What we’d love to hear President Biden say on Foreign Policy in his State of the Union address

In February 2021, in his first major foreign policy address as president, Biden declared the US must engage with the world “with 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.”

Since then, the President has made some significant progress: restoring alliances, leading a strong and calibrated response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ending the US war in Afghanistan, attacking the corruption and violence in Latin America fueling the migration crisis. But he must finish the job.

In his State of the Union address tonight, here are five (of many) opportunities for what President Joe Biden could say if he wants to show Congress, the American people and the world that he is serious about advancing true US interests and global human security:

 

  1. There must be a ceasefire, return of all Israeli hostages and massive emergency humanitarian aid effort in Gaza. Furthermore, this administration can and must fully enforce relevant US and international law to ensure protection of civilians from indiscriminate bombardment, starvation and disease.
  2. The US response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine offers a positive case study for US engagement with the world in a way that honors our principles and advances security – but universality and consistency are necessary to safeguard the benefits. President Biden will be right to call on right-wing extremists in Congress to end their obstruction of aid to Ukraine – desperately needed aid, replete with the transparency and accountability mechanisms necessary to ensure the American public and the world can scrutinize its rightful use. Consistent adherence to international law will only strengthen his case.
  3. China and our allies in Asia alike must know that Americans’ highest aspirations for the Pacific are that the world’s most populous region be one of peace, prosperity and unlimited potential. The US-China relationship is not zero-sum. Tensions are inevitable, but escalation and war are a choice. While we will never shy away from defending the democratic and human rights of all in the region, our priority is to coexist and cooperate on our many areas of shared interest.
  4. The man-made climate crisis is here. The only reasonable discussion to have is how to minimize and mitigate it effectively and fairly – that means we and international partners must commitment to aggressive multilateral carbon reduction goals, massive public investment in a just and sustainable transition away from fossil fuels – including breaking the harmful feedback loop between militarism and climate change – and the equitable sharing of burdens of climate and other ecological change impacts.
  5. We must make clear that the survival of not only democracy around the globe, but the American experiment itself depends on whether we succeed in countering rising ultranationalism, autocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy and corruption – as well as the inherent inequality, discrimination, repression and economic precarity that comes with them.

The President has an opportunity tonight to demonstrate that he is the leader that the people of this and other nations want and deserve – the leader that earned him praise and support in years past. To do that, we must stop repeating the failures of the past, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Reimagining Progressive Foreign Policy

Editor’s note. A version of the following remarks were presented February 6th, 2024, opening the Progressive Foreign Policy as a Political Force conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Nancy Okail is the President and CEO of the Center for International Policy

Thank you so much, Diana! I am truly honored to be here and fortunate to work alongside you and our board.

I appreciate your kind words about my role at CIP, but I am merely standing on the shoulders of many incredibly inspiring and dedicated individuals who have championed this cause for decades. This includes not just those at CIP but the entire community of actors, advocates, and thinkers, many of whom are here today.

I am privileged and honored to lead CIP, an organization that could not be more progressive, having chosen an ex-convict as its president. For those familiar with my story, [or as I previously wrote], when I was first locked in the courtroom cage during my trial, my eyes caught a previous prisoner’s scribble on the wall that read: ‘If defending justice is a crime, then long live criminality.’ It’s my mantra and a ‘crime’ I am proud of, and I cherish the many partners in that crime that I have had over the years (some are here in this room), and most recently my new ‘partner in crime,’ Matt Duss, CIP’s Executive Vice President. (Those who know Matt know that his values and standards stand taller than his noticeable height. You can’t miss it.)

It is with a sense of both urgency and hope that I welcome you today to this pivotal conference. We are here not just to discuss foreign policy but to reimagine it, clarify what it means to pursue a progressive foreign policy and what we can do together to advance it.

As Diana mentioned, we are long overdue for a paradigm shift to address the dysfunctional and harmful system that has led us to war, climate change, inequality, and has perpetuated corruption and authoritarianism. These are the issues that shape our priorities at CIP.

