from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

John Kerry and the Blurring of the Foreign and Domestic

February 22, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo taken during meetings with his Canadian counterpart, John Baird. (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters)
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John Kerry’s first major address as secretary of state, delivered Wednesday at the University of Virginia, was light on specifics and priorities. But it offered a useful glimpse into his mindset as the country’s newest chief diplomat. Two themes permeated the speech: the eroding boundary between what is “foreign” and “domestic” in our global era and the risks to U.S. national security of shortchanging investments in diplomacy and development assistance.

Kerry’s first observation—on which I’ll focus here—was that foreign and domestic policy are increasingly one and the same. This is most obvious when it comes to climate change. Given the obstacles to negotiating a comprehensive, binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol—or even instituting a global cap-and-trade system—major progress on mitigating global emissions will depend on parallel national actions among the world’s major economies. Thus the most dramatic U.S. government contribution to reducing global emissions has been the Obama administration’s negotiation with the automobile industry to mandate higher fuel efficiency standards. (Of even greater immediate importance to lowering emissions, of course, has been another domestic development led by the private sector: the revolution in unconventional oil and natural gas, reducing U.S. reliance on coal.)

The disappearing distinction between domestic and international is apparent across multiple issue areas. Take transnational terrorism, which finds al-Qaeda cells operating not only in Mali but in Minneapolis. Or global financial crises, which may originate in unsustainable debts in Athens, Greece, or real estate bubbles in Naples, Florida. Or the epidemiology of infectious diseases, which can spread to and from the United States among the 150,000 visitors who enter (or leave) the country daily.

The blurring border between the national and international has put traditionally “domestic” agencies on the front lines of U.S. foreign policy. Consider the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given its limited staff, the FDA already struggles to supervise approximately 200,000 domestic facilities involved in the manufacture, distribution and sale of food, prescription drugs, medical supplies, cosmetics, and the like. Now reflect on this: the United States imports nearly half of its fresh fruit and produce—placing the safety of the U.S. food supply in the hands of foreign regulators. The food scares of recent years—from  tainted Chinese infant formula to salmonella-laden Mexican peppers—point to the potential risks of (essentially) subcontracting regulatory functions to other nations.

The risk is even greater when it comes to prescription drugs. Fifteen years ago, the active ingredients in pharmaceuticals were produced primarily in the United States. Today, eighty percent of such ingredients are manufactured abroad, particularly in China and India, and these drugs are often re-compounded in several countries before reaching the United States. As my colleague Laurie Garrett has noted, the emergence of complex international global supply chains presents a regulatory nightmare, particularly as unscrupulous suppliers and illicit networks have flooded international markets with counterfeit, substandard, or entirely fraudulent pharmaceuticals. To be sure, the FDA now places its own inspectors in a number of foreign countries, but the inspection of even a single plant may take a week. The only way out of this conundrum, says FDA Administrator Dr. Margaret Hamburg, is to create a “global alliance of regulators,” committed to establishing common (or at least harmonized) national standards—and to expand information sharing and enforcement efforts.

The idea of a “global alliance of regulators” is one that has legs far beyond just food and drugs.  As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, effective global governance will rely less on existing international organizations and laboriously negotiated treaties and more on transnational networks of officials who hail not just from foreign ministries but from domestic agencies that possess specialized technical expertise and regulatory authority in fields ranging from health to transportation, energy, education, justice, labor, the environment, and virtually any other “domestic” sphere imaginable.

This isn’t a new idea, of course—Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University has been propounding it for a decade. But the full implications haven’t really sunk in among decision-makers in Washington, to say nothing of the wider public.

At the close of the nineteenth century, Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the disappearance of the American frontier an epochal event U.S. history. More than a hundred years later, the dissolving frontier between the domestic and the foreign will have its own transformative impact on U.S. diplomacy.

This is something that John Kerry seems to understand instinctively.  “There is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy,” the secretary of state declared in Charlottesville. In a “shrinking world,” he explained, advances in national security, economic prosperity, and social welfare are increasingly linked with progress on those same objectives abroad.  Kerry used this linkage to urge Congress to invest heavily in the civilian components of its global engagement—namely, the U.S. State Department and USAID.  But to be a truly great secretary of state, Kerry must think beyond the institutional confines of is bureaucratic position. He should welcome and encourage the increased global involvement of America’s traditional domestic departments and agencies, using his position as the country’s chief diplomat to ensure the overall coherence of U.S. foreign policy.

That Kerry chose to offer his first major address at “Mr. Jefferson’s University”  lent an elegant historic symmetry to his speech. Jefferson, America’s first secretary of state (1790-1793), had assumed his position “in a nation that was just getting used to its independence.” As the 68th occupant of the same office, Kerry noted, he did so “in a world that’s still getting used to our interdependence.”