The Global South is fighting for a voice in global tax rules

Wouter van de Klippe is a freelance journalist and Public Policy graduate based in Europe. He’s particularly interested in organised labour, economic, social, and environmental justice, and social welfare states.

Since 1954, a “rich countries club” of the Global North have set the rules of the global tax system through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Now, countries of the Global South are successfully fighting for more equal say.

On the 22nd of November, 2023, the Africa Group of the United Nations spearheaded an effort to take global tax rule setting away from the OECD and towards the UN. The UN has global representation, more transparent voting mechanisms, and more impactful accountability measures in case countries violate rules.

What died and let the OECD set tax policy?

Just after the second World War, the newly formed United Nations attempted to start setting global taxation rules determined by all member states. This effort collapsed, rather unspectacularly, in the summer of 1954 with the discontinuation of the fiscal committee of the UN.This left the OECD as the only multilateral organization setting global tax rules. The OECD only included a small number of rich states and its approach towards taxation represented these interests.

The OECD sets tax rules by providing frameworks that countries adopt within taxation agreements with other states. For example, the OECD publishes and updates a “model taxation guideline” that countries typically use when drafting their own taxation agreements. These guidelines provide advice on how to prevent companies from being taxed twice for the same profits, set rules on how to tax profits when companies sell to their own subsidiaries abroad, and more.

Under the OECD’s leadership, this tax system is one where tax evasion is rampant, double-taxation agreements benefit the richest of the world, and it took until  2021 to form an agreement on a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% to prevent multinationals from fleeing taxes and plundering public funds.

Consider the oil giant Shell. In 2022, Shell announced that it made an astounding $39.9 billion in profits. These profits were distributed all over the world across various tax havens, meaning that it paid a 0% effective tax rate in the Bahamas (on $570 million profits), 3% in Singapore (on $937 million profits), and 7% in the Netherlands (on $2.2 billion profits). Miraculously, Shell was able to squeeze these millions of dollars of profit out of the Bahamas despite it having no ‘real’ economic activity in the country whatsoever.

This is on the verge of a major transformation being led by the Global South.

Tax and Amend

After a drawn-out fight where the US, the UK, and the countries of the EU bitterly resisted the convention, countries representing the vast majority of the world’s population voted on November 22nd, 2023, in favor of the new UN-led convention. In the end, 125 countries voted in favor with 48 votes against.

Ahead of the vote, Dr. Chila Milambo, permanent representative of Zambia at the UN, said that the convention “is not merely a political document, but a beacon of hope for developing countries that have long sought a voice in shaping international tax norms.”

According to the Tax Justice Network, the countries that voted against the resolution are responsible for 75% of global tax evasion and only represent around 15% of the global population. All told, an estimated $480 billion in tax revenue is lost each year as a result of evasion – money that could otherwise be spent on public schooling, transportation, health systems, and much needed programs for the just transition.

While the total amount of money lost to tax evasion is significantly smaller in lower-income countries, the total share of public budgets that they lose is much higher. On average, lower-income countries lose about $47 billion each year – representing almost half of their annual budgets for public health.

The scale of tax abuse is so great under the current system that currently, African countries lose more through tax abuses than the total amount of foreign development aid per year.

The OECD itself recognized that it was failing to prevent tax abuse so in 2016 it created a special framework that now includes over 140 countries with the goal to establish new tax rules. This is called the OECD/G20 inclusive framework and was heralded by some as a much needed step towards global inclusivity in taxation.

Critics have argued that it hasn’t meaningfully challenged the skewed nature of global rule setting. The Tax Justice Network argues that the OECD’s lack of transparency, bias towards OECD member states. The fact that its key members are the same countries responsible for tax abuses mean that it is unsuitable to be the body determining how global tax rules are set.

The fight for a seat at the table

For decades, the dominant narrative of tax evasion was that poor administrative infrastructures facilitated corruption within low-income nations, squarely placing the blame on the countries suffering the most from the evasion. Through years of lobbying, campaigning, and organizing, Global South-led coalitions of civil society organizations and political leaders fought for recognition that tax abuses were inherent to the current system, and that meaningful change was needed. The reality was clear – a tax system that was built by the richest countries of the world would never provide justice to the Global South.

In 2015, the G77 group of developing countries tabled an earlier motion to legislate taxes at the UN in a meeting at Addis Ababa. Then, amidst heavy lobbying by countries of the OECD, the resolution tabled at the summit in Addis Ababa was rejected.

At the time, the slogan supporting the change was “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”. If the talks at Addis Ababa represented a failed effort to establish more equitable tax rules, the passing of the resolution at the UN last year, nearly a decade later, shows the resolve and durability of solidarity movements of the Global South.

The proposed UN tax convention represents yet another instance of powerful Global South solidarity, such as what we have seen in the Global South’s rallying support for South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, and the near-unanimous Global South support for the COVID vaccine patent waiver at the peak of the pandemic.

A just and solidaire foreign policy is out there – in this case at least, it’s just not the Global North leading it.

While debate still needs to take place on what exactly the tax convention will consist of, it represents a success in forcing a more inclusive and democratic future for setting the rules of taxation. The Global South has shown that international solidarity can force meaningful changes in a regime built against their interests. With the UN becoming the leading institution for tax reform, the majority of the world’s population will finally have representation at the taxation rule table.

Full view of the UNGA hall

Durable Peace Isn’t Possible Without Palestine

Y.L. Al-Sheikh is a Palestinian-American writer and organizer active in the Democratic Socialists of America and in international solidarity work between Israel/Palestine and the United States. 

The prospective invasion of Rafah by Israel threatens to blow up not just the nation’s recent attempts at regional normalization, but to also provoke the ire of Egypt and Jordan, countries that walked long, hard diplomatic roads to reach peace with their neighbor. Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza strip, had a prewar population of 275,000, which has now swollen to over 1,300,000 people. It is currently the last place for most of the Palestinians of Gaza to find refuge, given the scale of destruction throughout the north forcing them south toward the Egyptian border.

It is in this context that we are witnessing some of the harshest exchanges between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Jordanians and Egyptians, since the 1973 war fifty years ago. This regional deterioration comes at a time that the Biden Administration is rebooting its multi-year effort to broker a security and normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite fierce skepticism both at home from Senate Democrats and abroad from Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition.

