President Joe Biden delivers this year’s State of the Union Address on March 1 during a particularly precarious moment for the United States and the world. The United States must confront the entrenchment of authoritarianism, hold together alliances in the face of an aggressive and revisionist Russia, manage relations with a rising China, and restore U.S. leadership on issues ranging from protection of human rights to nonproliferation and arms control arrangements.
The administration also faces challenges on multiple fronts at home as it seeks to deal with rising inequity, root out systemic racism, restart a sluggish economic recovery, and repair American democracy in a deeply divided political landscape. Meanwhile, the climate crisis remains an existential threat, and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on due to the emergence of new variants, a global failure to ensure vaccine equity across the world, and unfounded but entrenched vaccine skepticism.
As Biden acknowledged in his inauguration speech, this is a “time of testing” that will “challenge us in profound ways.”
Has the Biden administration risen to this challenge? As we reflect on the state of the nation and the world, Just Security asked former diplomats and top experts to assess the administration’s progress, obstacles and opportunities ahead, and implications for the midterm elections in 2022 and beyond.
[Editor’s note: some of our expert contributors commented on multiple political developments, which are organized thematically].
GREAT POWER COMPETITION
Lisa Curtis (@LisaCurtisDC), Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council:
The world must respond decisively to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both to maintain the European security order and to prevent China from perceiving it can get away with similar aggression toward Taiwan. Washington does not have the luxury of choosing whether it will stand up to either Russian or Chinese aggression. To preserve a rules-based order where countries are able to preserve their sovereignty and independence, the United States must work with like-minded partners and allies to meet the challenges from both countries.
The White House Indo-Pacific Strategy released on Feb. 11 lays out a blueprint for the United States to deter a rising and increasingly aggressive China and shows the Biden administration understands the critical importance of U.S. engagement and leadership in this vital region. Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin made clear in a speech last December that China’s military is on pace to become a peer competitor to the United States in Asia and is seeking to usurp the U.S. leadership role in the Indo-Pacific.
One way the Biden administration is pushing back against Beijing is by elevating and expanding the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India, and Japan. Though not a military pact like AUKUS (the Sept. 2021 Australia-UK-US pact), the Quad is asserting a shared vision for an open and free region and focuses on strategic issues like critical and emerging technologies, infrastructure development, and cyber security.
The Biden administration has discussed the concept of “integrated deterrence” in the Indo-Pacific but has yet to provide details on what this means in practical terms. To deter China and reassure the nations of the region that the United States is committed to defending their sovereignty, the administration must move forward expeditiously with plans to expand defense capabilities and its forward posture in the region, incorporating partners and allies into its force deployment strategies, operational planning, and naval maneuvers.
Christopher Walker (@walker_CT), Vice President for Studies and Analysis, National Endowment for Democracy:
In recent years, there have been any number of seemingly “game changing” events in the foreign policy context. Russia’s maximalist war in Ukraine represents a genuine game changer.
But Moscow’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor itself is the culmination of a more comprehensive and longer standing Kremlin project. Over 16 straight years of global democratic decline, the leadership in Russia has been an engine of authoritarian aggression, which has translated into escalating disruption and destruction internationally. And Russia is not alone in this project. Authorities in China have built up their international posture to present an unambiguous challenge to the liberal order. We may not be willing to fully acknowledge it, but we are already quite a ways into a new era.
For the United States and its democratic allies, the challenge is growing. Leaders in Russia and China have achieved what might be understood as a “shared consciousness” concerning their international policy approach that may crystallize into a closer partnership. The Chinese authorities’ reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has so far been a rhetorical hedge, but in practice has effectively allowed Moscow unbridled freedom of action. This attitude speaks to a larger, ongoing ambition, led by Beijing and Moscow, to reforge the global rules of the road. These regimes are offering an alternative, authoritarian-friendly set of norms, while simultaneously seeking to undermine key rules-based organizations. The recent ground gained by authoritarian powers in the battle to set international rules shows the risk of taking the foundations and endurance of the international system for granted, without purposeful action and support from the democracies.
