Vice President Joe Biden, right, talks to South Korean and Japanese leaders alongside Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during trilateral talks at the Defense Department’s Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, July 14, 2016. Biden attended the talks before visiting sailors aboard the USS John C. Stennis in the Pacific Ocean. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal
Why US foreign policy should focus on the root causes of violence

Four years of President Trump’s disjointed and thoughtless “America First” foreign policy saw the United States alienate allies, relinquish global leadership, and hollow out its diplomatic and development corps. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy will likely be quite different from outgoing Trump’s, but it is not enough to return to the status quo of the pre-Trump era.

When announcing key national security appointees, Biden said, his administration cannot meet today’s challenges “with old thinking and unchanged habits.” The President-elect is right. We need a new approach; a paradigm shift. We need a prevention-focused foreign policy.

The United States’ modern foreign policy has been shaped by 9/11. We’ve seen two major wars, drastic increases to the defense budget, and kinetic operations in multiple countries without declarations of war. For the last two decades, U.S. foreign policy and national security have been viewed primarily through a militarized lens. The result is a foreign policy and national security strategy that have been led by short-term decision-making without a clear long-term strategy. This must change.

For too long, our perceived security gains have come at the expense of our values; often pitting human rights against security. The United States must stop supporting and selling arms to abusive and dictatorial regimes in exchange for minimal security cooperation or in the name of “stability.” Security sector reform efforts in countries that have little interest in actually reforming their security sector often end with abusive regimes getting well-trained soldiers who are better able to abuse their citizens.

Right now, in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, a long-time security partner of the United States, is unleashing security forces against opposition candidates and citizens ahead of the 2021 elections. Uganda’s security forces, many of whom have been trained and equipped by the United States, recently killed 45 protesters. Many protesters took to the streets after opposition candidate Bobi Wine was arrested in another clear attempt to subvert a free and fair election. Instead of partnering with abusive leaders like Museveni, the United States should seek to partner with the people in their quest for freedom and good governance.

It should be U.S. policy to break ties with regimes that commit gross human rights violations against their own people. Partnering with abusive regimes is counterproductive. Regimes that deny their people basic human rights and human needs can often be drivers of violent extremism and terrorism.

The United States must see human rights and human security as part of its national security strategy. In our interconnected world, we’ve seen how quickly violence and instability in one state can affect a region, and even the wider global community.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the global displacement crisis was one of the top issues affecting many parts of the world. At the end of 2019, a staggering 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide; fleeing violence, persecution, and other human rights abuses. The only way to effectively deal with these issues is to address the root causes. One of the key drivers of displacement has been violent conflict and mass atrocities.

Preventing violence doesn’t just prevent loss of life, it also decreases the need to spend vast amounts of money on humanitarian aid and avoids protracted displacement that could last decades. By the United States responding in an ad hoc manner, these aid efforts end up costing far more than preventive measures would have. The reactionary approach to foreign policy is fundamentally flawed and will continue to fail as long as it continues to be employed.  

A prevention-focused foreign policy would prioritize upstream conflict prevention. Targeting the root causes of violence, building stable institutions, and supporting vibrant civil societies that can act as a bulwark against atrocities and violent conflict. This approach would also consolidate previously siloed efforts to reduce violence.

Currently, there are different strategies, bureaus, and teams for counterterrorism, countering violent extremism, atrocities prevention, and other forms of violence. Despite these issues sharing many common root causes, the United States often treats them as if they have nothing in common. Shifting away from short-term stabilization efforts towards long-term structural change would allow U.S. foreign policy to be better placed at decreasing all forms of violence with a unified prevention strategy.

The good news is that with the passage of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and the Global Fragility Act, the Biden administration is coming into office with a Congress that has already shown its support for prevention.

One of the key components of the Global Fragility Act is the Global Fragility Strategy (GFS) which would create a ten-year comprehensive and whole-of-government approach for preventing violent conflict and fragility. This strategy, which was supposed to be submitted to Congress by September 15, 2020, was finally released earlier this month. The Biden administration’s State Department, under the leadership of Antony Blinken, should make it a top priority to update the GFS and articulate the tangible steps the Biden administration will take to implement a whole-of-government approach within the first 100 days

In order for the Biden administration to effectively implement a holistic intergovernmental prevention strategy, the administration must work with Congress to rebalance the three D’s —diplomacy, development, and defense — of U.S. foreign policy. You cannot have a comprehensive strategy when the Department of Defense consistently has an outsized budget as compared to the Department of State and USAID.

Congress recently passed a $740 billion defense budget. Meanwhile, in 2020 the State Department and USAID only had a $57 billion budget. There must be a rightsizing of our foreign policy spending. No one should expect the State Department and USAID to effectively prevent mass atrocities when Congress appropriates only $5 million for the Atrocities Prevention Fund.

Budgets reflect our values and for a long time, our priorities have been a bit misguided.

On January 20, 2021, President-elect Biden will be sworn into office. After four years of “America First,” Biden will have the unique opportunity to reintroduce the United States to the world. By creating a prevention-focused foreign policy driven by our values, Biden can begin to reassert the United States as a force for good in the world. 

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