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Kansas City Perspectives on International Challenges and American Foreign Policy

May 03, 2019
8 min read
Photo Credit: Rudy Balasko / Shutterstock
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) recently organized a group of senior officials and experts to travel to Kansas City, Missouri as part of its Across America initiative.

The project—conducted in partnership with the Center for a New American Security—takes transatlantic foreign policy conversations to communities across the United States and engages leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors at the state and local level on policy issues of international and transatlantic importance.

Three Kansas City-based foreign policy experts—Truman Library Institute Executive Director Alex Burden, Kansas City’s International Relations Council Executive Director Matthew Hughes, and University of Missouri-Kansas City Assistant Professor Debra Leiter— sat down with GMF’s Steven Keil for a discussion of global challenges and how Kansas Citians view these issues.  

Steven Keil: What are specific foreign policy issues that you think are important to locals in the Kansas City area?

Alex Burden: The foreign policy issues that are most important to Kansas Citians are those that affect the wellbeing of our citizens and the Midwest region: tariffs and trade wars. The disruption and change in trade agreements greatly impacts Kansas City’s massive agricultural economy. If these disagreements are not solved quickly, the short-term issue will become a long-term problem as suppliers around the world step in to fill the void left by the hiatus of American suppliers on the international stage and provide no room for those relationships to resume once the disputes end.

Debra Leiter: I think Kansas Citians frame it as “how does foreign policy affect me” and “how much are we paying for our foreign policy”—more so than we ever have in the past. There was always a sense that U.S. foreign policy decisions are being made in U.S. interest. Now it’s not quite as certain. There are questions around trade and trade policy. But Kansas City being a little bit more of a left-leaning city, there’s also a lot of questions of equality and influence, climate protection. If you polled someone from, say, more rural Missouri, they would understand American foreign policy as “the need to protect my interests” and “we should be focusing on only things directly related to America.” Ask your average Kansas Citian and I think they would say America has to consider the global world more and our foreign policy should be to bring the rest of the world into line with these larger global preferences.

Matthew Hughes: Here in Kansas City, we’re away from the borders, we’re away from the coasts. And so, it’s very easy to put our head in the sand and pretend like global challenges don’t exist; but they actually impact people’s daily lives here more than they might realize. Refugee placement is a good example. The Kansas City Missouri Public School District has more than 50 languages that are spoken. And people here don’t realize that. Consequently, understanding what refugee issues are, what immigration issues are, and how those impact our community here is important.

Also important are issues around supply chains—and economics in general. Trade and tariffs with countries like China are a good example. We had a program in the fall where we brought out the vice president of the Missouri Soybean Association. He spoke about the very real impact that this area is experiencing from present trade policies. Those relationships exist with Europe as well. I think when anything impacts the status quo, that’s when they’re going to talk about it. Or what they hear about the most on the news. So, when you hear about the Mexican border, for example, and the desire to build a border wall, I think that’s what people may start to echo. I think it’s the job of an organization like ours to help people understand the web of issues that’s going on and how that impacts their daily life, as well as our collective national life.

Steven Keil: From Russia’s influences in democratic societies to global trade disputes, there are clearly several pressing challenges facing the United States and U.S. foreign policy today. What do you see as the most pressing international challenges today?

Alex Burden: From my perspective, the most pressing international challenges today include immigration—the increasing number of displaced people fleeing homelands gripped by armed conflict, economic distress, and resource scarcity; identifying, preserving, and expanding the policies and institutions that spurred global economic growth in the past to support and foster it in the future; and, the disruption of long-term political and economic relationships—particularly the negative, and potentially unintended, consequences of this disturbance.

Debra Leiter: For me, there are three major challenges today. The first one is climate change, which is not only a human life and security challenge, but also a collective action problem. So not only does it have the potential to be a global catastrophe, which is enough, it’s also the thing that I think is one of the hardest to resolve. Another challenge is how we understand free trade. There was a moment, in maybe the 1990s or early 2000s, when everyone was sort of on the same page. They argued, “let’s open up the world and get people trading together. It’s going to resolve a lot of our problems.” We built a lot of the world today on an assumption of open, free trade and free movement. Now we’re getting the backlash from that. We didn’t really account for the role of China. We didn’t account for issues of environmentalism and industrialization; and so suddenly we see pushback on this whole world system that’s been built on this idea of free trade and free movement. The last challenge I’ll mention is somewhat related, which is a decline in trust. All over the world we’re seeing that populism is on the rise. And populism means a lot of things, but in the end, it’s about a belief that elites and the political system are broken.

Matthew Hughes: I think the key challenges today pertain to what you hear about in public forums and in the Washington think tank community about climate change, security, and economic instability. But for me, and for the work that I do, it really comes down to interpersonal relationships and being open and accessible to understanding where other people are coming from. The world—or our individual worlds—has become so customized that we hear the narrow band of what we want to hear. It’s a self-reinforcing echo chamber. Connecting with others and trying to understand where others come from is key. I think the lack of this is at the root of a lot of the bigger challenges we see around the world today.

Steven Keil: There has been a lot of recent talk about an exasperation of U.S. political will and whether the United States should continue playing the global leadership role it has traditionally played. What role should it play in solving these challenges? Do you think there is shifting public mood regarding the role of U.S. leadership in the world?

Alex Burden: As the executive director of the Truman Library Institute, I am a bit biased, but no American president did more to shape the globe and America’s role in it than President Truman. Through the establishment of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and much more, Truman created a basic international architecture that helped advance freedom, increase prosperity, and secure peace. I believe that the United States should continue to play the leading role that Truman established almost 70 years ago in solving international challenges. Whether it is a shift in public mood or ideology, I do think that there is a shift in how our nation’s leaders are engaging with the world and I wish that they would look to Truman for guidance.

Debra Leiter: American foreign policy will be critical in tackling the challenges I outlined. For example, in getting cooperation on climate change. America has the biggest reach of any country in the world. You can argue that China is rising. You can argue that Europe has economic reach. This is true, but America still has the most fundamental authority. With a question as hard to answer as climate change, it’s going to have to be driven by the clout of the U.S. economy and political authority. Trade is the other issue where the United States must play a big role. We possess a massive economy and if we start putting up more trade and tariff barriers, other countries must follow suit—and they have been. Current U.S. foreign policy, if nothing else, forces everyone to reexamine just how much influence we’ve had in the past, over and above organizations like the WTO, how countries have traded together. We have a sense of the world as multilateral, but bilateralism comes back with trade. From a geopolitical standpoint, the United States is going to have to decide about whether we want to continue to work through multilateral organizations or if the world is going to become more bilateral. If it does, I don’t want to sound too premature to say that something like free trade is over, but this changes how we understand how trade will function. I think that one of the big areas we’re going to feel that is in an agricultural sector. They’re going to feel it first. And that’s especially true in a place like Missouri.

Matthew Hughes: Ever since the end of the Second World War, the United States has played such a critical role in the established world order—in the creating that order and then in carrying it forward. It does seem like the United States is less willing now to engage in that same way. I worry about what the withdrawal of the United States from this role would do, and the problems it could pose to finding solutions to many of the challenges we’ve discussed. In this regard, I think that continuing to engage, continuing to listen, continuing to take part in global problem-solving is very important. There’s currently so much rhetoric around protectionism and isolationism. Unfortunately, I think American geography feeds into these sentiments. We have land borders with two other countries and oceans all around us. National rhetoric that furthers the idea that we can be isolated from the world will affect the public mood. This makes it more important for organizations to share and discuss what’s actually happening and bring that global perspective to communities around the country.