With a resurgent intensity in rage among the Egyptian and Jordanian peoples in response to Israel’s military campaigns in occupied Palestine, the governments of these two states are feeling the pressure to respond. In Egypt’s case, with echoes of the Nakba on the mind and fears of hundreds of thousands refugees being exiled into the Sinai, they have publicly raised the prospect of terminating the 1979 treaty of peace based on the Camp David accords. On the other side of Israel’s frontier, the government of the Kingdom of Jordan, which has a majority Palestinian population, was recently instructed by its parliament to review all existing agreements with Israel, including the 1994 treaty of peace which was signed in part with the expectation that a Palestinian state would soon come to fruition via Oslo. These actions, though perhaps largely symbolic at the moment, underscore a more serious lesson that has been forced upon the West since the beginning of the war: the prospects for durable peace and prosperity in the region are slim to none without a meaningful path to Palestinian liberation.

Cracks in this orientalist belief that the Palestinians could be sidelined permanently and without consequence were already showing long before October 7th, with the Biden administration facing rising domestic pressure over the three and a half years of his first term. Prominent Democrats across the political spectrum of the party, from internationalist progressives like Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib to national security centrists like Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine, have vented frustration with the lack of pushback against Israel’s most extreme government in history.

Before the war, President Biden’s record on Israel-Palestine looked eerily similar to his predecessor’s, with the president nominally maintaining key elements of Pompeo doctrine on settlement policy, upholding Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan heights and implicit recognition of Israel’s control over a supposedly “united” Jerusalem, and a failure to follow through on the campaign promise to reopen the consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. It took until February 23, 2024, over three years into this administration’s term, for the first of a series of possible reversals by the Biden administration of any part of the Pompeo doctrine. It remains unclear at this time if this policy change will include a reversal in how products made in the settlements must be labeled, as the administration currently mandates that Israeli products made in the occupied West Bank be marked as “made in Israel”. To the administration’s credit, an executive order was issued which allows for sanctions to be imposed on violent settlers and those who do business with them, and there is speculation that the mechanism will be used more often in the near future.

Polling data indicated that younger voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the May-June War of 2021, just as they are disapproving today of his handling of the current war, and in early 2023 a Gallup poll had shown that for the first time ever Democratic voters had more sympathy for Palestinians than they did for Israelis. In this context, it is not surprising that Senate Democrats are demanding real concessions for Palestinians in exchange for approving any tentative treaty between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The “price” for such a treaty since the brutal Israeli campaign that has killed over 12,000 Palestinian children has gone up significantly, both from the perspective of Democrats and of Saudi Crown Prince MBS, with the latter now demanding that Israel take “irreversible steps” towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Yet there have also been rumblings against the suddenly revived two-state paradigm itself. We are now more than twenty five years removed from the signing of the first Oslo agreement, which neither explicitly promised a Palestinian state nor set a defined time table for the establishment of such a state, and the failures of the much talked-about peace process are leading some to embrace alternative frameworks for peace. Rashida Tlaib is  currently the only member of Congress to formally endorse a secular, binational state for all of its citizens, but her skepticism of two states for two peoples is being echoed in the international arena.

In a bombshell interview last year, former Jordanian DPM and FM Marwan Muasher stated that it was his view that Jordan should sever all relations with Israel and begin to push the international community towards a single state or confederal model that respects Palestinian and Jewish Israeli rights alike. Muasher was the architect of the 1994 treaty of peace between Jordan and Israel, and his view is indicative of how some in Jordan are beginning to feel about the post-Oslo political landscape. Likewise, the “one-state reality” as a framework for understanding the conflict has gained salience on the heels of reports issued by B’Tselem, Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch calling Israel’s multifaceted regime over all Palestinians between the Mediterranean and River a system of apartheid. In May of 2021, Congresswomen Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib all asserted that “apartheid states are not democracies”. Despite these shifts, the Biden administration seems intent on trying to revive partition as the United States’ official framework for peace, and a detailed plan could be unveiled within the next month.

However, the current philosophy of unequivocal support to Israel makes the United States one of the biggest obstacles to a negotiated peace, rather than a facilitator of it. So long as this administration and any successive one is intent on being Israel’s lawyer above all else, intervening on Israel’s behalf in every diplomatic forum and providing it with unconditional military support, there will be no reason for Israel to compromise and certainly no reason for Palestinians to trust the Americans to be a fair mediator. For peace to be given a chance of seriously succeeding, regardless of the minute details of the final political framework, Biden will not just have to finally reverse the damage that his predecessor created, but go beyond all of his predecessors and make clear that a just settlement will be based on international law and the dignity of not just Israelis, but the Palestinians as well. As Rashid Khalidi says towards the end of his book A Hundred Years’ War On Palestine, negotiations “should stress complete equality of treatment of both peoples, and be based on the Hague and Fourth Geneva conventions, the United Nations Charter with its stress on national self determination, and all relevant UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, not just those cherry-picked by the United States to favor Israel.”

Anything less will doom this president to the same fate as Clinton, Bush, and Obama, failed authors of ephemeral treaties, of which nothing besides missed opportunity remains.

Eight Failures From The US Testimony At The International Court of Justice

The U.S. Government has made its oral statement at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Sadly, if predictably, the position presented constituted a charter for permanent occupation and undermining International Law.

The International Court of Justice was tasked by the UN General Assembly in December of 2022 to provide an advisory opinion on the legal consequences and third party responsibilities arising from Israel’s prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories. This process includes holding hearings and receiving statements, and it is the first time in 20 years (since the advisory opinion on the construction by Israel of a wall in Occupied Palestinian Territory) that the court has addressed these legal questions. At the hearings, an unprecedented number of states will be appearing to offer testimony – the vast majority will be supporting variations of the case put forward by the Palestinians while a small minority, led by the U.S. will do the opposite.

Here’s why the Biden administration’s disappointing argument should concern anyone who wants to see genuine movement towards peace and justice:

1. A core of the U.S. argument was that the Court and international law do have a role, but those must narrowly center around UN Security Council Resolutions and with a heavy emphasis on 242 and 338. That in itself is a sleight of hand by the United States Government. We know why the Security Council is always so limited and circumscribed – because the U.S. has consistently for decades vetoed anything which offers a broader application of international law to Israel’s actions and to its permanent belligerent occupation. What  the U.S. position is saying is that other equally important pre-emptory norms and conventions in international law cannot be applied to the case of Israel/Palestine – for instance the inalienable rights to self-determination, the Genocide Convention, the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination etc. The U.S. is deploying something of a tautology. It has broken the capacity of the Security Council to act by consistently using its veto and now it wants to apply those broken results to undermine the role of the International Court of Justice.

