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More 3D for US Foreign Policy: Moving Beyond Soft Diplomacy Through Global Health

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Co-authored with Mohamed Abdouh Kabir

Years ago a young woman, wise beyond her years, advised me that I would be "a lot happier and a lot more successful if [I] were more 3D and less 2D." Taken somewhat aback, I inquired as to the hidden message in this recommendation. "Well, it's pretty simple! You talk to people all day long about all sorts of matters. You network. You introduce people to each other. That's 2D. When you actually collaborate and do something together, that's 3D!"

And so it has been that I have focused on trying to be more 3D and less 2D, solidifying relationships with others through the joint accomplishment of tangible results. As a life philosophy, striving for 3D interactions has bolstered my efforts to make an impact in the world, and has deeply enriched my relationships. But the wider applications of acting in 3D have been on my mind since a series of conversations with my friend Mohamed Kabir (my co-author on this article) about the very "2D" US diplomatic posture in tumultuous parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Having just returned from a visit to an ailing aunt in Algeria, Mohamed was reeling from simultaneous feelings of extreme gratitude for the healthcare that his aunt received from resource-strapped health workers, and extreme frustration with the inadequate expressions of American diplomatic effort in the region that he sees on an ongoing basis.

From this conversation, we concluded that the U.S. must be more "3D" in its relations with other nations, particularly where we are viewed with suspicion or worse sentiments. If the U.S could foster the gratitude and goodwill generated by the improved health of family members or fellow citizens, it would go much further than any symbolic political visit, or policy agreement, or report towards improving our image abroad. The possibility of improving global health efforts by leveraging diplomatic relationships has been acknowledged (in 2013 the White House's Global Health Initiative was replaced with the State Department's Office of Global Health Diplomacy). But we believe that it is diplomacy that stands to benefit from increased American activity and investment in global health. With a growing number of American individuals, academic institutions, organizations, and businesses committed to providing needed care around the world, our government must get with the program by supporting and owning the efforts of these global health emissaries and entrepreneurs. The finest hour of America is when it stays true to its values and shares them with the world.

Mohamed's experience illustrates the point...

Some months after I accompanied my aunt to her chemotherapy treatments at Algeria's critically under-staffed University of Oran Hospital, Secretary of State Kerry visited with Algeria's aging incumbent Presidential candidate. It was the beginning of the country's highly criticized election process. For many Algerians, the Secretary's visit represented the U.S. government's tacit approval of the election process, bringing up the ghost of past American interference in internal Algerian affairs. It might sound strange coming from me, someone who initially advocated for Kerry's visit to the region, but perhaps American interest would be better safeguarded if our Secretary of State stayed home and instead sent a group of doctors to create linkages with their Algerian colleagues.

I am proud of the care my aunt received from a dedicated group of doctors and health auxiliaries in Oran. Throughout my time with her, it became clear to me that US policy makers would learn so much and create endless goodwill if we engaged North Africa in a collaborative way on issues other than security and perceived interests. It's not drones that are needed in the Sahel but an elimination of the structural grievances that create the problems in the first place. Algerians, Moroccans and Africans in general are proud of their sovereignty and we could work in tandem together to create a better world for future generations. There is room for US foreign policy to free itself from the dogma of security and start encompassing innovation and technology in its fold - and there is no arena that has greater potential for positive impact than health.

We have written this article as an appeal to those who work towards achieving a more peaceful world. Visits, summits, exchanges, and rhetoric in general are the 2D approach. Donating money to governments to fund health programs is also 2D. Let's send doctors and researchers to engage with foreign patients and doctors alike. Let's send our ideas, and encourage our entrepreneurs and innovators to bring their products to markets different than our own. We only stand to increase our own expertise and knowledge in the process. By facilitating and putting our name on these activities, the U.S. can move in the right direction towards shifting negative perceptions throughout the world; and by acting in the 3D sphere, we can make the world a better place in a real and tangible way.

This article is in memoriam of my aunt Salha Ben Bouzid, a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and a very proud Moroccan who raised a generation of Algerians.

Mohamed Abdouh Kabir, a published US foreign policy expert in the Middle East and North Africa, received his Masters in international policy from the Elliott School at George Washington University in Washington DC. He is an experienced international collaborator.

Research and editorial assistance for this article was provided by Ariel Trilling.