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  1. Opinion

Column: Toward a civil discourse on foreign policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin after delivering his annual address to the Federal Assembly at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow on Thursday, March 1, 2018. Putin boasted of new weaponry that will render NATO defenses "completely useless." (Russian Look/Zuma Press/TNS) 1224910
Published Mar. 12, 2018

Tampa Bay residents were surprised recently when Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual address, showed an animated video that had multiple warheads raining down on what appeared to be their region. Putin never mentioned Florida by name in his two-hour address, but his message was simple: Russia is developing an array of new weapons to counter America's missile defense system and Americans, particularly those in the Tampa Bay area, should take note.

Whether Putin already possesses the five doomsday weapons he mentioned or has the resources and know-how to produce them remains unclear. But Putin's speech and accompanying video served as a stark reminder that foreign policy can easily touch local communities.

The bipartisan Center for a New American Security is bringing a small delegation of Americans and Europeans to Tampa on Thursday and Friday to talk about foreign policy. The trip is part of a three-year project called "Across the Pond, in the Field" (CNASIntheField.org), which is designed to engage new audiences and listen to fresh perspectives on a variety of foreign policy topics from trade to security to migration. Why? Foreign policy discussions don't necessarily need to be confined to the Situation Room at the White House or large conference tables at Washington think tanks. Given the fast-moving, far-reaching and dynamic nature of the foreign policy challenges we face today, Washington insiders need to step outside the bubble and do more to engage the rest of the country.

For years, foreign policy solutions have been crafted by a mix of political appointees and public servants at the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department. Those subject matter experts and their deep expertise on everything from regions of the world to weapons of mass destruction to sanctions policy remain paramount to developing new policy solutions. But it's not enough.

If America is going to find effective and innovative ways to address Chinese cyber attacks, Russian disinformation campaigns or a brewing trade war with Europe, to name just a few of today's challenges, traditional policymakers will need to do more to engage the private sector, chambers of commerce, tech experts, trade associations, entrepreneurs and universities.

During this period when the country is so divided and hyper partisan, Americans, especially Washingtonians, also have to work harder at civil discourse. We need to find opportunities to come together and have open and frank conversations about foreign policy in a forum free of insults, angry outbursts or partisan attacks. Our adversaries love nothing more than to see Americans consumed with their own divisions, as it hinders our ability to come together as a nation and focus on deterring, preventing and protecting the country from aggression. Furthermore, a divided and distracted America hinders our ability to work with our closest and most capable allies in Europe.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, we will be hosting a free public event in cooperation with the University of Tampa at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. public library. We have an impressive lineup of speakers: ambassador Victoria Nuland, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security; David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and currently the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee; and Peter Wittig, Germany's ambassador to the United States. We are coming to Tampa to listen, engage new audiences and learn about how the residents of Tampa Bay look at U.S. foreign policy and our relationship with Europe. We hope you'll join us and that you'll bring your toughest questions. We might not end up agreeing on everything, but we're hoping for a lively and civil discussion on anything that's on your mind: the new steel tariffs, NATO defense spending, Brexit, migration — and even those nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles in Putin's video.

Julianne Smith directs the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and served as the deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.

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