- President-elect Joe Biden faces a complicated international landscape, and political polarization and gridlock at home mean he’ll have limited tools to address it.
- Despite those obstacles, there are three things Biden can do in his first months in office that will be welcomed at home and abroad, writes Candace Rondeaux, senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
To say President-elect Joe Biden has his work cut out for him when it comes to US foreign policy and national security would be a gross understatement. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all loom large, right alongside climate change and the still-worsening coronavirus pandemic.
Yet with a persistently polarized American electorate and a possibly divided Congress, it will be hard for his administration to make significant progress on the biggest security challenges facing the United States. Whatever happens with the messy transition period leading up to Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the Republican Party’s obstructionism and Donald Trump’s decapitation of Pentagon leadership this week certainly will not help.
There are, however, some easy wins that Biden’s administration could still conceivably secure within its first 100 days, without having to charge straight into major political headwinds.
Despite the many obstacles Biden’s national security team will confront, there are nevertheless viable options to deliver quickly on Biden’s promise to “restore American leadership abroad” and repair international alliances.
A Biden White House could better the odds for more stable US relations with the world by taking three simple steps in the first quarter of 2021 to demonstrate America’s recommitment to the defense of human rights and promotion of international legal norms. Not one will require a hard sell to Congress, and all three would likely receive broad bipartisan support across the foreign policy community in Washington.
Step One: Rescind Trump’s visa ban and sanctions that were levied against staff at the International Criminal Court, and appoint a respected jurist with management experience to head the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.
This is an easy one. The Trump administration’s decision to impose a travel ban on The Hague court’s top prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and members of her staff is a stain on America’s long track record of support for international justice. The Rome Statute that established the ICC as the global court of last resort for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression grew directly out of the legal traditions established by American prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi officials in Germany after World War II.
Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke with that tradition by singling out Bensouda and members of her team and barring them from entering the United States. It was punishment from the Trump administration after the ICC granted Bensouda’s request to open a formal investigation into war crimes committed in Afghanistan by all sides, including American forces.
While the US is highly unlikely to ever join as a full state party to the Rome Statute, the incoming administration would do well to reestablish the long-standing norm of noninterference in the ICC’s affairs. Biden needs to ensure that his administration steers far clear of personalizing its policy positions by targeting people who have been hired by international institutions like the ICC to do the hard work of pursuing accountability and justice. Anything short of a full restoration of travel visas for the ICC staff and protection of rights guaranteed under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations will only add insult to the Trump administration’s injury of the ICC’s mandate.
Normalizing relations with Bensouda’s office and reengaging the ICC will go a long way toward demonstrating to the Rome Statute’s 120-plus signatory nations that the U.S. respects the sovereign decision of each country to engage with the court. An added bonus is that it will make moot Trump’s unconstitutional attempt to bar American citizens or anyone else from providing expert advice to the ICC, while perhaps reducing the amount of political capital and taxpayer dollars that will have to be spent on a currently pending federal civil suit on the issue.
To ensure that America is not blindsided by ICC action where the Afghanistan investigation is concerned, the new administration also needs to ensure that relations with the tribunal in The Hague remain stable and communication channels open. That will require a different approach to how the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice is run, and the appointment of someone with both a sharp legal mind and experience with leading teams who have come under political pressure. Also known as the GCJ, the State Department’s chief liaison office to the ICC and other international courts is an important node in the network of US national security players that can influence questions of international justice. The GCJ has historically played a pivotal role in supporting international war crimes tribunals, including the trial of Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor.
It may be that there are already several qualified candidates inside the State Department who might want to take the position. It is also probably the case that, after four years of the Trump administration sidelining human rights and international justice issues, there is a diverse pool of candidates who have been cooling their heels outside of government and would jump at a chance to lead the revival of American support for international justice. Whoever takes up the job, all that matters is that they understand that they will need to staff their new team with experts who are intimately familiar with the Afghanistan portfolio, because that issue is not going away any time soon.
Step Two: Choose a current career Foreign Service officer to represent the US at the United Nations instead of a political appointee. This is possibly a tougher political sell, but doable. Successive presidents have treated the top UN job as more of a political plum for loyal party soldiers, big personalities and deep-pocketed campaign donors. But, with climate change, a global pandemic and heated rivalries with Russia and China all in play at the UN Security Council, this is no time to appoint a prima donna.
Plus, a hostile, Republican-dominated Senate almost guarantees a fight over the UN appointment. To increase the chances that experience, not politics, will guide American action at the UN, and to reduce the odds of a protracted battle over the appointment, Biden should select from the existing roster of senior American diplomats.
Moreover, elevating someone from within the ranks of America’s demoralized diplomatic corps would forcefully demonstrate Biden’s commitment to reenergizing American diplomacy after the damage Trump has done.
To show that his administration also means business about racial equity, Biden could send a strong message about its intent to diversify the State Department by tapping one of the many talented women affiliated with the Leadership Council on Women in National Security for the UN job, and heeding the council’s sage advice about how to get diversity and inclusion right.
Step Three: Rejoin the UN Human Rights Council and appoint as council representative a seasoned human rights defender. This is a cost-free no brainer. The Trump administration’s decision two years ago to quit the council fell in line with neoconservative Republican views that the US should not participate in a process it can’t dominate.
Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN at the time, said the council was run by notorious human rights violators who often made biased claims against the United States. George W. Bush’s administration made a similar case when it boycotted the council in 2006.
As with the UN Human Rights Commission that the council replaced, there are certainly reasons to be critical of an international body that has on occasion seen countries like China, Russia or Cuba lead its periodic review of human rights violations around the world. Shouting complaints from outside the council, however, is unlikely to do much to precipitate change.
The next White House needs to show it wants to get back in the game by rejoining the council and the world, so it should stick with picking the lowest hanging fruit first.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.