Americans believe in the power of the bottom-up (people-to-people exchanges), but they have lost faith in the power of the top-down. That is, they do not have a coherent vision of the positive and practical impact that the United States can have in the world through its government.

In his recent column, “The Leaderless Doctrine”, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoans American society’s growing distrust of government institutions and institutional leaders. Brooks has accurately named the state of our condition. But his short piece does not address three key points, all essential to reviving faith in America’s foreign policy: states matter; leadership matters; and shared values matter.

First, states do still matter. They matter everywhere, especially in Asia, the region on which US foreign policy has ostensibly pivoted since 2010. Today, there is tremendous tension in Asia – between China and Japan over the “Senkaku” (Japanese) or “Diaoyu” (Chinese) islands, and between China and South-East Asia regarding the South “China” Sea. Meanwhile, Central Asia is concerned about Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, and Iran continues to support Syria in South-West Asia. These are but a few examples, all of which could have profound regional and global implications if not addressed comprehensively.

Second, peer-to-peer efforts by private citizens and other non-state actors are important, but they are not sufficient. States and their governments matter, and they must be intentionally engaged. As a result, leadership matters in state-to-state relations. But it must be a leadership that strategically accounts for the phenomena of distrust that Brooks describes.

Third, accounting for this phenomena means a commitment to cultivating an ongoing dialogue between people and governments, in order to find sustainable solutions founded on shared values, even amid profound differences. This kind of relational and multi-sector engagement requires what I call “Track 1.5” diplomacy. (In traditional foreign-policy parlance, Track 1 means government-to-government relations, and Track 2 means people-to-people relations). Track 1.5 diplomacy connects and builds consensus between the top-down of state actors and the bottom-up of civil society.

A vision for US foreign policy must account for the Track 1.5 nature of our globalized times, as states and societies wrestle with the critical questions of our global century. These are:

  • What does “citizenship” mean in its fullest sense – nationally, globally, spiritually?
  • What does it mean to live with our deepest, often irreconcilable ideological and theological differences, in community?
  • How do we preserve and protect the dignity of difference – particularly through the living document of a constitution – pursuing the global common good?

These are not soft, existential questions. They are hard-headed ones whose answers have profound implications for political stability, and therefore a global economy. Unfortunately, there are too few examples – historical and present-day – of such questions being discussed.

One historical and continuing example does stand out: the relationship between France and Germany after the second world war. After centuries of fighting each other, “moral re-armament” created a safe space through which the government and grassroots leaders of both sides could meet on a regular basis, which established a new pattern of mutual respect and mutual reliance. Today, France and Germany not only have joint textbooks, they are a part of the same security structure, NATO, an alliance underpinned by shared values.

What if there was a place where Japanese and other East Asian scholars could discuss how textbooks present the role of Japan in the first half of the 20th century? What if, more broadly, states the world over developed new security frameworks and inclusive dialogue and decision-making processes for their regions? What if the US intentionally convened and connected such discussions?

A coherent US foreign policy begins with facilitating a series of Track 1.5 safe spaces where ongoing conversations between governments and grassroots can take place. Indeed, the US goal for the 21st century should be the development of new global and regional strategies, and structures that enable and encourage discussions of citizenship, community and constitution pursuant to a global common good.

Such discussions, however, must be led. Peer-to-peer initiatives from the bottom up are inspiring, but they will not last unless there is the necessary governance from the top down. If governments and their foreign policies can catch up with transnational people-to-people efforts, then sustainable solutions are possible. The US can restore faith in its own foreign policy with a vision that is congruent with the “1.5” nature of the times

Author: Chris Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.

Image: A U.S. Flag is displayed in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, November 2, 2010. REUTERS/Molly Riley