Webcast Recap

Podcast (Audio only)


Scott Busby, Director for the Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State;

Alyse Nelson, President, CEO and Co-Founder, Vital Voices Global Partnership;

Lisa Schirch, Director of 3P Human Security;

Chris Seiple, President, Institute for Global Engagement;

Tomicah Tilleman, Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies, U.S. Department of State;

Steve McDonald, Director of the Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Wilson Center.


The Importance of Engaging Non-State Actors

Steve McDonald, director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, remarked on how some of the NGO community have always hoped for “some sort of formula that would foster the partnership between civil society and the government.” Through his personal experiences engaging with civil society, McDonald has seen how civil society involvement in domestic and international policy making has been “the game changer” in Africa. This was witnessed during the post-Cold War period when national conventions focused on the question of “democratic peace” and what that meant in terms of state building. According to McDonald, these efforts were unsuccessful in the African context until civil society organizations began to participate in the promotion of democracy and demonstrate that the government-civil society relationship can prove to be mutually beneficial.

Historically, civil society has “push[ed] governments to take steps that they never would have considered on their own,” and recently become a global phenomenon redefining the relationship between governments and their people. Tomicah Tilleman, Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies at the State Department, charged that the growing importance of civil society and non-traditional actors represent a “monumental change” in diplomacy because it demonstrates the need for “forging a democratic culture worldwide.” As a result, Secretary Clinton established the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) to explore the avenues by which American diplomacy could connect with non-traditional foreign policy actors more effectively. Through the Strategic Dialogue Initiative with Civil Society, the State Department has sought to elevate U.S. engagement with civil society actors in light of their “vital and increasingly important role in foreign policy.” To “provide civil society an equal seat at the table,” this Dialogue has developed a series of working groups that “address issues where [the State Department has] common ground with our partners in this sector.” The initiative is centered on Secretary Clinton’s belief that along with the government and the private sector, civil society is one of “three legs of the stool” that support a successful nation.

Despite civil society’s growing role in foreign policy, Scott Busby, director of the State Department’s Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs asserted that the status of these organizations remains uncertain. Busby postulated that governments worldwide have undermined the efficacy of civil society by making it difficult to form an NGO through constraints on freedom of assembly and expression. Although this is a “common phenomenon during periods of democratic change,” Busby affirmed that “this backlash against civil society does not mean that positive change will not ultimately prevail.” He stated that “it is crucial that we give these forces all the support we can” and that the U.S. “must be fearless and persistent in standing with these civil society organizations and the other forces for democratic change.”

Religion, Identity, and the QDDR

Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement, stressed that engaging civil society was a practice of “relational diplomacy” that sought to promote sustainable change between the state and its citizens. As a member of the Dialogue’s religion and foreign policy working group, Seiple said that the religious world was relevant to foreign policy because it “speaks to identity” and “meaning” This is particularly important since globalization has resulted in “an age of spiritual and psychological dislocation.” For Seiple, religion is vital to the foreign policy dialogue because it has become a medium that provides a common ground between many different actors. He continued by saying that the working group has contributed to the initiative’s goals by examining the relationship between “religious engagement,” democracy, development and conflict mediation. Moreover, this working group seeks to make the State Department more accessible to religious leadership at home and abroad. To accomplish this, Seiple said that “we should have groups … that we can interface with and “develop these in other countries and promote other regional working groups centered on religion,” so policy and practice can be normalized.

The Role of Women Leadership in Civil Society

Alyse Nelson, President, CEO and co-Founder of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, stated that “effective American diplomacy in the 21st century must extend far beyond traditional players.” She asserted that civil society is no longer seen as a tool for “soft power,” but rather a strategic instrument that can promote cooperation between the state and non-state actors. Nelson spoke of how “we see every day the power of women’s voices in civil society,” and although there are places around the world where “this voice is still not heard,” progress is being made. Traditionally, “women have been phased out from power and policy-making decisions,” however, women have been consolidating power by taking leadership roles in civil society. This shift in foreign policy toward civil society engagement has allowed women to become “key interlocutors.” Thus, for women worldwide to “know what equality feels like,” the U.S. Government and civil society professionals need “to stay focused on helping women” maintain “this new normal.”

Human Security versus National Security: The Marginalization of Civil Society Voices

Director of 3P Human Security, Lisa Schirch concentrated her remarks on the field of conflict prevention and how civil society engagement could yet be improved. Currently, civil society is inadequately used as a conflict mitigation tool because it is often: pacified or silenced; considered solely a program implementer rather than a valid contributor to the formulation of conflict prevention programming; or made invisible during the building of state capacity as their priorities are neglected in favor of externally determined goals. This inattention to civil society is the reason why the democratization of policy making is crucial. “Democracy is a means and an end” and needs to be seen in policy formation and implementation. To legitimize programs, a dialogue needs to be established between the U.S. military and these civil populations to determine the drivers of conflict and how stability and security are defined locally. By incorporating civil society into the process, Schirch asserted that the “whole of society” as opposed to the “whole of government” approach to conflict prevention will prove more effective in promoting sustainable peace and democracy.

The Future of Civil Society in Diplomatic Engagement

Since its inception, the Strategic Dialogue has made significant strides toward incorporating civil society into the foreign policy discourse. The growing influence of these groups worldwide has forced governments to take note of non-traditional actors and their impact on policy. The substance of this discussion will maintain its relevance because, as stated by Tilleman, “there are few sure bets in the world of foreign policy but…this trend is going to continue. We will see civil society increasingly playing a vital role in the world of diplomacy.”


  • Scott Busby

    Director of the Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Alyse Nelson

    President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership
  • Lisa Schirch

    Director, 3P Human Security
  • Chris Seiple

    President of the Institute for Global Engagement
  • Tomicah Tillemann

    Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies and Chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on the Secretary’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, U.S. Department of State
  • Steve McDonald

    Global Fellow