2. Given the centrality of UNSCRs 242 and 338 to the presentation of the U.S, it is worth placing those resolutions in their correct context. Neither make mention of the Palestinians directly or of the Palestinian right to self-determination, they are very much rooted in the then predominant language of the Israeli/Arab conflict. In approach they resemble the legacy of the 1947 UN Partition Plan – passed by a pre-decolonisation UN consisting of just 56 states, of whom 33 voted for partition (31 from the global north along with apartheid South Africa). Those two resolutions, 242 and 338, both more than half a century old, predate the major legal questions facing the ICJ in this advisory opinion – the massive proliferation of illegal settlements, de facto annexation, changes in the status of Jerusalem and the entrenchment of a discriminatory regime considered to meet the legal definition of apartheid.

3. In its oral statement, the U.S. recognized the illegality of the acquisition of territory by force and stated this is a principle it upholds universally. However, that does not stand up to the most basic scrutiny. The previous Trump administration recognized Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights and de facto changed its position on the status of the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy there. Neither of these steps have been reversed by the Biden administration.

4. The U.S. position was essentially to endorse the notion of permanent belligerent occupation. It talked about conditions for withdrawal, but of course its own policies prevent the most important condition for that withdrawal, namely the U.S. guaranteeing Israeli impunity and avoidance of costs or consequences for Israel’s continued illegal actions. The USG therefore ends up defending and owning Israel’s ongoing drift toward ever greater extremism.

5. The U.S. testimony conspicuously refused to reassert the illegality of Israel’s settlements – one of the central questions the court has already ruled on and on which there is near total international unanimity. U.S. testimony was an opportunity to assert a policy long neglected. Instead, the USG seems to want us to focus on a few bad apples of extremist settlers when the reality of the illegal settlement project is in it being a central plank of Israeli state policy to control land and resources, to advance demographic re-engineering, and is legally enabled, funded, secured, by every Israeli government of every political persuasion.

6. The U.S. position at the ICJ goes hand in hand with its vetoing of recent resolutions on Gaza at the UN Security Council. That position is to maintain a strict separation between a US-led peace process and international law. It is a separation which enables a 30-year peace process under which Israel’s violations of international law multiply and metastasize rather than being ended, in which numbers of illegal settlers exponentially increase and in which the peace process becomes cover for the enabling and entrenching of a reality of apartheid. It should therefore come as no surprise that of the submissions at the ICJ, 22 states and 2 International Groupings reference the apartheid reality. Reconnecting any future peace effort to international law is what is most necessary and what the USG is trying to prevent.

It is understandable why – if international law is applied to Israel then the legal complicity of the US, for instance, in supplying Israel with weapons, comes under the microscope. If the US can pick and choose and strong-arm – a process sometimes called “the rules based international order” – as a replacement for international law, then it can use the asymmetry of power to bully Palestinians as it has done to others. However, this will only make the situation worse and leave the US more exposed in its attempts to defend the mutual claims of Israel and the US to exceptional impunity. It also ultimately undermines Israel’s security because if international law does not apply to Israel, then it cannot apply to Hamas either and all parties must be in compliance with international law.

7. There were additional shortcomings, oddities, and missed opportunities in the USG’s oral statement. The U.S. was right to raise Israel’s legitimate security needs. However, Israel has defined its security in such an expansive and unreasonable way as to become a pillar underpinning the regime of separate and unequal ethno-nationalism. The U.S. appears to uncritically endorse the Israeli position claiming that security needs to be balanced against any possible future withdrawal of the occupation and thereby green lighting further decades of occupation. It was also noteworthy that without any relevance to international law or the ICJ hearings, the USG frequently promoted its priority of normalisation and integration into the region of Israel – again endorsing the approach of the Trump administration and subordinating international law and legitimate Palestinian rights to a geo-political vision which seeks to strengthen the U.S. but further obfuscate the issue of peace, rights and self-determination for the Palestinians.

8. Why does any of this matter? The court will probably only release its advisory opinion in several months. That outcome is unlikely to align with the arguments made by the U.S.

Another advisory opinion by the court clarifying legal questions around Israel’s prolonged occupation will not offer immediate actions that can be enforced but it matters because it will potentially provide new tools around which voters, consumers, shareholders, activists and national courts can challenge the existing status quo and the ways in which multiple governments and companies, arms suppliers, and apologists are complicit in this ongoing affront to international legality and indeed to the future wellbeing of not only Palestinians, but of Israelis for whom the role of oppressor can never deliver security or peace of mind.

Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S. / Middle East Project

 

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.

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:

Transnational labor policies in the era of artificial intelligence

Since taking office, the Biden administration has worked with Congress to invest in technology and innovation, premised on such investment as a necessary part of great power competition against China. This new industrial policy is evident in new government investment through the computer-processing-power-focused CHIPS Act and the launch of the military-technology alliance AUKUS, which arranges technology transfer and innovation between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US. The scale of innovation that the US government is now funding at home and abroad is intended to demonstrate some of the superiority of the US-led “international rules-based order,” emphasizing open markets and free societies, and is intended as a contrast with the global outreach of Russia and China. While the American government is taking proactive steps in investing in technological innovation, those steps mainly benefit corporations and the wealthy, neglecting a vital and necessary aspect for any thriving innovation economy: labor.

The federal government is investing in developing an industrial base that can manufacture superconductors and chipsets, and has also established the Office of Strategic Capital to focus on the potential of AI. However, this approach is limited to manufacturing and corporate finance. The government should learn from the consequences of relying on SpaceX for satellites and launch capacity, despite the company’s owner’s unpredictability, addiction, instability, and questionable loyalties. It is important not to repeat the same mistake in a promising new industry like AI. While there’s every reason to be optimistic about artificial intelligence in the long term, recent reporting has demonstrated some of the technology’s remarkable limitations and shortcomings, as well as the ways it can pose a threat to democracy

Marketing by and conduct of industry leaders suggest that a god-like intelligence is imminent and that they are the only ones who can ethically train it (for dubious definitions of “ethically trained”). At the same time, the products currently on the market are not actual artificial intelligence but are yet another iteration of the Mechanical Turk. This 18th-century “automaton” appeared to be able to play chess against humans, but in reality, a person was hidden inside and operated it. Similarly, ChatGPT and other technological marvels are operated by people laboring under sweatshop conditions.

