President-elect Biden should prioritize a human rights foreign policy. Military options should be used as a last resort. Too often, the U.S. has deployed our military as the only option. Our $7 trillion wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not led to greater stability and peace in the region. Nor has our military strength deterred the mass crimes against humanity committed in Syria, Myanmar and China. As Rita Mae Brown said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Instead, Biden should heed the wisdom of Nelson Mandela who said, “The time to build is upon us…. We pledge ourselves to liberate our people…. None of us acting alone can achieve success.” There are three animating ideas in Mandela’s words — acting together, we can build toward peace and prosperity for all. What would that look like in U.S. foreign policy?
First, establish a Director of Human Rights that has an ex-officio seat on the Cabinet. The Director’s duty is to ensure that there is a human rights assessment for all U.S. policies and that it is given the weight it deserves in relation to U.S. diplomatic, military, security and other concerns.
Second, take care of business at home. The U.S. can only be a beacon for human rights abroad when it upholds it obligations at home. The U.S. must strengthen its own democracy, prosecute corruption, combat disinformation, untangle the grip of racism, and uncage immigrants.
Third, the U.S. must lead in mitigating the existential threat of climate pollution. Coastal cities across the globe will drown unless we take action now. Extreme weather will create catastrophic loss and cost unless we act now.
Fourth, the U.S. must reduce the enduring existential threat of nuclear war which includes renegotiating nuclear treaties with Russia and Iran and persuading North Korea to end its nuclear arms race. The U.S. must also end its arms sales to nations that perpetrate human rights violations like Saudi Arabia. The U.S. must address the implications of weaponized drones that have increased access to lethal force to criminal enterprises.
Fifth, the world must develop a Marshall Plan for the refugee crisis that moves refugees from tent cities to new cities around the globe where they can find peace, stability, and a future. Depriving 80 million refugees of a home is a tragedy of the greatest proportions. The climate crisis will only exacerbate the refugee crisis.
Sixth, to increase the opportunity for peace and prosperity, the U.S. should prioritize investment in civil society. Peace comes from the people, not bombs. The U.S. should invest in and dramatically increase its diplomatic corps so that opportunities like the Arab Spring do not founder from neglect of those communities demanding peace, liberty and democracy. Ensure that aid reaches the people in need and is not misdirected by corrupt officials. The U.S. should prioritize economic investment, not military assistance, that builds local economies.
Seventh, the U.S. should invest in the rule of law so those who commit grave crimes or corruption are held accountable. Accountability includes ensuring all nations have domestic criminal laws governing war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture; that increasing numbers of nations are able and willing to prosecute crimes that occur within their borders; and that international bodies, including the I.C.C., can step in when nations are not able to.
Eighth, invest in the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty, hunger, inequality and pollution, and increase health, education, justice and sustainability. These goals are interrelated and tie to many of the other priorities above, but until these goals drive our foreign policy rather than military conflict, we will not succeed.
Mandela urged us to build, which means institutionalizing human rights primacy in U.S. policy, and prioritizing human rights solutions over military ones. It means strengthening the global institutions inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt to combat fascism and promote peace and prosperity at home and abroad. It means restoring multilateralism which reflects Mandela’s call for us to join together to solve the tough problems. Solutions are neither unilateral nor top down but borne of community and consensus. Lastly, Mandela’s calls for institutional reform and collaboration aim at one overarching purpose — a better tomorrow for all.