Foreign policy did not play a significant role in the Presidential election campaign. However, neither America nor the world can afford the new Administration to take a holiday from global engagement. It is not just that there are pressing problems to be addressed. The global power structure is changing.
Former Australian Prime Minister and noted China expert Kevin Rudd has argued that America’s claim to global leadership is in the last chance saloon. The post-election statement from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier contained an urgent message: the new Administration needs to reunite the liberal democratic political alliance (“the West”), and if it doesn’t, then we are looking at a very different global order.
Fortunately, the President-Elect’s experience and commitments create the prospect of early momentum. President-Elect Biden clearly understands that strength comes from allies, ideas and example, not just a strong economy and military. He needs to show for the sake of internationalists everywhere that foreign engagement is not about putting your own country second.
For the U.S., it is core to a stronger America.
COVID is the number one priority at home and represents an issue where going global is indispensable. This disease of the connected needs to be beaten everywhere. That takes reintegration into the World Health Organization, which needs to be strengthened following this crisis, but also takes more. The Administration needs to strengthen international pandemic response in the short term, recovery in the medium term (including through global distribution of vaccines), and preparedness for the long term.
At the moment 64 developing countries—including 18 where the International Rescue Committee operates—spend more on debt service every year than on health. Wealthy nations have collectively allocated $11 trillion to COVID response, and need to do more. The UN has shown how a global commitment of less than 1 perecent of that amount would protect the world’s poorest from the health and economic impacts of the virus. A U.S. contribution of $20 billion, although a fraction of the domestic effort, would show the US means business.
It is clear that climate change will be a priority across the Administration and throughout its term. With Europe, China and Japan all making commitments to go carbon neutral, a new U.S. approach is welcome. However, long-term action on climate cannot come at the expense of people dying today for America’s absence from the world stage.
Principled global engagement means urgent humanitarian diplomacy. Yemen is only the most pressing example. The President-Elect has already signaled his intent to end US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and by proxy US support for the misbegotten war strategy of the Saudi-led coalition. This is long overdue. As UN Aid Chief Mark Lowcock said this week: “Yemenis are not ‘going hungry.’ They are being starved.”
The Syria nightmare has got worse not better since Biden left office. It has become emblematic of failed diplomacy, Russian muscle-flexing, human misery—and since 2017, the demonization of refugees. In four years the Trump Administration has reduced by 85 percent the number of refugees being allowed into the country. Whereas in FY 2016 over 12,500 Syrians made a new life in America, in FY 2020 it was 481.
Biden has made bold commitments to welcome 125,000 refugees per year. This is vital to uphold America’s promise to the world’s most vulnerable. Increased admissions must however be buttressed by support to countries hosting refugees abroad, because nearly 90 percent of the world’s refugees live in poorer countries without the resources and capacity to meet their needs. It is the most vulnerable refugees—a mere 1 percent of the total refugee population per year—that have access to resettlement. With conflicts burning longer, on average less than 3 percent of refugees are able to return home. The U.S. must press for bold changes in humanitarian aid that support refugees to rebuild their lives in countries of first refuge.
In these policy areas, American leadership can be the prelude to further international commitments by other countries. Nowhere is that more true than south of the US border, in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Five years ago, Vice President Biden announced a plan to surge $750 million in foreign assistance to Central America. But the Trump team reversed course, alongside a host of inhumane asylum policies. Five years on, there is massive human misery in the flow of people from those countries, at the US border, and in the unconscionable family separation that has become symbolic of the American approach under President Trump.
The right to seek asylum is fundamental to international and US law. The process should be credible, humane, efficient and fair, and those seeking asylum should not be detained in high-risk conditions while their legal cases are proceeding. It took four months on average last year in Germany compared to a three-to-four-year backlog in the US. But the roots of the humanitarian challenge lie in gang violence, economic hardship and political instability over 1000 miles away. A serious regional approach led by the US would recognize this.
None of these measures are substitutes for effective domestic policy reform. Nor do they eliminate the need for hard-headed diplomacy on the structural geopolitical questions the world faces, notably about the US-China relationship. But all of them are necessary for America to fulfil its promise to its own citizens – that each generation is safer and more prosperous than the last. And all of them would create a new geopolitical reality, in which America gains allies rather than loses them.
While the contours of global politics are in flux, the fundamental dividing line is clear. Is the 21st century to be marked by a new Age of Impunity, with the rule of law in retreat at home and abroad, or are the enlightened forces of accountability and humanity strong enough to ward off the abuse of power? Without America engaged, the battle cannot be won.
David Miliband is CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.