While the form of this exploitation has changed over the centuries since, the underlying principle of using cheap human labor to pose as artificial intelligence persists, because capital can easily relocate jobs across national borders, companies are able to exploit loopholes in laws that are meant to protect labor and the planet. From the deregulation and deindustrialization policies of the Carter and Reagan administrations to the rise of tech giants and social media companies, this process persists into the present. As a consequence, workers at home and abroad are often subject to constant labor exploitation, as in the case of Twitter employees at home and Facebook content moderators abroad. When this exploitation occurs within democracy and capitalism, it hinders the case for American soft power and leaves sweatshop workers in poverty. This prevents many countries from developing widespread stability that can allow democracy to thrive.

In order for the “international rules-based order” to successfully embrace the potential of artificial intelligence and integrate it into their economies and societies, collaboration between the public sector, private sector, citizens, and labor is required. This cannot be achieved solely by delegating government functions and funding to private industry. If the United States aims to lead in AI, it must prioritize domestic and international labor rights. Doing so would enhance the rights, dignity, and prosperity of billions of people and pave the way for greater innovation. By leading with American values, the country can continue to attract more countries towards its principles and away from authoritarian regimes.

During the post-pandemic economic boom, the United States witnessed a surge in labor militancy and support for organized labor unions. This was partly due to concerns about the impact of AI on middle-class workers. However, despite this, the federal government needs to do more to support labor in the new era. The WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and UAW strikes played a crucial role in protecting workers from AI. The agreements reached during these strikes took into account the important lessons learned from the labor and political disruptions that led to the creation of the Rust Belt, which resulted in greater inequality and political radicalization. Already, Biden’s NLRB has been one of the most effective and proactive boards of the post-war era, helping secure significant milestones such as Starbucks unionization. As legislation for technology innovation, the CHIPS Act included labor provisions, like those aimed at producing good-paying jobs with daycare, to encourage more women and primary care providers to become innovators and entrepreneurs over time. Still, there is much more that needs to be done by the NLRB and the government to support labor. 

Providing strong and proactive support for labor unions in the technology industry is crucial. Backing tech worker unions can help American workers secure their jobs, earn better wages, and have job protection. It will also enable them to gain experience, build wealth, and develop professionally, which can lead to the creation of their own innovative tech companies. Such support can broaden and deepen the pool of skilled workers at a time when the government and the country are struggling to retain tech talent. Additionally, it will protect American technology jobs from offshoring and the increasing use of sweatshop labor in other countries. To make this happen, it is necessary to take measures such as cracking down on union-busting tactics, imposing significant fines for anti-union activity, and even considering jail time where appropriate, particularly in companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. This way, the United States would be bringing the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights home with a specific focus on artificial intelligence and advanced technology workers.

As the leader of the “international rules-based order,” these are priorities and values the United States should support in collaboration with allies and partners. The Joint Global Initiative to Advance Rights of Working People Around the World between the United States and Brazil is focused on green jobs and organized labor as ways to protect and elevate the role of workers and worker organizations in strengthening democracy. That could be expanded across the OAS through diplomatic efforts and mutually beneficial policy arrangements. By doing so, the US can establish a more robust and sustained bilateral engagement, which can help strengthen economic, political, and social ties with its neighbors. This approach will foster trust and cooperation between the US and its neighbors and include expedited immigration opportunities for AI and tech workers across the Western hemisphere. The United States could push forward within the International Labour Organization (ILO) to create a global wage floor, combat tech offshoring/sweatshopping, and create a positive global future around technological innovation. Each of these would expand and accelerate innovation for the technologies necessary to counter Russia and China, increase global political stability, and act as a counterweight not only to authoritarian regimes but also as a way to defeat them over time.

These labor reforms at home and abroad will strengthen democracy, accelerate innovation, and prevent worker exploitation. This will make the “international rules-based order” more innovative and competitive while improving living standards and labor rights. It also provides economic liberty and safety, which are necessary for individuals to move beyond low-paying jobs and towards artificial intelligence, which can help us solve problems and cure diseases. By working together, the United States and its neighboring countries can create a more prosperous and sustainable future for everyone involved.

Lucas F. Schleusener is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Bluesky at @lfschleusener.bsky.social.

How Defending Ukraine Unearthed a Tool for Green Foreign Policy

In March 2014, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the United States and Europe imposed a set of sanctions against Russia’s oil sector.  These sanctions eventually blocked ExxonMobil’s plans to expand exploration in Russia and drill in new areas like the eastern Black Sea, in a collaboration where ExxonMobil worked with and transferred technology to Russian state oil producer Rosneft . ExxonMobil sought waivers that would allow it to resume these technology transfers, but American and European governments have instead expanded sanctions following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In doing so, Washington and Brussels inadvertently took effective action against expansion of environmental damage in Russia, and created a basis on which a progressive foreign policy can build, purposefully, as part of global climate action—a set of policies that could use this accidental environmental protection as a model for restrictions on American-based multinationals for the sake of limiting extractive industry worldwide.

The Accidental Environmentalist

In 2014 the Russian environmental activist Konstantin Rubakhin called for sanctions as an ecological measure. In the call, he identified foreign extractive industry as a culprit in environmental exploitation in Russia: they “continue to buy Russian natural resources, sell technology, and take advantage of capital of dubious origin, supporting in essence the destruction of my country, and the pressure put on its civil society.” Rubakhin himself had campaigned against the Khopyor nickel mining operation which was owned by oligarchs who themselves financed the mine through European banks. 

Sanctions against individuals have been part of an international response to the invasion of Ukraine, but have significant limits for both the anti-war and environmental purposes. The effectiveness of a sanctions regime to change state behavior is increasingly in question, especially as a clouded international financial system allows oligarchs to continue circumventing these sanctions. The circumvention works to the detriment of efforts to compel Russia to end its invasion as these oligarchs help finance the Russian war effort while also profiting from it, and it works to the detriment of environmental causes in Russia that depend on slowing down financing or technological inputs into extractive industry.

