As founding director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 2004 to 2007, I became convinced that the challenge of improving U.S. government responses to threats of mass atrocities was not principally a technical one but rather one related to storytelling.

U.S. government leaders tend to divide their foreign policy priorities into “hard” objectives related to vital national interests and “soft” objectives that are conceived as morally laudable humanitarian concerns, but that are peripheral to the defense of the nation. To this day, the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities is widely seen as a “soft” objective; hence, proponents of robust atrocity-prevention measures often find themselves marginalized from policy debates when so-called “hard” issues such as counterterrorism or alliance stability are at stake. During the early years of my work in this field, I believed that if the story about atrocity prevention could be reframed so as to categorize it as a “hard” national security objective, it might be possible to help move the issue of atrocity prevention from the margins toward the center of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

In 2007, I helped launch the Genocide Prevention Task Force, an independent project co-sponsored by the Holocaust Museum, the United States Institute of Peace, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. The Task Force adopted this “theory of the case” in its final report, which declared genocide prevention to be a “core national security interest” of the United States. As I had written in my initial concept paper for the project:

Even when genocide occurs in territories remote from the United States, it creates devastating regional spillover effects including the expansion of armed conflicts, the spread of extremist political ideologies, the propagation of pandemic diseases, and the disruption of international trade. When the U.S. and other nations permit genocidal violence to continue unchecked, they undermine their own moral authority and their capacity to productively shape the international order of the twenty-first century.

President Barack Obama’s Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) of August 2011, establishing the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), likewise began with the sentence: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

In practice, however, the record of the APB and its successor organization was mixed – even before the advent of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy, with its scornful attitude toward human rights. Under Obama, the APB was able to carve out zones of influence to help shape policy toward conflict-affected countries of peripheral interest to other U.S. government stakeholders, such as the Central African Republic. But, in dealing with marquee foreign policy challenges such as the Syrian civil war or the Saudi military offensive in Yemen, the APB frequently found itself shut out of the action—exposing Obama’s declaration that atrocity prevention was a “core national security interest” of the United States as little more than lip service.

This winter, the United States finds itself at an exciting but perilous juncture in American history. The Biden-Harris administration has expressed a strong commitment to the defense of human rights and the prevention of mass atrocities. But the U.S. government confronts two major challenges that may limit its capacity for decisive and effective action in this field:

  1. The reputational damage to the United States and our escalating internal discord over the past four years. In short, the United States is itself exhibiting signs of State fragility, which will inhibit its capacity for international leadership in the coming years.
  2. Resource and attention constraints within the U.S. foreign policy establishment that may encourage leaders to move back toward what James Mann has called the “doctrine of restraint” that guided the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy. In his book The Obamians, Mann wrote that Obama and his closest advisers possessed “a distinctly more modest and downbeat outlook on America’s role in the world” than the foreign policy teams of the Clinton and the two Bush administrations. Obama and his advisers found themselves hemmed in by the constraints of fiscal austerity and the blows to America’s confidence and international reputation caused by the global financial crisis of 2008 and the U.S. military quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently, “Obama sought to carve out a less assertive role for the United States, one in which it occasionally demonstrated its continuing power and sought to preserve a leadership role in the world, but relied far more on the support of other countries.”

At the current moment of political transition, it is essential to reassess the narrative strategies that atrocity-prevention advocates have employed over the decade since the publication of PSD-10, in order to craft a more compelling approach to this storytelling task. In retrospect, it appears that the effort to rebrand atrocity prevention as a “hard” national security priority has been at best a partial success. On the positive side of the ledger, the Atrocities Prevention Board and other government institutions, along with independent organizations such as the Prevention and Protection Working Group and the Atrocity Prevention Study Group, have made considerable progress in advancing the atrocity-prevention agenda even under an administration that displayed unprecedented hostility toward human rights and international law. For example, since 2018 the Congress has passed two landmark laws, the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and the Global Fragility Act, which have created U.S. government reporting and training requirements for atrocity prevention and provided resources for shoring up fragile states.

And yet, the issue of atrocity prevention remains of peripheral significance in documents such as the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy – which refers to “terror,” “terrorism,” and “terrorists” 82 times, but to “genocide and mass atrocities” just once, at the end of the section entitled “Champion American Values.” According to the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Even so, the unclassified summary of the NDS uses the word “terror” and its cognates 30 times, while it does not refer to genocide or atrocities a single time. Nor do either of these words appear in President Joe Biden’s new Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released on March 3 of this year. By these metrics, it appears that the leading strategic thinkers in the U.S. government do not perceive atrocity prevention as a “core national security interest” of the United States.

At the outset of the new presidential administration, atrocity prevention is not the only foreign policy priority that requires narrative reframing. The various counterterrorism narratives deployed by U.S. leaders over the past 20 years, beginning with George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror,” have failed to define a coherent and achievable path toward strategic success. The more recent U.S. strategic narrative centered around “great power competition” is similarly problematic. As Zack Cooper writes, this narrative is “misleading and counterproductive” because it “lumps China and Russia together, wrongly implies that Russia is a great power, incorrectly suggests these competitions are mostly about power, and sidelines key allies and partners.” These and other strategic narratives of U.S. foreign policy need to be scrutinized to ensure that they define clear and measurable policy objectives, rooted in shared values, and aligned with the means and resources needed to achieve them.

One auspicious sign in this narrative-reframing enterprise is that many senior figures in the Biden-Harris administration have articulated a strong commitment to advancing democratic governance as a top foreign policy priority. President Biden himself, in his first foreign policy address at the State Department two weeks after his inauguration, stressed the importance of “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” These values, he said, constituted America’s “inexhaustible source of strength” and its “abiding advantage.”

This emphasis on democracy promotion offers a new opportunity for raising the profile of atrocity prevention as a U.S. foreign policy priority—because the best measure of success for a democracy is not how effectively it advances the interests of the majority, but how well it defends the rights of minority groups and the rule of law. Linking atrocity prevention to governance reform—an urgent challenge both in the United States and in many other countries around the world—may be the best narrative strategy for fostering more effective international cooperation around this urgent global priority.

Image: A Bosnian Muslim woman cries between graves of her father, two grandfathers and other close relatives, all victims of Srebrenica genocide, July 10, 2020, at the cemetery in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Hercegovina. Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images