A Pivot to the People

PRINCETON – On February 1, the United Nations Security Council met to consider the Arab League’s proposal to end the violence in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represented the United States. Midway through her remarks, she began speaking not to the Syrian ambassador, who was in the room, or even the Syrian government, but directly to the Syrian people. She said that change in Syria would require Syrians of every faith and ethnicity to work together, protecting and respecting the rights of minorities.

Addressing those minorities, she continued: “We do hear your fears, and we do honor your aspirations. Do not let the current regime exploit them to extend this crisis.” She told Syria’s business, military, and other leaders that they must recognize that their futures lie with the state, not with the regime. “Syria belongs to its 23 million citizens, not to one man or his family.”

Speaking directly to citizens – seeing a country’s people, as well as its government – is not just a rhetorical device. While many foreign-policy pundits have focused on the US “pivot to Asia,” Clinton has also executed a less-publicized, but no less important, pivot to the people. She has introduced policies, programs, and institutional reforms designed to support government-to-society and society-to-society diplomacy, alongside traditional government-to-government relations. These initiatives do not get headlines, but they will gradually transform much of American foreign policy.

In January, the State Department unveiled a new “super-office” of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, under the leadership of Under-Secretary Maria Otero. The office brings together agencies that focus on international law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and reconstruction and stabilization with those charged with advancing democracy, human rights, and humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants.