Do-it-yourself foreign policy
Last week’s landmark agreement between China and California to cooperate on economic ventures that tackle climate change was more than the first-ever accord between China and a state government. It was a concrete example of the flattening of foreign policy, which is moving from something governments do on behalf of “regular people,” to something that governments and citizens undertake together.
For years, global governments have worked to tackle climate change through domestic policy and international agreements. They wanted to succeed: from the mid-1990s, far-seeing leaders understood that climate change was going to create refugees and greater poverty in already poor regions such as Bangladesh, exacerbate resource conflicts over water and land in already volatile areas (such as the African savannahs where the Muslim north meets the Christian south), and enable tropical diseases to migrate to formerly temperate states in Europe and the United States.
Yet, as each of these prophecies came true, governments proved unable to act.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was deemed a failure because the United States, then the largest contributor to climate change, abstained. In 2009, the Copenhagen climate talks were scuttled by a recalcitrant China, which had become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. When the U.S. government tried to tackle the problem domestically in 2010, Congress defeated an attempt to create a cap on U.S. carbon emissions. And a carbon tax – supported by conservative economists and liberal environmentalists alike as the fairest and most market-driven method of action – is a political nonstarter among tax-averse politicians.
For many in Silicon Valley, this morality tale has a clear lesson: avoid the government and get things done through the private sector.
After all, the biggest game-changers in the kind of energy we use have been market-driven, from the natural gas revolution that has dethroned king coal in utilities across the nation, to the plummeting prices of solar panels and components that are making that technology more viable. The new memorandum of understanding between China and California commits to sharing technologies that might reduce carbon, such as new low-carbon diesel engines, or more efficient air-conditioning systems. Activities will range from joint research workshops among businesses, to exchanges among government officials, to academic conferences sharing breakthrough research from the University of California system.
Private sector innovation is indeed likely to be our best bet in slowing climate change. With the majority of emissions coming from China and the growth of the developing world, no solution will work if it prevents these countries from continuing to develop. Accords in which rich countries promise to pay poor ones to slow emissions won’t work when China and other governments face more existential fears that if they slow growth, they will face the fates that recently befell authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Only technology can allow growing energy use without expanding polluting emissions. But selling technology to China – without losing one’s intellectual property, being eaten from inside by cyber-encroachments, bleeding capital to corruption, or losing one’s business to Chinese “entrepreneurs” with government connections – requires a strong partner. That is something the U.S. government needs to provide at the diplomatic table.
Climate change is not the only foreign policy challenge that neither the government nor the people can tackle alone.
National cybersecurity depends on concerted actions, from individuals creating stronger passwords, to businesses that control more than 85 percent of our infrastructure working with the government to fight cyber intrusions.
In Israel, a key part of the peace process will hinge on whether business can deliver jobs and growth to Palestinian regions. That’s why Secretary of State John Kerry has brought key business leaders into peace negotiations to solve those pieces of the puzzle. Throughout the Middle East, a growing population of people under the age of 25 coupled with rampant unemployment is driving revolution. Moving sclerotic states to reduce crony corruption and embrace entrepreneurship is clearly crucial to stabilizing the chaos. But the U.S. government can’t teach entrepreneurship – instead, it has held a series of conferences for U.S. entrepreneurs and angel investors to meet counterparts in the region and forge deals.
Nor is it only businesses that must partner with government on foreign policy challenges. The government agency that catalyzes development abroad, USAID, has partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and Pierre Omidyar’s eponymous Omidyar Network to support experiments with impact investing, a relatively new movement to catalyze international development not only through nonprofit charities, but also by investing in for-profit companies that are doing social good via market mechanisms (and may provide lower or slower returns to investors in exchange for such a “double-bottom line”). Google is working with the U.S. and foreign governments to improve election vote counting abroad, increase government transparency to reduce corruption, and crowd-source data on crime to help citizens and police improve safety.
Foreign policy today is no longer about the government acting like a parent on behalf of a population of children. It is business and government, the state and citizens, working together. It’s not always a comfy fit. California is blazing the path toward making that work, starting with one of the biggest challenges of our age.