As we sit here in this safe room, civilians in Gaza are being bombarded for the

fifth month in a row by Israel, in a disproportionate and indiscriminate response to the tragic attacks by Hamas on October 7th of last year. We have now reached a staggering death toll of 27,000 humans, mostly women and children, in addition to the 1200 Israelis who died due to the initial attacks. Similarly, others in Ukraine face threats from the extended war since Russia’s invasion in 2022. We are not mere witnesses to such human catastrophes; we are participants—some directly implicated, others by silence in fear of the consequences. It’s a collective failure of humanity…we are all responsible.

But perhaps our biggest failure is our inability to HONESTLY challenge the systems and mindsets that have created this dismal picture of the world.

Nearing the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, the picture is bleak, and the US has played a significant role in shaping this. Despite remarkable advancements in science and technology, we can fairly say that ultra-nationalism, inequality, and hyper-militarization have become worrying overarching characteristics of this century.

Global crises like the pandemic and climate change are devastating in their own right,but also magnify our inherent structural problems, particularly inequality, racism, and the impacts of corruption, elite capture, and authoritarianism around the world. Figures from last year present an undeniable picture of where we stand:

In 2023, the United States ranked 43rd in the gender parity index, falling 16 slots from the previous year. This ranking by the World Economic Forum is based on gaps in employment, health, and political leadership. This decline is compounded by the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and the erosion of reproductive health rights. At the bottom of the global parity index is Afghanistan, now deemed the most repressive country for women and children by the UN, following the Taliban’s takeover after two decades of US involvement. (Let that sink in as we reflect on our global engagements.)

On the corruption front, the situation is no better. The 2023 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) shows that global corruption is rising. With a scale of 0 to 100, the global average stagnates at 43, with most countries making no progress; 23 countries fell to their lowest scores last year. Much like the pandemic disproportionately impacts the poor and marginalized, corruption most severely affects those with the least access to basic necessities while the elite exploit justice systems.

Relatedly, after a period of improvement in closing the income inequality gap until 2018, that trend has since reversed. Income inequality has risen in most advanced economies and major emerging economies. According to the Brookings Institution’s ‘Rising Inequality’ report from last year, inequality has significantly increased in the United States, as well as in advanced economies and among major emerging economies like China, India, and Russia.

Meanwhile, the US defense budget and arms sales have seen a staggering expansion, with the US maintaining its position as the world’s highest arms exporter. The correlation with increased violence is clear. Even before the Gaza conflict, the Institute for Economics and Peace’s annual global index reported that over 238,000 people died in global conflicts in 2022, this marked a 96 percent increase in deaths due to conflicts from previous years. This spike is attributed to deadly conflicts in Ethiopia and Ukraine. Now, the human catastrophe in Gaza unfolds, with over four months of conflict resulting in 27,000 deaths. A population of 2.3 million faces continuous bombardment, exacerbating conditions with the spread of disease and the risk of famine.

The US is once again involved militarily in the Middle East, following its withdrawal from a two-decade-long engagement in Afghanistan. Over the recent weekend, the United States has conducted bombings in Yemen and Iraq, and in Syria, responding to the deaths of three American soldiers in Jordan from attacks by Iran-backed militias, whose actions come amidst sustained demands for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The hard fact is that these events are not merely happening to us, like earthquakes or pandemics; we are all deeply implicated. To be brutally honest, even those among us striving to leverage our best tools—US domestic laws, International Humanitarian Law, and aid conditionality—have not been immune to the dominant power dynamics that catalyzed these situations initially. This issue extends beyond the military-industrial complex; it’s about the entrenched structural violence and the dominance of the security-state paradigm. And I’m not excluding myself from that.