At the same time, scaling back of sanctions is meant to reward a reversion from bad behavior (or may end due to an emptying of political will behind them), which means their utility for environmental protection is limited, temporary, and hangs by a thread. Whether because the U.S. or its allies seek to offer a carrot to the negotiating table, the war ends, or efforts to turn U.S. commitment to punish the Russian invasion are successful, the sanctions could someday be removed, and drilling in the Black Sea resume (though there is no guarantee that license for Russian companies to massively expand drilling there would be any benefit to peace with Ukraine in the long run anyway). 

Extractive industry across Russia and Central Asia is linked on several fronts to multinational firms and other systems and institutions headquartered in the United States. These firms supply equipment despite restrictions. The U.S. Department of Defense in part due to its own massive energy demands has found itself buying fuel made from Russian oil. Despite popular (though crude and often inaccurate) descriptions of Kazakhstan as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, American investment in Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon sector towers over that of most other countries. This existing American entanglement with Russia’s energy sector means the sanctions effect on ExxonMobil’s investments is a significant one (the company left behind billions in capital when it left Russia entirely in 2022).

Clearing the Air

A global “sanctions package”—with purposeful, clear, and simple theory of change stopping or limiting environmental damage at the hand of multinational corporations is imaginable. Rather than attempting to shift the logic and behavior of states, it would exercise power to limit the shadow foreign policy conducted by American business to expand extractive industry abroad. Such a foreign policy package would start with bans on technology transfers that allow foreign investment to expand drilling operations, essentially making the state of affairs over ExxonMobil’s exploration of the Black Sea a permanent policy. These could be expanded to other places where oil firms are seeking to establish new drilling operations against the concerns of environmental groups, like the Mediterranean, especially as improved technology makes these remaining oilfields easier to extract. 

But these sanctions need not be limited to one sector or one type of policy. A foreign policy green new deal could constrain financing from American or European sources used to expand destructive environmental projects, even when those projects are not conducted by an American-headquartered firm. This could include the Khopyor nickel mine’s financing through Cypriot banks, or the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto corporation’s potentially destructive Simandou iron mine in Guinea, which depends more for financing on its shares on the New York stock exchange (and would therefore be subject to such restrictions) since its Chinese state financiers have been slow to provide funding.

Rulemaking to guide arbitration processes is also a potential target. When the government of Kyrgyzstan nationalized a gold mine owned by a Canadian firm, citing environmental concerns as one reason to do so, the arbitration process between the government and the firm centered on appropriate compensation to both parties as well as payments for environmental protection totalling $86 million (a paltry percentage of the profit the mine has provided over its history). A more climate-conscious set of international arbitration agreements might have guided restrictions on future expansion on the gold mine as a condition for the new owners and determined a higher climate cost for the gold mine’s past environmental damage as part of restitution with conditions that it go to the communities affected by the mine’s notorious groundwater contamination. Global climate sanctions might then bind the new owners to meet these agreements.

Many potential actions along these lines are now possible,  with a basis for constraining American business in the name of American environmental interests now established by the 2014 sanctions on technology transfers to Rosneft and later Trump administration refusal to waive these restrictions for ExxonMobil. These are based in existing sanctions law, though a bill under congressional consideration would expand applicability of U.S. actions in the Black Sea to meet climate goals. A progressive foreign policy should  reflect the American public’s interest in mitigating climate and other environmental damage. It can also foster goodwill among frontline communities, just as the Biden administration has now determined that defense of Ukraine is an interest that takes priority over ExxonMobil’s new opportunities. 

The use of sanctions has a problematic record; as with most U.S. foreign policy it necessarily involves blunt exercise of power, and is questionably useful. However, a sanctions package on global extractive industry might at least demonstrate that a foreign policy undertaken by the state can be compassionate in limiting the impulses of the shadow foreign policy undertaken by American business entities. 

Abhi Goyal is a researcher and professional in development assistance specializing in Central Asian politics, migration, and urbanism. You can follow him on Bluesky at abhigoyal.bsky.social

Biden Cannot Achieve UN Reform Without Confronting Hypocrisy

On September 12, 2022, the Biden Administration proposed a series of novel, uniquely practical UN modernization policies, part of a larger move to make global institutions more responsive, equitable, and equipped for the challenges of the 21st Century. Senior Biden administration officials made their case for UN Security Council (UNSC) reform by harnessing global outrage at how easily Russia could use its veto to snarl the UN’s work, first in Syria and then following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

As Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S.Ambassador to the United Nations, put it in November 2022, for the Security Council to meet this moment, “all permanent members of the Security Council must also live up to our obligation to maintain international peace and security. And that means exercising the veto authority responsibly. As I’ve said before, the United States will refrain from use of the veto except in rare, extraordinary situations.” Or, as she said a year later, “More than ever before, we cannot afford a crisis of confidence in this body… We will need to re-examine long-held national positions, ask ourselves tough questions, and remain open to compromise in order to effect lasting change.” 

But since Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent four-month bombardment of Gaza’s civilians, the U.S.has vetoed two UNSC resolutions on Gaza, obstructing globallypopular multilateral efforts for conflict resolution and humanitarian relief. These vetoes demonstrate once again how a single permanent member can grind collective conflict management efforts to a halt in face of intense human suffering. By exploiting the inherent unfairness of the UNSC’s structure when it’s in its interests to do so, these vetoes also threaten the Biden administration’s specific and careful case for UNSC reform. 

If the Biden administration truly believes we cannot afford a crisis of confidence in the UNSC, and if it wants the UN to play an enduring, active role in maintaining international peace and security, it must behave in line with its own proposal for reform and help facilitate a multilateral solution to the war in Gaza instead of single-handedly gridlocking the Council with its veto. As the staggering human costs of this war mount—at least 25,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in Gaza, widespread hunger and impending famine among survivors, a collapsing humanitarian response system—US policymakers should weigh the costs of undermining the UNSC alongside them.

