The United States manages relationships with almost 200 nations and, even with a tiny number that are truly enemies, we have almost always found ways to keep engagement alive. With this engagement we position ourselves to be more secure, stable, and influential, through building bridges, finding mutual interests, and creating coalitions. So why can’t we apply the same approach to ourselves, when we have far more in common among 50 states than we do with 200 nations?
It feels like an impossible task: Just days after the presidential election, we’ve intensified antipathies building for more than a decade. Comity feels unreachable, and the coronavirus pandemic makes it worse. With President Trump choosing lawsuits over concession, we’ve moved into uncharted waters, a profound danger that is threatening our very democracy and the core of who we are.
Since the days of our founding, Americans have always come together when attacked. So there are lessons there for attacks against each other. The elements of foreign diplomacy and relationship-building can be applied to rebuild the homeland.
But where to start, when our differences seem intractable and something as simple as a face mask is seen as a political weapon?
As a former American diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations, I look at the challenge of uniting America with a certain confidence born of experience. Diplomats use tools to communicate — persuasion when needed, pressure when appropriate — all based on what we know about the people, culture, history, and politics of the country we wish to engage. We have invested years in carefully building layer upon layer of connections with political parties, policy organizations, cultural groups, and future leaders — diplomatic work that continues despite a change in administrations.
As part of the work, we keep conversations alive and civil so that in times of crisis we are not reaching out for the first time. We use carrots when we need them, sticks if we must, and respectful language to preserve the dignity of our counterparts. We leave nothing to chance.
After 9/11, as the perception that “America hates Islam” grew, the Danish Cartoon Crisis in 2006 created rising distrust among European Muslims. US embassies across Europe opened new pathways to engage with Muslims directly about their experiences and issues of concern, with an unprecedented personal engagement of new programs and networks. The embassies advanced new narratives about identity and belonging by recognizing the diversity of European Muslims, leading to new networks of Muslims who worked with us on initiatives that countered the ideology of the extremists.
We need to use similar techniques on ourselves, building on a belief of shared American values and loyalty to our system of democracy.
We need to approach this effort on domestic divisions as we would a foreign nation: Create inroads where they don’t exist. Break apart perceived stereotypes and monoliths to find nuances within communities across various states. Ask, don’t tell, members of the other side what they need. Acknowledge pain. Listen. Find areas of mutual interest.
With sincere efforts, opposing sides learn to “see” each other even if they don’t agree on everything. In time, civility, honesty, and understanding can replace anger, fear, and misunderstanding.
This may sound implausible and naive. As president-elect, Joe Biden has been dealt a difficult hand that includes the deadly coronavirus pandemic, economic distress, and increased racial tensions.
But Biden campaigned on the promise of uniting the country. His past suggests he has the skill set to do it, and mirroring the best from current international programs will help.
To start, he must orchestrate innovative and far-reaching efforts to reintroduce ourselves to each other in the spirit of our shared American values. As our future leaders, young people should be prioritized.
We need a domestic version of the National Endowment for Democracy. Created jointly by Republicans and Democrats in 1984 under President Reagan, the foundation has worked in nearly 100 countries to promote democracy through grants, training, research, network-building, and more. A comparable domestic effort would focus on education, youth, and civil society programs (e.g., cooperation with nongovernmental organizations promoting democracy through grant-making, leadership development, and social entrepreneurship).
Biden should also form a Task Force on American Diplomacy at Home, led by a senior adviser to the president for American diplomacy. The new office would be responsible for expanding and strengthening relationships across and between American communities. The task force would review recommendations from mayors, teachers, social scientists, mental health experts, and others to break down social barriers, build bridges, and support existing efforts, including those in partnership with NGOs and the private sector.
Not since the Civil War has the country felt so untethered. Returning “united” to the United States will take time, leadership, and dedication to this most precious nation. With a new president, we have a chance. We must begin.
Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former special representative to Muslim communities at the State Department, and the author of “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” She is the Muhammad Ali Global Peace Laureate and a senior fellow at the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.