With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the United States faces a moment of enormous opportunity to advance peace at home and around the world. As the Biden administration reorients U.S. foreign and domestic policy, it can also begin rethinking many of the systems that support violent conflict and the exploitation of people around the world. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden spoke a lot about unity. He appealed to our better angels and described an era where the United States would once again re-engage with the world. He reminded us that we can disagree and have vigorous debates, but that we must do so without resorting to violence.
Words matter. As such, it was heartening to hear the president project the best of us, and we are optimistic about this moment. However, for Biden’s aspirations to become real, we have work to do at home and we have to repair the damage the United States has done abroad. The to-do list following the departure of the previous administration – and amidst a global pandemic – is daunting. But there are five clear steps the Biden-Harris administration can take to promote human dignity around the globe.
First, the United States must begin by addressing the longstanding injustices and systemic racism that have permeated U.S. institutions and laws for centuries. For too long, Black Americans have been marginalized and have been victimized by various institutions—police forces, health systems, education systems, and more. They are also among the most systemically disenfranchised populations in the country. The new administration must work to undo the decades of Black oppression in order to gain legitimacy abroad. We cannot be a force for good overseas when we continue to allow white supremacy and racism to flourish at home. There are no shortage of necessary reforms but the administration can begin by addressing the disparity already evident in access to the COVID-19 vaccines as well as implementing meaningful initiatives to combat police brutality.
The new administration must also rethink how the United States addresses conflict in vulnerable countries. Luckily, peace advocates and policymakers have handed Biden a ready-to-implement roadmap: the Global Fragility Act (GFA). The GFA passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2019, and creates a whole-of-government approach to addressing the root causes of violence and fragility. The legislation establishes an interagency initiative to refocus U.S. foreign policy and assistance on preventing violent conflict by addressing the root causes of violence and fragility. The GFA requires that U.S. diplomatic, development, and defense agencies, working in partnership with civil society and local communities, collaborate to reduce violence in at least five countries or regions over a 10-year period. This initiative takes a long term, holistic approach that seeks to prevent conflict and fragility, rather than merely respond to those challenges. If done right, the GFA has the potential to demonstrate a new, more effective way of tackling violence and fragility.
Another key step in addressing and preventing violent conflict involves improving the work of the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force, another interagency initiative currently housed at the State Department. During the Obama-Biden administration, the United States considered atrocity prevention a key foreign policy priority. The Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to reestablish U.S. leadership in addressing and preventing mass atrocities by improving the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force. In particular, the administration can begin to publicly release the list of at-risk countries and regions, require consultations with local actors, as well as proactively engage with local, regional, and international organizations to support transitional justice and accountability.
There’s also work to be done here at home, and one important step is ensuring that no goods made by forced labor are imported into the United States. During the Obama-Biden administration, Congress updated the Tariff Act of 1930 to fully ban goods made by forced labor from being imported into the United States, and progress was made during the Trump administration in terms of the amount and scope of enforcement actions. However, there is still much work left to be done, and the Biden-Harris administration should make certain Customs and Border Protection (CBP) aggressively enforces this law. The administration should also take steps to provide greater transparency about the standards and timelines associated with its decisions about enforcement actions, as well as ensure better coordination between CBP and other agencies across the federal government that also tackle forced labor, such as the International Labor Affairs Bureau.
Finally, the new administration must continue prioritizing the fight to prevent and address human trafficking around the globe. One way to do this is by swiftly filling the role of the State Department’s Office of Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP) ambassador. The United States has been fortunate to have had a number of strong ambassadors over the years leading J/TIP, and the Biden-Harris administration has an opportunity to continue this legacy by nominating someone fully committed to all three of the “Ps” that guide efforts to combat trafficking —prevention, protection, and prosecution. The administration also should re-commit to ensuring the integrity of the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, following years of growing concerns over politicization of the report and the perception that national interests influence the rankings. The TIP Report has long been an important tool to hold countries, including the United States, accountable for their actions (or lack of actions) to combat human trafficking, but this report is only as effective as it is credible. J/TIP should be empowered to ensure the narratives and country rankings within the TIP Report are based on an objective analysis and not swayed by outside political considerations such as trade.
These five steps are critical to realizing the vision Biden laid out at his inauguration. But there is one other principle we must hold firm: The new administration must speak clearly when democratic values are being trampled, whether here at home or overseas—including when the culprits are U.S. allies or strategic partners. We cannot be hypocrites who speak in support of human rights principles only when the United States has nothing to lose.
Biden spoke of a new day in the United States. These words will mean more once the Biden-Harris administration begins to take actions that reestablish the United States as a leader aspiring to increase peace and freedom at home and in the world.