Therefore, in the coming period the Biden administration will be obliged to find new avenues of cooperation with like-minded partners to defend democracy and retake the initiative. Democracies must respond to the depredations Russia is now inflicting upon the people of Ukraine. In the bigger picture, the United States and its democratic allies will need to come to grips with the advanced competition that has emerged to challenge democracy and the values that underpin it. This is a multidimensional challenge that will require democratic ambition and innovation in spheres that include but are not limited to: more successfully dealing with the transnational kleptocracy and strategic corruption that have metastasized in ways that subvert systems of all stripes; addressing a dysfunctional and unreliable information landscape; developing more effective capacities to communicate internationally in a far more complex and competitive information environment; and dealing with critical issues of emerging technology that will be integral to the future of freedom.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (@NiAolainF), U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism and Executive Editor at Just Security:
Writing a “State of the Union” reflection with a European war upon us and untold human suffering and misery unfolding in Ukraine is a testing task. It follows a trying summer, as the images of masses of frightened and vulnerable people fleeing Afghanistan were indelibly burned on our collective memory and remain prescient. The Taliban’s firm re-emergence underscores the fundamental failure of the so-called “war on terror,” and the twenty years of counterterrorism that contributed to state fragility and the conditions that produced the consolidation of power by that non-state power. Ownership of that failure belongs to multiple administrations. Its ugly end has been fatefully handed to the Biden administration and there is pressing work to do on human rights, women’s rights, and humanitarian protection and assistance. The unfinished business in Afghanistan, including a harshly unfolding humanitarian catastrophe constitutes a fundamental setback for national and international security.
In parallel, our international law-based order and the integrity of the collective security system established by the United Nations (U.N.) Charter is now under unrelenting and direct attack. We are in the eye of the storm – so assessing progress, setbacks, and opportunities in international law and foreign affairs can only be partially done. The challenge for this administration is to hold firmly to its vision of promoting democracy and the rule of law in the nitty gritty of day-to-day diplomacy, capacity building, technical assistance, security work, and partnerships with states. It will require breaking with those who do not fundamentally share those values, reject the rule of law, attack civil society, and use security discourse as cover for the worst of their human rights abuses. Instead, deep, profound, and close relationships with like-minded states will define the outcomes of these perilous times. It has never been more essential to support allies, democratic institutions, civil society actors, journalists, human rights defenders, and the values of international law continuously and consistently.
Positively, and to this end, the Biden administration is doing this work, walking the corridors of international institutions, rebuilding relationships, and showing leadership. The Biden administration’s presence at the U.N. Human Rights Council comes at a critical time when authoritarians and back-sliding democracies increasingly are finding international institutions to be welcoming and comfortable spaces. Enabling the country visits of two U.N. Special Rapporteurs (minority issues and contemporary forms of racism) shows an openness to scrutiny and critical self-reflection that is welcome, and shows exactly how democracies should behave and then encourage others to follow.
This moment in history demands a vision beyond responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine. We must understand that this is a symptom of ascendent authoritarianism and strikes at the heart of the values of open societies and a rule of law-based international order. In such moments, as Winston Churchill remarked, “success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”
David Lapan (@DaveLapanDC), Fellow and former Vice President of Communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center:
Social media platforms and the explosion of podcasts, radio programs, and other forms of media have expanded the channels available to those who traffic in mis- and disinformation, both at home and abroad. Russia used these channels to sow discord in the United States and to interfere with the 2016 election. It continued to use them through the 2020 election and now uses them as it attacks neighboring Ukraine.
In the lead-up to the Feb. 24 assault on Ukraine, the United States (and some allies) did a good job of countering Russian propaganda and disinformation by releasing intelligence information in unprecedented ways. That must continue. Carefully releasing intelligence information is something only the federal government can do, but non-government actors, including media outlets, have important roles in calling out and countering mis- and disinformation. In addition, the Global Engagement Center, created by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, must be energized, and resourced effectively.
Domestically, the Biden administration must do more to counter mis- and disinformation without trampling on free speech rights. As it did with its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the administration needs to consider the creation of a national counter-disinformation strategy, to address both foreign and domestic actors and actions.
The Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s December report, Countering Disinformation in the United States, represents a good first step toward addressing the issues. The executive branch can lead, with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice playing key roles, but Congress must consider and act on the commission’s recommendations to create meaningful and lasting efforts to defeat the disinformation threats to our democracy.
DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth), Executive Director of Human Rights Watch:
By comparison with the dismal performance of former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden refreshingly promised a foreign policy guided by human rights. But despite some positive steps, Biden’s approach has been disappointingly conventional.
For starters, we can be thankful no longer to have a president who embraces every friendly autocrat under the sun – even Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, reversing Trump’s moves, Biden rejoined the United Nations Human Rights Council, re-engaged with the World Health Organization, supported global efforts to fight climate change, and cancelled sanctions against the International Criminal Court prosecutor for examining torture by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and war crimes by Israeli officials. Biden also has continued the longstanding practice of pressing U.S. adversaries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba to curb their abuses, including by imposing targeted sanctions.