Working through Congress trying to employ our laws as safeguards against the misuse of arms, I increasingly realize how we cannot legislate ourselves out of  crises (at least not just), as I find myself perpetually puzzled by the term ‘misuse of arms.’ It conjures up an image in my mind of weaponry production packages adorned with stickers saying ‘kill responsibly.’ There is, fundamentally, one use for arms, and that is to kill. They are not meant to sit in warehouses, nor are stockpiles intended to serve any purpose other than easy access for feeding the war machine, as we observe now in the conflict in Israel. We can employ as many euphemistic terms as we like to legitimize the act of killing, calling it defense or deterrence, but it does not alter the outcome. The discourse on the misuse of arms and the legislation designed to regulate it overlooks the reality of who holds the power to decide who deserves to live or die (which delineates the proper and improper use of weapons). It’s no secret who makes these decisions; it is those within the elite monopoly over foreign policy and they are conformists.

But we are not without options; we possess agency. None of this is INEVITABLE. We have choices, but the one choice we do not have is to persist in operating within the flawed system that legitimizes and legalizes atrocities through flawed policy framings, such as ‘arms for peace.’ This was the foundation of deals like the Abraham Accords in the Middle East—look how that turned out.

We also cannot afford to pretend that domestic and foreign affairs are separate, nor can we mislead people into believing that national security is achievable without global security. Addressing global crises necessitates domestic reforms. Democracy begins to decline incrementally when we treat it merely as a set of electoral rituals, following them without question or challenge. If we have faith in the virtue of democracy, despite its imperfections, we should not treat it as if it were a dogmatic religion, merely carrying out ‘rituals of democracy’—elections—trapped within a rotational cycle among a few elites on either side of the aisle. We should not wait for the shock of events like Trump’s win to realize we have a problem. Regardless of the outcomes of this year’s elections, the combination of elite capture and tribal politics has long undermined our genuine pursuit for an equitable, just society, and a peaceful world.

 

What then are our choices?

As progressives, our choices transcend those between left and right, or one side of the aisle over the other. Our choices are between integrity and corruption, accountability and complicity, impunity and the rule of law—applicable to both sides of the aisle. Our decisions do not only pivot on ending wars but more importantly transforming the mindsets that lead to them. It’s about distinguishing between feel-good work and truly effective work, urging us to confront our flawed systems directly.

Our foreign policy choices should not be ensnared by false binaries between anti-imperialism and anti-authoritarianism. Opposing US hegemony, great power competition and the risks of unnecessary military escalation does not require us to excuse the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government or similar others.

The US still can and should adopt a constructive role globally without resorting to hegemony. Meanwhile, we must dispel the naïve misconception that relinquishing US hegemony will automatically lead to the ascension of powers aligned with our principles. This overlooks the potential impact of the dominance of authoritarian powers like Russia, China, and others moving in an unjust ultra-capitalist direction, posing distinct challenges.

To counteract the dangerous consequences of great power competition, our choices should not revolve around which governments should overpower others. Instead, we should focus on empowering people first, preventing their countries from becoming battlegrounds in states’ struggle for power.

 

With all these challenges, what are our priorities?

This understanding of interrelated challenges has informed the intersectional priorities we address through analysis, convening, and advocacy. These priorities include:

  1. Combating transnational racism and sex & gender inequality,
  2. Reducing global inequality and economic precarity through equitable trade, labor, and investment rules,
  3. Defending democracy and countering rising ultranationalism, autocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy, and corruption,
  4. Promoting transformative action for global climate and environmental sustainability. However, none of these objectives would be achievable without
  5. Rightsizing the defense budget, and
  6. Ensuring accountability, transparency, and rights protection in the export and use of arms and emerging technologies, particularly lethal autonomous weapons, and
  7. Most importantly, strengthening diplomacy and adherence to a rules-based international order.

But you don’t need me to tell you all this. Many in this room are already identify these priorities and have dedicated years to them. However, without collectively working towards the necessary paradigm shift and a clear agenda, this valuable work risks not reaching its full potential.

 

So what does paradigm shift entail?

