All Foreign Policy is Local
In the Spring of 1948, President Harry Truman – having been appointed to the position 82 days into his term as Roosevelt’s Vice President – was widely predicted to lose the upcoming election that Fall. His national approval rating was barely over a third, and his party was splintered into widely varying factions as they sought to redefine itself post-FDR. World War II had ended on his watch, with the Allies achieving victory in Europe in May 1945 and after Truman authorized the use of a devastating new weapon to end the war in the Pacific in August 1945.
Harry Truman has done much to shape U.S. foreign policy in the modern era, cementing into policy the principles of four freedoms first introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address. The expenditure our national resources to advance these freedoms – of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear – not only speaks to our core American values and is morally just, but also makes us more secure. The four freedoms influenced the creation of the United Nations as a model for international partnership and shared effort towards shared values, and is the foundation for the Declaration of Human Rights, which states,
“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Truman applied the idea of development as a tool for security in post-war Europe, arguing forcefully that threat-ideology flourishes in economically deprived areas, sending the equivalent of $116B in today’s dollars to rebuild destroyed economies and infrastructure through his second term in 1952. Output among countries that received aid was over 35% greater than it was before the war, and today we count European countries as our greatest allies.
But these foreign policy initiatives, which have lasting implications on our culture and policy today, were not enough to carry a Presidential campaign. Truman was predicted to lose his presidency by all major media outlets. The feeling of inevitability of a Dewey presidency had seemingly pervaded the nation, so Truman – strapped for cash and low on public support – got on a train, and traveled over 20,000 miles crisscrossing the country.
He spoke personally to voters in large and small towns, from the back of the train and around kitchen coffee tables, to anyone who would listen. Truman spoke of his accomplishments and of his plans for the future, and described to his sister that “Win, lose, or draw, people will know where I stand.” He worked to create connections with voters that are impossible over television, telephone, or today, the internet.
Elizabeth Kuhnke, a personal communication consultant, describes what Harry Truman intuitively understood, that face-to-face relationships are the single most important factor in persuasion and influence. She lists three principles as key: 1) integrity is at the heart of robust relationships, 2) a track record of sound judgment will cause people to see you as an expert, and 3) your relationships will flourish when you consistently prove that you’re a good listener.
In following Harry Truman’s Whistle Stop model, we must focus on these skills if we want to influence national security, for they are the bottom-most building blocks of policy. Local political campaigns, in your state and in your city where your words carry the most weight, offer the best opportunity for you to influence foreign policy.
Consider as an example the nation’s most watched Senatorial campaign of 2012: Elizabeth Warren faces incumbent Scott Brown in Massachusetts as the Democrats seek to regain the symbolically important seat long held by Ted Kennedy. During his time in the Senate, Scott Brown has voted to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels and supported $2 Billion of tax subsidies to oil companies. Oil money is well-documented as supporting terrorism, and the Department of Defense and the CIA have stated clearly that climate change makes the world more dangerous. More unambiguously, it’s been estimated that half of the military convoys in Afghanistan are conducted to transport fuel to bases and vehicles across the country, and one in twelve convoys results in a casualty.
These facts matter, both in our national security and in ensuring a smart and principled leader like Warren is given the authority to follow through on her policies. This state-wide Senate campaign can only be won on a neighbor-to-neighbor, block-by-block basis, in the style of Harry Truman, because these facts and these discussions about security are best communicated face to face. Affecting national security policy most often looks like an early Saturday morning at the campaign office drinking coffee before heading out to knock on doors. Affecting policy looks like late night conversations with undecided friends over a beer. And sometimes, affecting policy may look a little like Harry Truman on his train, spreading the message in the best way possible, face to face.
Dan Futrell is a Truman Security Fellow. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, served as an Infantry Officer for 27 months in Baghdad and is a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal. He is completing a public policy masters at the Harvard Kennedy School.