leaders on behalf of global engagement, educate members of Congress who represent those cities, foster sustained dialogue between the members and their constituents, and improve media coverage of global issues in each target city.
InterAction is also targeting population groups including religious and social justice activists who are committed to alleviating hunger and poverty, churches across the country that provide for and resettle refugees, refugees themselves who often keep close ties to their home countries, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans who are concerned about issues in Africa, Latin America and Asia, college students and professionals in their 20s who are idealistic about the potential for world change, those who travel abroad or join the Peace Corps, and women in each of the groups.
GC will engage these groups in a national dialogue with policymakers and the media that draws connections between their own interests and the need for engagement with the developing world. Opportunities will be created for regular exchange within each population group and with policymakers and the media, according to Aviles.
Paula Hirschoff is an editor of Hunger Notes and a Washington-based writer/editor.