The 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, millions fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, a global pandemic, a disastrous end to the war in Afghanistan: from the perspective of many citizens in Western democracies, recent crises in foreign policy have added to a feeling of uncertainty that the German President and former Foreign Minister Steinmeier has described as “a world out of joint.”
In this context, in recent years, foreign policymakers have turned to an instrument for addressing the decreasing legitimacy and political trust that has become common in other policy fields: dialogue with citizens, including a wide range of formats – from local citizen panels to nation-wide citizen assemblies with randomly sampled citizens. Foreign ministries in Paris, Washington or Berlin send diplomats to towns across their home countries, in programs such as the “Hors de Murs” program of the French foreign ministry or the US State Department’s “Hometown diplomats” program. In Ireland, Norway and Canada, governments have involved not just civil society stakeholders but also the larger public in the context of developing new strategies for foreign aid or foreign policy. Citizens’ consultations on “Canada’s World,” put together by civil society organizations in Canada, or the “Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit” organized by British universities have been larger-scale efforts to gain citizens’ views on foreign policy.
German foreign and security policymakers have been at the forefront of experimenting with such new formats. Starting with the Foreign Office’s “Review2014” – a process that involved reform debates on German foreign policy with both expert voices and citizen voices – both the Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry have sought to explain their policies to a wider public through a growing number of citizen dialogues. These include new formats such as an annual “citizen workshop” in the Foreign Office or “Open Situation Rooms” in which citizens meet with ambassadors for simulations of crisis situations that they have to ‘solve’ themselves.
Civil society in Germany is also engaging citizens in dialogue on foreign policy. In a 2017 study I co-authored, we found more than 120 organizations – foundations, NGOs, local associations – that organized some form of citizen dialogue on foreign affairs in Germany, though a vast majority used traditional formats such as panel discussions or talks to do so. In January and February 2021, a coalition of advocacy NGOs and implementing organizations held a nationwide citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World” with 160 randomly selected citizens. (I served as an external consultant for the council). Commissioned by the German Bundestag, the results of the deliberation among citizens in the council were presented to parliament and debated in several parliamentary committees.
While most of these efforts are relatively recent, there are at least two lessons that can already be drawn for future ventures to scale up the dialogue activities on foreign and security policy.
Clear Goals and Expectation Management Are Key
The first has already been learned in other policy fields and on the local, regional and national levels: the key to a successful dialogue is a clear process, clarity on the goals and expectation management on what happens with the results.
Citizen dialogues on foreign policy can serve at least three purposes: In their most ambitious participatory forms, similar to the citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World,” they aim to solicit input on foreign and security policy based on the expectation that those inputs will influence policymakers or that participants will at least receive a feedback on their ideas by policymakers. A second purpose can be simply explaining the complexities of foreign policymaking and thereby, from the perspective of some organizers, increase the legitimacy of and trust in policymakers. Most of the dialogue work by the German Foreign Office falls into this category. It is motivated to a large extent by a desire to address a widening gap between external expectations for Germany to pursue a more active foreign policy and a public that is perceived to be skeptical of such a more active course. A third potential purpose for citizen dialogues could be learning more about foreign policy views and how they change. While the debate about Germany’s responsibility in the world evolves a lot around what Germans think, we have surprisingly little evidence on citizens’ attitudes and how and why they change.
All of these aims are important in their own right and legitimate, but it remains crucial that organizers are clear about their objective from the start and communicate them to participants. Most importantly, policymakers should only ask for inputs into policy decisions when they are prepared to take them up or at least provide some kind of feedback. Research on citizen participation and evaluations of past efforts have shown that bad processes and disappointed participants can be detrimental to participants’ feelings of political efficacy and trust.
Focus on the Dilemmas and Trade-Offs of Foreign Policymaking
A second lesson might be even more relevant for a complex issue such as foreign policy than for many other issues: rather than focusing on open-ended questions, citizen dialogues should focus on real-world trade-offs and dilemmas and, ideally, force citizens to take decisions. For all three purposes listed above, the effects are greater if the questions, format and moderation force citizens to weigh and prioritize different options rather than to list all their preferences in isolation. Policymakers will profit more from citizens’ inputs if they relate to one of the many trade-offs they face. The understanding of the complexity of many foreign policy decisions will grow if participants are asked to weigh between two (usually bad) options and consider views by other countries and actors. And researchers would learn more about foreign policy views if they asked not for a wish-list but for priorities.
The citizens’ assembly on “Germany’s Role in the World” is a good example of what can happen if the topic and questions are set too broadly or participants are not forced to choose between real-world policy options. The citizens presented a rich set of ideas and recommendations to policymakers. Yet on defense spending, for example, the citizens on the one hand concluded that Germany needed to fulfill NATO’s 2 percent target – the commitment by member states to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. On the other hand, the participants suggested counting civilian instruments and humanitarian aid, including by NGOs, into the 2 percent target. Taken separately, these are two legitimate policy options. But in reality, German policymakers cannot do both. Were Berlin to suggest counting civilian measures into the 2 percent to its NATO partners, that would be seen as the opposite of Germany fulfilling the target. Policymakers need to choose between these options and would have benefited from knowing where citizens stand on this question when forced to choose, too. Similarly, participants did not have to weigh competing demands and trade-offs on the European Union: they called for a much stronger and united European foreign policy; at the same time, they had very specific recommendations on EU migration policy. If other EU states did not agree with the German ideas on migration (or arms exports, for that matter), would the participants have been prepared to compromise on their interests and values for the EU to be more united – and which areas?
There are plenty of such trade-off questions that policymakers face every day in foreign and security policy. Is market access in China more important to us than standing up for human rights and international law? Should we forego advocacy of our principles and interests on other strategic issues in order not to jeopardize cooperation with China on the climate? If EU agricultural subsidies damage African markets, are we prepared to cut them back – even if that costs jobs within the EU?
Debating such dilemmas with citizens not only provides more insights for policymakers and researchers, they also provide better topics than open-ended questions on how to deal with the Iran nuclear talks or whether we need a European army. Most of the trade-offs and dilemmas can ultimately be reduced to value questions that every citizen can relate to: What is fair? What do we want to stand for?
There is great potential to increase both the quantity and quality of citizen dialogues on foreign and security policy in Germany and the EU. The demand for and attendance of the existing dialogue formats demonstrates that there is an interest among citizens to debate these issues. Yet when scaling up such dialogues, policymakers, academics and civil society actors should remain aware what their respective goals are, adjust their formats and questions accordingly, communicate these clearly to participants, and focus on debating real-world trade-offs and dilemmas with citizens.
This article is part of a publication on democracy compiled by the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung ahead of the 2021 Helmut Schmidt Lecture. Sarah Brockmeier is currently researching citizen dialogues on foreign and security policy as a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).