The UNSC is the sole international body that can authorize the use of international force and enact multilateral sanctions. Its resolutions are legally binding for UN member states and advance a specific vision of politics that still centers the protection of civilians in conflict, international humanitarian law, and a prohibition against aggressive war. The Council is unfair by design, with membership rules and a voting structure that explicitly marginalizes most of the world while allowing the permanent five members (P5) to steer the Chamber. This unjustness is written into the very foundation of the UN system as the price of keeping the victors of World War II invested in multilateralism, and this price is steep. When the P5 violate the UN Charter and then use their vetoes to protect themselves, or when they use their vetoes to shelter their allies’ transgressions, they undermine the UNSC’s legitimacy; bolster its reputation as a front for great power interests instead of a law-bound body; impede conflict resolution efforts; and leave people living in danger without even the few protections that international law offers.

Proposing UNSC reform is accordingly very popular—and because the P5 know it’s popular, permanent members periodically call for expanded membership. These calls have often been effectively empty because they’re made knowing no one agrees on who the new permanent members should be or what powers they should have. 

Yet in contrast, the Biden administration’s reform ideas have been uniquely pragmatic and serious. They’ve advanced a broad UN modernization agenda that includes explicit proposals for both formal charter-level changes and informal shifts in diplomatic practice, centered on six key principles for responsible behavior by Council members. These principles include a pledge to defend and act strictly in line with the UN Charter’s text and values; engaging pragmatically with other Council members to address threats to international peace and security without allowing bilateral disputes to obstruct the Council’s efforts to fulfill its mandate and responsibilities; refraining from veto use except in rare and extraordinary circumstances; exercising leadership in defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms; enhancing “cooperation, inclusivity, and transparency” through frequent engagement with other UN bodies, including the UN General Assembly (UNGA); and advancing efforts for UNSC reform. The US has taken several practical steps in accordance with this last principle, including co-sponsoring a resolution that generates an accountability mechanism for UNGA to ask the P5 to come before the General Assembly to explain their vetoes, and, for the first time, calling for permanent seats for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Biden administration’s reform agenda includes both proposed shifts in the U.S.’s diplomatic practices and specific benchmarks for others to use when assessing the U.S.’s behavior. In their proposal, the UNSC chamber could become more just, equitable, legitimate, and transparent if the U.S. behaves differently—if it supports the multilateral norms for transparency and accountability from the P5 that other states have advanced and agrees to forgo the veto. 

Whether the Biden administration would use its veto to insulate Israel from calls for conflict resolution or accountability for documented violations of international humanitarian law has always been the acid test of its commitment to this reform agenda. The U.S.’s rare use of its veto since the Cold War has almost always been on questions related to Israel. American rhetoric on Russian use of the veto, from Samantha Power’s famous speech asking whether Russia was incapable of shame in face of civilian casualties in Aleppo, to Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s stirring efforts to build global support for Ukraine in face of Russian war crimes, has made the U.S.’s vetoes even more notable. 

By framing its vetoes on behalf of Israel as uniquely acceptable while other UN member states, the UN Secretary General, and humanitarian and aid agencies all point to credible evidence of mass civilian death and mounting humanitarian disasters in Gaza, the U.S. invites accusations of hypocrisy, and of being willing to use its outsized powers under the UN Charter in service of its own national interests when it wants to do so while criticizing Russia for doing the same. Using the veto in defiance of global popular opinion and international humanitarian law interest undercuts global confidence in the body. 

But the Biden administration, like the rest of us, needs a functioning, legitimate UNSC if it wants a more peaceful world. As Alex de Waal has argued, we tend to undersell 20th century multilateralism’s astonishing achievements because we understandably fixate on its real shortcomings. Even with its fundamentally unfair structure, the UNSC has overseen a remarkably successful peacemaking and peacekeeping apparatus across the world. The revolutionary reporting systems it supports for human rights violations and crimes against civilians subject governments to historically unprecedented levels of international scrutiny. 

Where none of the P5’s primary interests are engaged, it has facilitated conflict resolution and humanitarian relief. And, critically, it remains a place where peaceful dispute resolution and civilian protection are central to the conduct of international peace and security. A world without a UNSC that other states view as legitimate—a world where the UNSC is seen as a mere tool for great power interests—is one where those states have fewer incentives to bring their problems of peace and security to the Chamber, and one where both its machinery of peace and these norms of peaceful conflict resolution fade ever further away from the daily conduct of international politics, with real consequences for the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable people in the world. 

There is still space for the U.S. to bolster the UNSC’s legitimacy instead of threatening it. At the end of December, the UNSC spent a week negotiating the text of a resolution to get more aid into Gaza with the specific aim of avoiding a U.S. veto. Although the resulting watered-down text did more to establish a floor for humanitarian action than to guarantee more aid would flow into Gaza, the process revealed both that the U.S.did not want to veto a humanitarian aid resolution and that members of the UNSC wanted to find space for them to sign on to a resolution. It also revealed real fracture lines between the U.S. Mission to the UN and the White House, with the U.S.Mission to the UN negotiating directly with both Washington and other UN member states to find mutually acceptable language that would allow the resolution to pass. 

If the Biden Administration wants its plans for UN modernization to take root, it has to give the U.S.delegation to the UN full freedom to make the shifts in daily diplomatic practice that underwrite meaningful multilateralism. This means more efforts like December’s effort to find common ground in resolutions that establish a floor from which other efforts at humanitarian relief can proceed, and it means taking the threat of the veto off the table, allowing other states to lead on Gaza, even at the Security Council, and facilitating the Secretariat’s humanitarian efforts without placing U.S.interests at the center of any debate on civilians in Gaza.

While these moves are politically loaded, they are not practically complicated. The U.S. Mission to the UN already has experience in these daily diplomatic practices, having previously deployed them to facilitate multilateral humanitarian assistance in Syria despite Russian obstructionism. Without making sweeping political statements or speeches, the U.S.Mission to the UN can give the UNSC’s elected members lead roles in managing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and can divide the humanitarian and political portfolios on Gaza to enable humanitarian relief. The elected members of the UNSC already have substantial experience with this kind of work, developed across nearly a decade of trying to facilitate relief in Syria despite Russian obstructionism. It would require little from the Biden administration to allow these efforts aside from the political will to help save Gazan civilians.

Anjali Dayal is an associate professor of international politics at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. She is the author of Incredible Commitments: How UN Peacekeeping Failures Shape Peace Processes (Cambridge University Press, 2021). She can be found online at @anjalikdayal on twitter and @anjalikdayal.bsky.social on bluesky.

