The importance of quality knowledge in foreign policy and how to harness it

Intransparent elite decisions, reinforced by their resilience to changing opinions and decision-making processes, dominate foreign policy arguably more than other policy fields. But could the lack of democratic consultation processes be responsible for certain foreign policy failures, and how shall we remedy it?

Knowledge (equalling perceptions of the world) is the basis upon which policies are built. As a civil society activist, a think tanker, and a researcher with deep interest in foreign policy-making, I believe that civil society and academia are essential resources for developing high quality policies – all the more so at the times of crisis, when the budgets of governance institutions are strained and the officials are often overworked. The following is a short conceptual note to remind ourselves about the importantce of the role and creation of knowledge, using the example of foreign policy (the topic of my doctoral dissertation).

However, there are several obstacles on the path of involving external experts in policy-making, and these are quite endemic both at the EU level and in national political systems. Some of these are structural, intrinsic to the policy-making process: for instance, short time allotted for decision-making on “burning” issues, or confidentiality issues. They can be minimized, but not removed altogether. Still, there are many other reasons which can and should be overcome, such as uncurbed and unbalanced influence of narrow interests like the business ones; imperfect systems of information exchange; and what I will openly call laziness and arrogance – explicit unwillingness to „waste time” on consultations with experts from outside the ranks of officials.

European Union’s foreign policy is one of the fields where these shortcomings are more visible. In addition to the aforementioned, foreign affairs additionally suffer from their „aristocratic”, „high policy” image. Since it is a closed policy field in the national states and foreign affairs decisions in Brussels are made – primarily – by the Council, the result is a closed policy process, squared. Only the most influential groups, like the abovementioned business, can affect the decisions. This results in policies which are – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintendedly – inefficient, wasteful, or even counterproductive. One example is the European and international financial assistance for democracy in Belarus. Regardless of the widely known situation in this country, some independent calculations show that only about 30% of declared international aid actually crosses the Belarusian border, and a bulk of funds is channeled to the authoritarian Belarusian institutions. (Some time ago, I also wrote a blog analyzing two rather counterintuitive cases of Western policy towards Belarus. ) Another and more large-scale mistake is Ukraine; but the complete list will have many more lines in it.

Of course, there are many positive examples as well, such as civil society forums, conferences (e.g. the process of cooperation with civil society within the Eastern Partnership or the activities of the European Economic and Social Committee) or European Parliament studies (do make sure to check their amazing library ). However, more needs to be done. I would like to end this blog without a real conclusion, but rather with a question: What do you think we do and should do to open up foreign policy and other „difficult” policy fields?

Fotocredit: Nick Veitch via Flickr


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