Wanted: Your views on foreign policy

By Julie Smith

I grew up in Farmington, in the suburbs of Detroit. Since I left for college in 1987, I have spent most of my time in Washington and overseas working on foreign policy, particularly America’s relationship with Europe. I’ve worked at the White House, the Pentagon and a variety of research institutes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Almost religiously, though, I return to Michigan a few times each year to see family and make sure my two young boys appreciate the soothing powers of Lake Michigan and its neighboring woods. On those visits back home, I have quite deliberately avoided talking about my work or the foreign policy issues I work on. Until now.

On June 12-13, my small bipartisan think tank, the Center for a New American Security, is traveling to Michigan. We will visit Grand Rapids as part of a new three-year project we launched last year that takes small groups of Europeans and Americans to 12 cities across America. The premise of that project is simple: Instead of spending more time in Washington speaking with other Washingtonians and embassy staff, we are seeking opportunities to engage new audiences on foreign policy and transatlantic relations more specifically.

Instead of spending more time in Washington speaking with other Washingtonians and embassy staff, we are seeking opportunities to engage new audiences on foreign policy and transatlantic relations more specifically, Smith writes.

Why would a Washington think tank that works on North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Syria (among other issues) travel to Grand Rapids? First and foremost, we want to expose the Washingtonians and Europeans we’re bringing along to a diverse range of American perspectives on everything from trade to national security, something they don’t necessarily get in national capitals. We also want to foster a genuine exchange of ideas that will allow the Americans we meet to ask us hard questions and challenge some of our longstanding, core assumptions. Our goal with this new project has never been to lecture or “teach” Americans what they ought to think. We are coming to listen and engage in honest and civil debates.

Since launching this new project, we have already visited three other American cities: Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and Tampa. We’ve met with mayors, high school students, university students, business leaders, local media, and in the case of Tampa, military commanders. We’ve also hosted large events for the general public in every city we’ve visited. What have we learned from these engagements? A lot.

We have learned that Americans are eager to discuss and debate their country’s role in the world. Everywhere we’ve gone people have welcomed us and treated us with respect even when we’ve disagreed about North Korea or trade tariffs. We’ve also learned that no single foreign policy issue occupies the minds of Americans today (as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War). The questions we encounter on these trips literally vary by the hour and by the city. We discussed Brexit in Salt Lake City, China in Tampa, and NATO defense spending in Pittsburgh. As one might imagine, the issues we discuss are often tied to the headlines and the backgrounds of the members of our delegation.

Perhaps most encouraging, we’ve discovered that U.S. mayors and other local politicians don’t necessarily feel constrained by the hyper-partisanship that one finds in Washington today. Instead, many of the state and local officials we’ve met are finding innovative ways to reach across the political aisle, build coalitions across state lines, and develop international partnerships to address the needs of their constituents.

What will we learn on our fourth stop in Grand Rapids? That’s in part up to you. We hope you will consider joining us for our public forum, A World in Disarray: Prospects and Challenges for Transatlantic Cooperation at 7 p.m. on June 12 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. We have a high-level delegation that includes CNAS President Richard Fontaine, who formerly served as foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain; Käre Aas, Norwegian Ambassador to the United States; and Estonian Kadri Liik with the European Council on Foreign Relations. I will moderate the discussion. Bring your tough questions, comments and your neighbors. 

Julianne Smith directs the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously she served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.