Looking at those issues, and their interrelated nature, it became crystal clear that we need a paradigm shift. That helped us articulate what we call our “Five R” strategy for change. They are a set of goals or set of approaches that we need to have in order to address the structural and problematic framing of US foreign policy.

  1. Redraw the Stakeholder Map: We aim to change rigid and exclusionary policymaking structures, addressing racism and discrimination for more equity and inclusivity in policy formation and communication, and ensuring that those directly affected by our foreign policy have a seat at the table and have their voices heard. You can take a look at the work of my colleagues Terrell Jermaine Starr and Negar Mortazavi and their podcasts that bring really diverse voices into the work that we do.
  2. Redefine Security: To encompass threats to global human safety and well-being that fall outside—and are often exacerbated by—the conventional militarized approach to national security.  I refer you to the work of my colleagues Ari Tolany, Hanna Homestead, and Jeff Abramson on the Security Assistance Monitor and Climate and Militarism Program, and the Forum on Arms Trade.
  3. Reframe US Foreign Policy: Moving beyond outdated nation-state analyses to include the impacts of non-state actors, emerging technology, and other factors unique to today’s power configurations while challenging great power competition and domestic/foreign divide.
  4. Restore Accountability: By enhancing oversight at home and abroad, as corruption and authoritarianism hinder our collective ability to address global threats. Last year, many people were shocked by the allegations that Senator Bob Menendez had received bribes of gold bars from the Egyptian government. I was not shocked, but I was a bit offended, because when the Egyptian government tried to bribe me, they sent me a basket of mangoes to my office. Is this my price?
  5. Revive Diplomacy: The reason peace is getting a bad name and ceasefire is becoming a taboo is because in people’s minds it means just a halt, and what will happen before that is just water under the bridge. That’s why diplomacy should be directly based on the values of accountability. Through research and convening to identify barriers to peaceful solutions, drawing on lessons learned to prevent war escalation and nuclear threats.

These principles are not merely idealistic theories. Today, you will hear from exceptionally talented leaders who are actively engaged in this important work, just as many of you in this room are. For our efforts to achieve optimal impact, it’s crucial that we collaborate within a structured framework and openly debate our agenda priorities.

Because the truly frightening moment isn’t when we are not in power, but when we possess it and still fail to make a discernible difference. We can’t afford to wait or we have no excuse to fail. With our talent, power, and resilience, we are more than capable. Yet, resilience without a clear direction only leads to the depletion of energy and resources. At CIP we aspire to be the hub that clearly defines what progressive policy entails and build a community around it.

We must challenge at all costs the belief that we can bomb our way to peace, we also cannot legislate our way out of crises without addressing the fundamental systemic imbalances and elite capture in foreign policy. But our efforts should not be consumed by fighting back, but moving forward, driven by a proactive approach to forge an affirmative agenda and a new consensus.

Most importantly, as we deliberate on our agenda and priorities, it’s imperative to honestly confront the reality of trade-offs head-on; they are plentiful in today’s world. Acknowledging the costs involved is crucial, but we must discern which costs are bearable and which are not. No matter the expense, investing towards an achievable goal is infinitely more valuable than the futile attempt to amend irreversible damage: lives that cannot be restored, injuries leaving children permanently disabled, and human catastrophes that history will judge us on.

I wanted to paint a rosier picture, to spotlight the good in the world, and the good that the Biden administration has done—and indeed, there’s plenty. But, you can simply Google those, because any achievements pales against the backdrop of catastrophic loss of life and our eroding humanity. Yet, here is the good news: you are here, and you are brilliant. We are here to debate, collaborate, and sculpt together a progressive agenda that resonates with our values and the remarkable talent present in this room. This conversation didn’t start today, nor will it end here; it continues through our analytical work, convenings, and notably, in our newly launched International Policy Journal.

Our clarity begins by identifying the roots of the problem and systemic imbalances, and ours are starkly clear. We need to face them bravely and honestly, and I’m honored to be doing that with you. Thank you so much.

Watch the speech as originally delivered below: