Opinion | International

Joe Biden could set realistic foreign policy goals through impact models

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As President Biden and his team take stock of where American foreign policy stands on a variety of critical issues like China, Russia, the Middle East, and climate change, they need a policy agenda and strategy for how to achieve their goals. The secret will be setting realistic rather than lofty goals and knowing that it is not always about achieving a great outcome. Sometimes a foreign policy win means preventing a bad outcome.

In setting foreign policy goals, the new administration could benefit from applying what are called impact models, which are used by international development leaders. Impact models are the six concepts and associated visualizations of potential end results that help practitioners to specifically determine what they can achieve relative to the current status. This forces practitioners to take a hard look at assumptions of what is possible versus what may be desirable but simply not feasible in the current status.

The impact models range from proactive, transformative, opportunistic, stabilizing, preventative, to palliative. They determine whether the goals of a program or policy are meant to achieve positive change, stabilize a situation from deteriorating, or prevent or slow an already negative state of affairs. It is human nature to want to make things better. But the impact models teach us that programs and policies should often be designed to either maintain the current status or prevent a slide into a worse situation. Two lessons from these models can be useful for the new administration.

First, impact models can help officials develop a unified understanding of the expected impact rather than the desired impact. Sometimes we must accept that the least bad option in diplomacy efforts is the best and most plausible outcome. Understanding this can prevent officials from wasting valuable time working toward unrealistic but more desirable goals.

Consider the efforts of China to exert undue economic influence notably on developing countries. In the short term, a stabilizing policy goal which is designed to halt further leverage of China over countries, rather than rolling back current economic deals, is more feasible. This would mean the United States should direct its efforts at preventing new murky deals for investment that disadvantage targeted countries and undermine their development rather than reverse or weaken current economic deals.

Second, focusing on the expected impact rather than the desired impact shifts what data is necessary to determine if our efforts will have success or if we need to truly change course. Should the policy be extended and expanded? Should it be paused or refocused? Specifying the expected impact bolsters the measurability of the policy, which allows officials to determine if the policy is working well or if it needs modification.

With the case of China, if the policy is intended to minimize its new forays into financial coercion of countries rather than reduce its current levers of economic influence, then our benchmarks need to match those expected results. Officials would not look at the continuation of current economic deals, as unfavorable as they may be, as a failure of policy efforts. Instead, new murky investment agreements between China and these developing countries which leave the latter with unsustainable debt burdens would signal that the United States is falling short of its policy goals.

Focusing on the expected impact allows officials to stop searching for results in the wrong places and fosters better decisions about how and where to place taxpayer dollars. Sound strategy rests on realistic goals and a theory of success for achieving them. As the new administration sets its agenda, whether toward China or other foreign policy issues, it would benefit from the impact models to craft specific goals.

Natalie Trisilla is deputy director of evidence and learning in the Center for Global Impact with International Republican Institute based in Washington.

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