Letter From The Publisher

We are delighted to welcome you to the inaugural issue of the International Policy Journal (IPJ), a platform dedicated to discussing foreign policy priorities within a progressive agenda. We look forward to your engagement and collaboration as readers, contributors, and critics to help us better understand today’s challenges, articulate effective solutions, and honestly assess potential risks and trade-offs of proposed policy alternatives.

As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, it’s clear that the United States’ foreign policy needs new ideas to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We believe that the US can and should play a robust and constructive global role without succumbing to detrimental hegemony or exceptionalism, including its associated white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, hyper-militarization, and inequality. Achieving this necessitates a paradigm shift in US foreign policy to address evolving global threats and power dynamics.

Today’s challenges demand perspectives beyond the outdated left-right divide or an imposed separation between domestic and foreign affairs. The impact of international crises, from climate change to the pandemic, and even remote conflicts like those in Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine, underline this need. Our aim is for the IPJ to be an inclusive space for nuanced foreign policy analysis, promoting a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

The IPJ seeks to be the epicenter for progressive debate and analysis, shaping the discourse and working to build consensus around the urgent challenges of these polarized times. Our approach involves bridging domestic and foreign concerns, promoting a comprehensive perspective that includes those affected by our policies, advocating for accountability, and reinvigorating diplomacy.

We seek to reframe the perspective of the US foreign policy debate, offering practical and meaningful solutions that reflect the diverse realities of global communities, that supports the safety and prosperity of Americans while centering US foreign policy’s impact on those communities. We believe in a conception of national security that is synonymous with global security, rooted in human rights and equality. This solidarity-based approach challenges the narrative of great power competition, advocating for a more inclusive and equitable global policy framework. We are all in this world together.

Aligned with CIP’s mission, the IPJ aspires to be more than a forum for the exchange of ideas. By consolidating expertise, supporting emerging experts, and cultivating a dynamic community, we aim to build a new and durable consensus.

 

Nancy Okail, President and CEO and Matt Duss, Executive Vice President

Center for International Policy

Letter From The Editor

The hardest task in foreign policy is to imagine that a better future is possible. For many  of us who grew up in the wake of the Cold War, the Bush Administration’s decision to launch the War on Terror was a screamingly obvious mistake whose grim consequences were so foreseeable that the satirists at The Onion predicted it, even if cabinet officials or opinion columnists couldn’t. What else was to be done, went the retort, from newspaper columns to talk shows to dorm room arguments to schoolyard lunch breaks? It wasn’t that hard, in 2001 or in 2003, to know that the course of action being pursued was not the best one around. It was harder to imagine what could have been instead, what could have drawn a wounded nation eager for security together with huddled civilians listening to the screech of jet bombers, hiding from a vengeance visited for an act they never authored.

In the decades since the start of the War on Terror, the means and justifications of an expansive, hegemonic foreign policy have vacillated, while the fact of US power and an eagerness to use it have persisted across presidencies. When new violence erupts across the world, it is easy to imagine the ways the conflict spreads, the way other countries get involved, and to picture a crisis of diplomacy answered with drones and missiles. There will, every time, be people making sound, sober, and reasoned arguments for why a crisis must be dealt with using the tools of a globe-spanning military first, or why the preservation of order through hegemony is in the interest of all nations.

The work of the International Policy Journal is to imagine better futures and better solutions to the shared challenges of cohabitating the earth with other countries, with other peoples. There is no amount of global warming that can be stopped by military firepower, but there are ways nations could communicate better to manage the shared threat of climate change. Problems of biodiversity preservation could be met with exclusive areas of wilderness habitation, or they could be met with preservation of indigenous communities, protecting both people and wildlife from the disruption of extractive industry or the artificiality of preserves.

Here we hope to foster a lively discourse about the how and the what of better futures. As outlined by our publisher at the Center for International Policy, the work is designed to provoke a needed paradigm shift in thinking about the US role in the world. That perspective must be internationalist. While the base unit of foreign policy remains the nation, we know that the challenges of the world are bigger than any one nation, and that the needs of the people on this planet transcend the constraints of borders and language.

The writers we are publishing will not always agree. There is, even, substantial disagreement in the seven stories included in this launch. What they are all doing, and what every writer published in these pages going forward commits to, is taking seriously the notion that different actions can lead to better futures. 

Before I started as Chief Editor, with the express mission of launching and fostering this publication from scratch, I worked for a decade in military technology journalism. I would often (online and loudly at parties) proclaim that my job was about “war, robots, and bad futures.” I thought it important to document the tools of power, in precise detail and broader implications. On that beat, it was easy to see futures teeming with armed drones and autonomous lasers, and hard to see futures where these weapons were not needed or used. I could write about the likely consequences of those weapons, but would have to take work outside the beat to explore situations in which the weapons would be turned aside.

There is crucial work in critiquing policy already underway, in emphasizing the limits and likely errors that will be made as the all-too-human stewards of states stumble from crisis to crisis. There will invariably be an element of that critique to the articles and features published here, as imagining better involves identifying what’s not working at present. Yet the beating heart of the IPJ, the drive that makes this so compelling to edit, and hopefully as exciting to read, is that work of looking towards a better future, and plotting the first few steps we can take to head in that direction.

 

Here’s to seeing bad futures, and imagining better ones,

Kelsey D. Atherton, Chief Editor, Center for International Policy

 

Meet Me In The Backroom: Environmental NGOs & China/U.S. Climate Cooperation

As the two largest economies in the world, the U.S. and China are naturally also the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses contributing to human induced climate change, and although China has historically contributed far less to both total and per capita emissions than the U.S., it is quickly catching up. But Mother Earth is unconcerned with human political distinctions. The consequences of climate change, including sea level rise, more unpredictable weather patterns, and desertification, result from total emissions, irrespective of who emitted them when and in what density. Therefore, as major emitters and stakeholders in the international community, Washington and Beijing have both a moral responsibility and an enlightened self-interest in decarbonizing their economies and leading global climate policy efforts through decisive and ambitious action. Similarly, the highly globalized and interconnected nature of both economies means that sustained progress on climate change will require not only committed domestic policy, but also stable bilateral coordination to ensure maximum impact.

