Top takeaways from Insights@Meridian with Salman Ahmed, State Department Director of Policy Planning

On Thursday June 3, Meridian hosted a virtual Insights@Meridian program with Salman Ahmed, Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, moderated by Ambassador Stuart Holliday, CEO of Meridian.

The Policy Planning Staffs role varies across administrations and secretaries. The main functions of the today’s Policy Planning Staff, as outlined by Director Ahmed include: 1) coordination with the National Security Council (NSC) and other government agencies on the Administration’s overall national security strategy and priorities, and subsequent translation of this agenda into actionable diplomatic and budgetary priorities for the Secretary and Department of State; 2) policy messaging, as the Secretary’s speech writers reside within the policy planning staff; 3) policy development, particularly on longer-term strategic issues that cut across different regions and functional areas ; and, 4) programmatic, as the Policy Planning owns a set of institutional responsibilities including: “red teaming” existing policies based on long-held underlying assumptions that may have changed or need to be challenged; managing the “dissent channel”-- a process that allows foreign service officers and civil servants to bring constructive, dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues to the Secretary of State and Senior Department Officials; and launching a new ideas channel that will offer an avenue for foreign service officers and civil servants to be able to propose policy ideas for the future. The Policy Planning staff is made up of approximately 24 members who are a mix of political appointees, career foreign and civil servants, and detailees from other federal agencies.

Here are the top takeaways from the conversation:

  1. REVITALIZING AND REIMAGINING ALLIANCES. Both on the campaign trail and now in office, President Joe Biden has promised to repair and revitalize alliances through diplomacy and restore Washington’s leadership position on the global stage. Director Ahmed echoed this promise, and indicated that the President’s commitment to working with allies and partners to address global challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and nuclear proliferation, would be illustrated vividly in his forthcoming participation in Summit meetings with the G7 members, NATO, and the European Union. “It’s hard to imagine any issue on which the U.S. alone is poised to solve, or that the world is positioned to solve without the U.S.”, stated Director Ahmed. In addition to reaffirming our commitment to our allies, Director Ahmed noted that efforts are being made to modernize alliance structures so that they are better able to respond to new security threats. He also added that new cross-regional partnerships would need to be forged, such as the “Quad” (consisting of Australia, India, Japan and United States).
  2. MULTILATERAL COOPERATION TO FIGHT COVID-19. In May, as laid out in a White House fact sheet, the Biden administration vowed to provide at least 80 million COVID-19 vaccines for global use by the end of June, and that it would be doing even more than that. Regarding the allocation of the first 25 million of these 80 million doses, Director Ahmed referenced the June 3rd statement by President Biden in which he announced that least 75 percent of them —nearly 19 million—will be shared through COVAX, including approximately six million doses for Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately seven million for South and Southeast Asia, and approximately five million for Africa. The remaining doses, just over six million, will be shared directly with countries experiencing surges, those in crisis, and other partners and neighbors, including Canada, Mexico, India, and the Republic of Korea. More plans on U.S. multilateral coordination on combating COVID-19 were expected to be shared in the lead up to and at the G7 Summit.
  3. INVESTING IN DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AT STATE. Director Ahmed stressed that the Secretary of State was firmly committed to building a Department that better resembled the country it represented. Advancing diversity and inclusion was a priority for him. That is why he moved quickly to appoint Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley to the newly created Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) position at the State Department.
  4. A COMMITMENT TO ADVANCING HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY. In response to a question on advancing the rights of LGBTQI persons, Director Ahmed referenced the National Security Memorandum issued by President Biden on February 4th, in which he directed all federal agencies and departments with roles overseas to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect human rights, including the protection of LGBTQI+ members, everywhere. In response to another question from one of the diplomats present, Director Ahmed referenced the Biden administration’s commitment to host a “Summit for Democracy” to advance human rights at home abroad, renew support for combating authoritarianism and its use of emerging technologies to suppress populations, and fight corruption so often associated with having a corrosive effect on democracy. He acknowledged that to engage in such efforts, the U.S. needs to look inwards and to other democratic partners, to partake in self-criticism, recognize the challenges we face, ask what we need to do to address these problems, and lead by example to show democracies can deliver.
  5. FOREIGN POLICY FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS. Both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have stated that they will pursue a foreign policy for the middle class. On what this entails, Director Ahmed made clear that domestic renewal is a high priority for the current administration, and a key measure of its success will be whether more Americans are able to attain or sustain a middle-class standard of living.  This goal would be pursued, first and foremost, through domestic and fiscal policies, as exemplified by major pieces of legislation now under consideration on Capitol Hill.  But foreign policy would be expected to contribute to this goal, too, and not run counter to it. In his National Security Memorandum issued on February 4, the President had directed national security departments and agencies to elaborate what this would mean in concrete terms and called on the NSC to bring them all together to produce a comprehensive plan that would cover issues that greatly affect American families and workers, to include international trade, global health, climate change, cybersecurity, and competition with China
  6. CAPITALIZING ON ‘SOFT POWER’. While the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is traditionally tasked with promoting efforts of cultural diplomacy and ‘soft power’, Director Ahmed noted that his office will take into consideration this aspect of diplomacy, too. He believes it is important for senior U.S. diplomats to not only engage in official meetings during their overseas visits, but also seek opportunities to strengthen cooperation by engaging with civil society through areas like culture, science, and innovation. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman most recently exemplified this during her visit to Turkey.

“Don't judge what you think your job is going to be by the first hundred days because what will define your job has yet to yet to come.” – Salman Ahmed

Insights@Meridian  is designed to provide ambassadors and other senior diplomats with an intimate opportunity to hear directly from Administration leaders, members of Congress, policymakers and business visionaries on vital policy issues of the day.

Project summary

Top takeaways from Insights@Meridian with Salman Ahmed, State Department Director of Policy Planning
Impact Areas: Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy
Program Areas: Convening
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