A rapidly changing world requires news ways of thinking, and new tools for understanding and engaging with societies as well as governments.

The frontier of foreign policy in the 21st century is social, developmental, digital, and global. Along this frontier, different groups of actors in society — corporations, foundations, NGOs, universities, think tanks, churches, civic groups, political activists, Facebook groups, and others — are mobilizing to address issues that begin as domestic social problems but that have now gone global. It is the world of the Land Mines Treaty and the International Criminal Court; global criminal and terrorist networks; vast flows of remittances that dwarf development assistance; micro-finance and serial entrepreneurship; the Gates Foundation; the Arab spring; climate change; global pandemics; Twitter; mobile technology to monitor elections, fight corruption, and improve maternal health; a new global women’s movement; and the demography of a vast youth bulge in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.


Traditional foreign policy continues to assume the world of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the first and second Gulf Wars — an international system in which a limited number of states pursue their largely power-based interests in bargaining situations that are often zero-sum and in which the line between international and domestic politics is still discernible and defensible. Diplomats and statesmen compete with each other in games of global chess, which, during crises, often shift into high-stakes poker. It is the world of high strategy, the world that Henry Kissinger writes about and longs for and that so-called “realist” commentators continually invoke.

That traditional world certainly still exists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s calendar reflects enormous swathes of time spent on states like North Korea, Iran, and Burma; negotiating complicated relationships with states like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia; and adapting to the changing status of rising powers like India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and Turkey. There’s also what George Shultz called “gardening,” making sure that U.S. relations with allies, neighbors, and friendly states remain well-tended. But Clinton herself insists that 21st century diplomacy must not only be government to government, but also government to society and society to society, in a process facilitated and legitimated by government. That much broader concept opens the door to a do-it-yourself foreign policy, in which individuals and groups can invent and execute an idea — for good or ill — that can affect their own and other countries in ways that once only governments could.

In late June, I spent two days at the Summit Against Violent Extremism (#ACE on Twitter), a conference sponsored by Google Ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival that brought together more than 80 former gang members, violent religious extremists, violent nationalist extremists, and violent white supremacists from 19 countries across six continents. They came together with 120 academics, NGOs, public sector and private sector partners. The conference grew out of a vision developed by Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas, when he served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning together with Farah Pandit, who worked on countering violent extremism in the State Department’s Bureau of Eurasian Affairs and is the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. But, despite their role, bringing together this range of “formers” is something that Google Ideas and the Council on Foreign Relations can do much more easily than any government could. The range of projects creating networks to help build on effective, early intervention programs already working around the world, such as Singapore’s programs to deflect and deprogram Islamic radicals, will also be much easier to develop with a broader range of stakeholders, including some government participation, than they would be through government alone.

Three weeks earlier, I’d spent two days at the Personal Democracy Forum, a bottom-up gathering of digital activists from the U.S. and across the Middle East, including bloggers and organizers at the center of the Arab Spring. Other participants again included government officials, corporate executives, and the civic sector. After listening to many presentations from the founders and participants of organizations like Meetup (the world’s largest network of local groups), Civic Commons, Change.org, Purpose, Access, and Movements.org, I concluded that the 1970s slogan of “Think Global, Act Local” could updated to a 21st century activist mantra, “Build Local, Go Global, and Change the World.”

Skeptics argue that these kinds of initiatives are doomed to remain perennially peripheral and ineffectual. But, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, the traditional tools of fighting, talking, pressuring, and persuading government-to-government really aren’t working so well. Thirty years of urging reform produced next to nothing; 6 months of digitally and physically organized social protests and a political earthquake is shaking the broader Middle East. Twenty years of working toward a treaty to govern carbon emissions has barely yielded an informal “accord.” Yet measures taken by 40 cities organized by the Bloomberg Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative will have far more impact.

As an Atlantic correspondent and as curator/host of the new feature, Notes from the Foreign Policy Frontier, I will be working out some of the broader concepts we need for thinking about effective policymaking on this new frontier. As Internet guru Clay Shirky puts it, talking about “non-state actors” is like calling an automobile a horseless carriage. The term just underlines our need for a framework that moves beyond states and addresses both governments and societies. Here complexity theory and network theory offer more answers than game theory; neuroscience, psychology, and sociology often provide better insights and solutions than political science and economics. Also vital are the voices of a much wider range of people than standard foreign policy commentary allows: citizens of developing countries, women and girls, minorities, youth, indigenous peoples, corporations, civic groups, state, local, and municipal governments, and so on.

Equally important, I’ll be looking at the world through a very different lens — highlighting features of the foreign policy landscape that simply disappear if we examine only a world of opaque unitary states negotiating, pressuring, fighting, and ignoring each other — Arnold Wolfers’ classic image of the international system as a bunch of billiard balls banging against each other. Those readers who follow me on Twitter will know that I am actively curating foreign policy news, analyses, and commentary from as wide a spectrum of global sources as possible, and always welcome inputs and responses. I will often link to what I find on Twitter and elsewhere here, as well as posting thoughts, impressions, and longer reflections and commentary. Join me! And let me know, in the comments or on Twitter, what you are thinking and doing on the foreign policy frontier.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a member of the Atlantic Council, is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.