On China, Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which presumptively bars imports from Xinjiang. After labeling atrocities targeting Uyghurs as genocide and crimes against humanity, Biden joined a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics to undermine President Xi Jinping’s efforts to “sportswash” his repression. Yet despite these important discrete steps, Biden has yet to put forward a comprehensive strategy, with clear goals, to curb Beijing’s oppression at home and its efforts to undermine international human rights institutions.
When it comes to relations with abusive allies, Biden showed little sign of a human rights-guided approach. Apart from modest tweaks, he continued large-scale U.S. arms sales or military aid to Egypt despite the worst repression in the country’s modern history, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite their devastating airstrikes and other atrocities against Yemeni civilians (casualties surged after Saudi arm-twisting succeeded in lifting U.N. scrutiny in October), and to Israel despite its attacks on large civilian apartment and office buildings in Gaza and its crime against humanity of apartheid affecting millions of Palestinians. Silence from the White House matched Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence before his supporters’ increasingly virulent attacks on Muslims.
Even some of Biden’s positive steps have been half-hearted. After his summits with key leaders such as Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the White House said “human rights” were discussed but provided no details, leaving in the dark the persecuted people from those countries – the primary agents for change – and missing an opportunity to use the moral influence of the president’s office to support them. Just days after Biden’s Summit for Democracy, the administration invited autocratic leaders from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand to a U.S.-ASEAN summit. The administration implemented economic restrictions on Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover that are severely harming the Afghan population, which now faces a looming humanitarian crisis and large-scale starvation. And while some migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border have been allowed to seek asylum, many are still summarily turned back despite the considerable danger of violent attack.
Frances Z. Brown (@franceszbrown), Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Project:
President Joe Biden assumed office proclaiming that global politics is increasingly defined by a struggle between democracy and autocracy. Events of the past week underscore that, unfortunately, he is right. Biden also came into office declaring that his administration would place this struggle for democracy at the core of its foreign policy. It is too early to pronounce judgment on how he is faring on this front: democracies are consolidated in a matter of decades, or centuries. Presidencies are ultimately measured in four-year terms, not first-year scorecards. But in the meantime, for Biden to convert his democracy agenda into a democracy legacy, his administration will need to resist falling prey to the trap of diverted attention.
As the invasion of Ukraine has raised existential stakes for democracy there, Biden’s team has taken notable steps to impose costs on Russia. It also impressively galvanized partners to try to head off, and now counter, this egregious authoritarian aggression. But the struggle to bolster global democracy is, of course, global. As the U.S. administration marshals action on Ukraine, they will need to guard against the risk that the situation will offer a field day for authoritarians elsewhere. As such, to make good on their democracy and human rights agenda, Biden’s team will need to continually ask: where else should we be exerting leverage? Where else should we be focusing attention?
For example, though global focus is trained elsewhere on the Eurasian landmass, China’s abuses of its Muslim minority citizens continues, as does its campaign to subjugate Hong Kong. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is neither rights-respecting nor inclusive. In Ethiopia, there is still an urgent need for accountability for rights violations and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. In Myanmar, the military junta continues to indiscriminately attack civilians. Even within Russia itself, Putin’s most visible opponent, Aleksei Navalny, could be jailed for another 15 years on spurious charges of embezzlement while the democratic world is consumed with decrying Putin’s adventurism elsewhere.
Further, now more than ever, critical democratic junctures will still require the United States’s attention. Upcoming elections in backsliding countries such as Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey will likely determine these countries’ democratic fates. An alarming spate of military coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Myanmar, and Sudan will need continual U.S. engagement in order to push along any putative transition to civilian authority. And shaky democratic openings – be it in Zambia or Honduras or elsewhere – will require ongoing U.S. focus, as well.
Democracy is under global siege. Authoritarians like Putin benefit from attention being diverted elsewhere. As President Biden embarks on his second year in office, he should not let his agenda to bolster global democracy be yet another casualty of Putin’s game.
COUNTERING VIOLENT EXTREMISM
Barbara McQuade (@BarbMcQuade), Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan Law School and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and Co-Chair of the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee:
President Biden made some important strides toward countering violent extremism when his administration issued the nation’s first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, but the strategy should take some additional steps. One important reform would be to advocate for a federal statute criminalizing domestic terrorism. Currently, there is no way to charge federally a plot to engage in mass violence using firearms or vehicles as weapons unless the plot has a link to a recognized international terror group. The federal terrorism statute prohibits killing, kidnapping, maiming, committing an assault resulting in serious bodily injury, assaulting with a dangerous weapon any person in the United States, or creating a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person by destroying or damaging a structure, conveyance or property or attempting to do so, when the conduct extends beyond the United States. A domestic terrorism law could borrow from this existing statute that makes it a crime to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, simply replacing “national” with “state.” This tool would enable federal law enforcement to initiate investigations of groups plotting dangerous attacks before any loss of life occurs.
