Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

President Obama is briefed on events in Egypt from his National Security Council.
Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

November 1, 2011 - CDDRL, FSI Stanford, CISAC In the News

Stanford's Weinstein reflects on shaping Obama's foreign policy

By Sarina A. Beges

After two years as President Barack Obama’s director for development and democracy at the National Security Council, Jeremy Weinstein is back at Stanford as an associate professor of political science.

Weinstein played a key role in the administration’s global development policy initiatives and launched new international efforts to root out corruption during his time at the White House. In the midst of it all, the Arab Spring found him at the center of an effort to steer a new course in a region of the world where democracy and development were in short supply.

Weinstein, a faculty member at the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and the Center for International Security and Cooperation, talks about working in Washington and bridging the divide between academia and real-world policy making.

What drew you to the position of director for development and democracy?

We had an enormous opportunity with the election of President Obama to offer a new approach to American leadership around the world. The president expressed his commitment to building an international system capable of meeting the serious challenges of our time, and gave issues of global development and democracy a central place in our national security strategy. His personal story is also so inspirational and speaks to powerful and resonant issues of equality and opportunity. And because of his approach and his story, there was an openness among other countries to engage with the United States.

Generally speaking, what did you do in the White House?

Much of the work of the National Security Council involves coordinating U.S. engagement, and responding to crises in bilateral relationships around the globe. For countries from Iran to Afghanistan to Yemen to Egypt to Bolivia to Uganda and more, I was an active player in the interagency process that developed U.S. policy.

I also played an important role in establishing the administration’s affirmative agenda. This included policy leadership on issues of global poverty, reforms to our approach to foreign assistance, and new steps the administration developed to strengthen democratic governance and expand protections for human rights.

You helped create the Open Government Partnership. What is that?

The Open Government Partnership was launched in September at the United National General Assembly. Each country that participates in the partnership makes a commitment to more open and accountable government through increased transparency, civic participation, anti-corruption measures, and greater use of technology. They each take a look at their own domestic political circumstances and develop a plan of concrete reforms that make the most sense. This is a model of the way a democracy should tackle the kind of challenges that it confronts when it comes to accountability. You have political leadership from governments at the highest level, you have governments working with civil society to develop a reform agenda, and then you have objective metrics of progress on the delivery of that agenda. Forty-six countries joined the Partnership at its initial meeting, and President Obama stood with heads of state from Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, the Philippines and many other countries in celebrating the launch of this new initiative.

How did you react and respond to the uprisings in the Arab world as the director for development and democracy?

It was absolutely the dominant foreign policy event of the last year and probably of the entire term for the president. You can't order up an opportunity like this. History lays it at your doorstep. The events of recent months are a powerful demonstration of the universality of the desire for human rights and aspirations for economic opportunity. They also reaffirm a core belief of the president – that momentum for change comes from the bottom-up and is the critical ingredient in bringing about and sustaining democratic transitions.

From the moment the Egyptian protests began up through the announcement of a transition roadmap and the timeline for constitutional reform and elections, Egypt was at the top of the agenda every day in the White House. We were trying to figure out how we could engage and use our contacts and leverage to support the aspirations of the protestors and to create the conditions for a viable process of democratic reform. Egypt was of course followed by Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya in quick succession and, in those circumstances, you do the best you can to engage with a series of events that really tested the government’s bandwidth to manage foreign policy crises.

How did your experience as an academic inform this pivotal moment?

This was a moment when the literature on democratic transition and the experiences of democratic change that we have chronicled at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law were so critical. This was the literature that people were reading in the White House – not that we had too much free time – and we were looking to cases of democratic transition for insights into what we might anticipate in the Middle East and North Africa. When it came to issues of transition in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, I can tell you I was on the phone with (CDDRL Director) Larry Diamond from the moment after Ben Ali fell to the moment the Libya intervention began.

What was it like to shift from your academic background to an environment where you see a real-world and real-time application of these ideas?

The ability to achieve impact at scale is absolutely astounding. Decisions that you make in the White House in real time can affect tens of millions of people around the world and there is nothing in any other job that has the feeling of being able to change the course of history overnight. On the other hand, the policy making process is rapid-fire, and decisions are sometimes made with such limited information that it contrasts sharply with what I am used to as a social scientist. There is little time to draw careful inferences from data before advocating on critical policy questions.

How will your experiences in Washington translate to your work at Stanford?

These experiences will undoubtedly enrich my teaching. And on the research side, a big-picture insight is that senior policy makers have a limited amount of time to develop and cultivate actionable policy solutions to long-standing problems. So the job for folks on the outside – whether at universities or at think tanks – is to take specific problems and think about concrete solutions that will be useful to policy makers. We can help build out the playbook for promoting democracy and development in a way that isn’t possible on the inside.

Topics: Corruption | Democracy | Democracy in the Arab world | Elections and electoral reform | Foreign assistance | Governance | History | Human Rights | International Security and Defense | Poverty, inequality, and democracy | Rule of law and corruption | U.S. foreign policy | Afghanistan | Bahrain | Bolivia | Brazil | Egypt | Iran | Libya | Mexico | Middle East & North Africa | Philippines | South Africa | Tunisia | Uganda | United States | Yemen