Another important step would be to take on private paramilitary organizations that call themselves militias. The intelligence community has assessed that militia violent extremists pose the greatest risk to the U.S. government. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 181 such groups exist in the United States, and they answer to no government authority. As interstate communication and travel become easier and weapons more abundant, the danger these groups present is growing. Members of the Oath Keepers militia have been charged with seditious conspiracy for using force to obstruct the lawful transfer of presidential power on Jan. 6, 2021 and beyond. President Biden should urge all 50 states to enforce the laws they already have on the books to prohibit unlawful militia activity. In addition, as former Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord has argued here, President Biden should also advocate for federal legislation that prohibits unauthorized paramilitary military activity in the form of combat training and the wearing of military uniforms at scenes of civil unrest.
David Lapan (@DaveLapanDC), Fellow and former Vice President of Communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center:
Domestic terrorism is a growing threat in and to the United States. Taking office in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and Congress added urgency to the task of addressing this domestic threat. On his first day in office, President Biden directed a comprehensive review of government efforts to address domestic terrorism and, within 150 days, published a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the first of its kind.
The strategy and the approaches it prescribes are not without their critics and implementation bears close watching, of course, but the speed and seriousness with which the administration tackled the issue is commendable. The Department of Homeland Security has a key role to play, and it cannot afford to repeat old mistakes, but the leadership seems attentive to those concerns.
Importantly, these efforts will require continuous focus and appropriate resourcing amid other pressing national security and domestic issues. The threat has grown over time and the efforts to counter it will take years of dedicated attention from the federal government down to local communities. The new strategy represents a promising start.
THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
Laura Rozen (@lrozen), veteran foreign policy journalist and member of Just Security’s Board of Editors:
The Biden administration has put working in tight coordination with international allies and partners at the center of its efforts to try to negotiate a return of the United States to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Iran returns to its full implementation.
Indeed, President Biden’s decision to spend the first weeks after his inauguration consulting with with European partners on Iran, before announcing in late February 2021 that the United States would return to the JCPOA if Iran returned to full compliance, may have wasted valuable time and foreclosed a quick return to the deal while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was still in office. Or maybe not. We will never know.
A year later, as I write from Vienna, and as the parties are in the tenth month of indirect endgame talks to see if a decision on restoring the JCPOA can be reached, one thing is clear: the Biden administration has succeeded in putting the United States back in the “P5+1” – the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – after Trump’s decision to quit the deal in 2018, and subsequent efforts to collapse the deal, increasingly splitting the United States from its partners, particularly the E3 (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany).
Whether the Iran nuclear deal can be restored is still uncertain, although a deal could be announced the week of Biden’s State of the Union. But Biden has succeeded in resurrecting the P5+1, and putting the U.S. back at the table with its international allies and partners, even if, as of yet, not with Iran.
Lisa Curtis (@LisaCurtisDC), Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security:
President Biden’s decision to abruptly withdraw from Afghanistan, along with the chaotic evacuations process and his callous remarks about the Afghan security forces the United States fought alongside for 20 years, has left a permanent stain on his foreign policy record. Biden seems to want to close the book on Afghanistan, but the growing humanitarian crisis there and the Taliban’s failure to uphold the rights of women and girls will compel the United States to remain engaged.
Although the withdrawal and evacuations were badly mishandled, the Biden administration has made some positive moves on Afghanistan since August. One is providing over $500 million in humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people and working with the international community to find creative ways to funnel money directly to the Afghans, while largely bypassing the Taliban. The other is appointing a Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights to monitor and hold the Taliban accountable for upholding the rights of women and minorities.
There is an opportunity to work more closely with like-minded European and regional partners to address the humanitarian situation and to condition development assistance and engagement with the Taliban on their policies on human rights and counterterrorism. So far there are few signs the Taliban have evolved on the issue of human rights. Whether they follow through on their announcement to reopen schools for all Afghans in March will be one indicator of how they intend to treat women and girls.
Chris Purdy (@itsapurdy), Director of Veterans for American Ideals, Human Rights First, and Emilee Cutright, Program Strategist, Human Rights First:
President Biden’s first year in office will certainly be defined by his response to the Afghan crisis, one that did not end in August but instead will have repercussions for years to come. In the lead-up to the withdrawal, advocates like myself and others spent months educating, cajoling, and begging the Biden administration to think about ways to relocate vulnerable Afghan allies ahead of the Sept. 11th, and then Aug. 31st, deadline. We were unsuccessful in getting this president to act, and the two weeks at the end of August proved how disastrous that was.
When Kabul fell, advocates across the political spectrum had spent the previous six months working in overdrive to prepare for what we saw as the inevitable collapse of the Afghan government. On Aug. 15, Kabul fell, and the hours, months, and weeks we had spent pleading with the administration to act felt futile. As the humanitarian crisis unfolded we doubled down and pulled every connection in the public, private, and international aid sectors that we had at our disposal. We worked with nascent veterans organizations to charter flights, created an ad hoc infrastructure with our friends in government to get people through the airport gate, and spun up whole coalitions at the national, state, and local level to seed the ground to resettle our allies, stepping in where the Biden administration could not.
Since then, the Biden administration has stepped up to the plate, but so much more needs to be done. After the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in August, the U.S. government successfully resettled almost 80,000 Afghans. Through a complicated series of waypoints and resettling stations, the government used terms like “lily pads” and “safe havens” to house and vet Afghans as they came to the United States. Now our allies are seeking to put down roots in their new home, and they are looking to the president for leadership, something he personally has not yet provided. Thousands of Americans have stepped up to the plate, welcoming our new neighbors for the long haul with open arms and full hearts. While his administration is beginning to see the long-term political and humanitarian crisis that Afghanistan represents, if human rights is to be the centerpiece of U.S. policy then the president should personally commit to restoring the human dignity of the Afghans that we failed.
PUBLIC OPINION AND COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY
Stephen Van Evera, Ford International Professor in the MIT Political Science Department:
Presidents must shape U.S. public opinion if they hope to persuade Congress to pass their programs. As Abraham Lincoln noted, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.”
A successful presidency therefore requires a communications strategy and program that can drive the terms of public debate.
The Biden administration still needs such a communications strategy and program. It has scored some big policy wins, including the March 2021 American Rescue Plan and November 2021 Infrastructure and Investment bill. But it also suffered grievous losses, on two crucial bills to protect U.S. democracy (the John Lewis and Freedom to Vote Acts), the Build Back Better human infrastructure bill, and police reform. These failed because the Biden team failed to communicate their value to the U.S. public. The bills have strong selling points that remain widely unknown. Meanwhile, the public believes falsehoods that fuel opposition to these bills (e.g., the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, and the falsehood that “Build Back Better” will harm the economy).
The current Biden communications team is smart and capable. But it follows a 50-year Democratic custom of low-key communications tactics that presume that the virtues of good policies largely speak for themselves. A hard sell is not essential.
It’s a critical mistake. A zone-flooding hard sell is always essential, and even more so now that we face a divisive political landscape at home and abroad.
The Biden team should draw lessons from past administrations that communicated effectively. Four administrations stand out: those of FDR, Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan (first term especially). The George W. Bush and Trump administrations also did some important things on communications strategy well. The stratagems of Reagan first-term communications director Michael Deaver deserve special attention.
Useful lessons are also offered by professional communications best practices, which emphasize that people believe four things: what they hear first, what they hear most often, what they hear from a trusted source, and what they do not hear rebutted. Ergo, communication strategy should focus on being first with the message, repeating it relentlessly, recruiting trusted messengers, and quickly rebutting counter-arguments.
Repetition requires wide use of surrogates. No president can reach nearly enough ears with their own speeches. Most communication should therefore be done by skilled surrogates (e.g., assistant cabinet secretaries and close thinktank and media friends). They should practically live on cable TV, local TV, and talk radio. It’s hard, but crucial, work.
Presidential strategies to imitate: FDR’s fireside chats; Truman’s dramatic use of the public square for theater; Reagan’s use of disciplined surrogates; and Trump’s use of vast repetition though Twitter and the use of media figures (Fox hosts and talk radio hosts) as surrogates.
A mistake not to imitate: relying on presidential speeches to shape public opinion, as Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama did. Instead, success requires core reliance on surrogates – lots of them, prepared and disciplined Mike Deaver-style.
Communications strategy cannot be an afterthought. Developing the best possible communications program should be a top priority for the Biden team if Democrats hope to win in the midterm elections this November and, beyond that, looking ahead to 2024.