For much of the 21st century, the need for Sino-American climate coordination was common knowledge across the Pacific. As Brookings Institute fellow David Victor poignantly noted in October 2021, it was the U.S.and China that led the world to the Paris Agreement and inaugurated the pledge system which defines contemporary national climate plans. Victor also reasoned that faltering cooperation between both sides could be resuscitated by targeting the technologies critical to decarbonization, including wind and solar power, advanced batteries, and carbon capture. This vision seemed to be proceeding well when Beijing and Washington issued a joint declaration at COP26 the following month, wherein they pledged cooperation on developing global regulatory frameworks and scaling up solar, in addition to establishing a climate working group to unite experts and policymakers from both countries. However, these promises vanished the following summer when China unilaterally terminated all bilateral climate coordination in retaliation for Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Since then, the Biden administration has passed the largest climate bill in American history in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, but it also has effectively blocked all imports from Chinese solar companies on allegations of human rights abuses within their supply chains. Additionally, some 1,400 ethnically Chinese scientists have fled the U.S. for China due to discriminatory policies allegedly designed to prevent the theft of American intellectual property. Unfortunately, these developments demonstrate that not even climate policy is safe from the acrimonious Sino-American relationship, and the stable long-term coordination necessary to address the climate crisis is unlikely as long as fundamental geopolitical tensions remain.

Thankfully, we have options besides the apparatchiks in Beijing and Washington. Indeed, various environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) from the U.S. and China are actively cooperating to promote decarbonization, clean air, and public awareness over critical environmental issues. In fact, these ENGOs and the networks they have built over decades of collaboration offer a form of “safety net” for bilateral engagement that could be leveraged by the U.S. and China to lock in long-term climate cooperation even as official coordination remains lackluster and politically unfeasible. But before diving into the details, a brief overview of the landscape of Chinese civil society is necessary.

 

You Say You Want a Revolution

Due to the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party within China, it is often presumed by U.S. observers that civil society is either nonexistent within the country or exerts no impact on policy as compared to NGOs in democratic states. This view would accurately describe the Maoist era, when civil society was nonexistent and establishing any organization not controlled by the Party could get you labeled as a counterrevolutionary. But by the late 1970s, the reforms of Chairman Deng Xiaoping gradually relaxed state control over the private lives of individuals, laying the groundwork for civil society by allowing citizens the resources and freedom to form voluntary associations. As the state shrank, social organizations proliferated to fill the gap, operating in diverse sectors like philanthropy, scientific research, and political reform, although the latter were largely shuttered following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Although these early organizations offered space for citizens to organize outside of the Party, many were not yet true NGOs, but rather government organized NGOs (GONGOs) allowing citizens to organize through venues neither totally connected to, nor totally disconnected from, the dominant Chinese state. This caveat aside, estimates suggest around 2,000 NGOs were registered in China by 1991, four of which were Environmental NGOs. Beijing signaled still greater openness to NGOs by signing UN Agenda 21 in 1992, emphasizing their importance in promoting participatory democracy and sustainable development. During the 4th World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, the concept of NGOs was popularized among the Chinese public and Chinese citizens connected with international civil society, inspiring a rapid proliferation of Chinese NGOs. Yet although the Party permitted the expansion of NGOs, it also limited their growth by promulgating a suite of NGO laws between 1989 and 2000, specifically the principle of “dual-registration” obligating all NGOs to operate under the supervision of an official government sponsor and register with the Civil Affairs Department, as well as the “one NGO per sector” principle, which permits only a single NGO to operate in a given locality for a given issue area.

 

The Modern Age

Thanks to Deng’s reforms and the subsequent exposure of Chinese citizens to international civil society, the current operating environment for domestic NGOs is far more tolerant and open than during the Maoist years, offering unprecedented opportunities for citizens to influence policy. However, this ecosystem is still far more rigid than what prevails within democratic states and has discouraged the formalization of Chinese NGOs, with many choosing to either register themselves as for-profit companies or exist as unregistered organizations. Estimates suggest that these unregistered NGOs could number as high as 2.7 million, although the most commonly accepted figure among scholars is somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million. Technically, these unregistered NGOs are illegal organizations liable to be banned at any time, but in practice the Party adopts a more flexible “three nos” practice of no intervention, no bans, and no recognition, allowing NGOs to operate freely as long as they are not perceived to threaten social stability or the dominant role of the Party. 

Since the government provides no precise legal definition of what behavior threatens social stability, many NGOs over comply by exercising extreme caution and self-censorship, focusing on service provision, and cooperating with the government rather than criticizing it. This dichotomy of registered-legal and unregistered-illegal organizations is further compounded by the variability of resource endowments available across China which influences how NGOs can engage with citizens and policymakers. For instance, one 2017 study found that NGOs in eastern megacities like Beijing and Shanghai leverage their unique location to gain privileged access to high level national decision makers and more easily tap into international donor networks, thus avoiding dependency on the state. In contrast, NGOs in a poorer inland city received significantly less international funding, pushing them to seek state support that increased their proclivity for self-censorship. Interestingly, NGOs in the second-tier city of Nanjing took a leaner volunteer focused approach, allowing them to grow without attracting undue government attention and ensuring they enjoyed independence from both international and state donors, though they still could not touch politically sensitive issues.

Despite these harsh regulations, ENGOs have successfully leveraged the limited opportunities of the system to both survive and thrive across China. In fact, the number of both registered and unregistered citizen organized ENGOs in China has increased considerably since the 1990s, with a particularly stunning annual growth rate of 25% from 1995 to 2004 alone. Key to this proliferation was a favorable political environment wherein Party authorities have either supported ENGOs, as in the case of the Beijing city government including them to coordinate the 2008 Olympics, or been divided in their opinions, as in the case of dams along the Nu River which were backed by economic authorities but opposed by the environmental ministry, which utilized ENGOs to press its case. The less politically sensitive nature of environmental issues has also allowed ENGOs to generally avoid the repression meted out to groups like the Falun Gong or human rights organizations, a fact exemplified by Beijing’s deregistration of over 50,000 social organizations from 1996 to 2002 while permitting ENGOs to grow at an impressive clip during the same period. Beyond this more favorable political context, ENGO founders have tended to come from highly prestigious backgrounds boasting impressive degrees and careers, allotting them more social capital and stronger social networks which they can leverage to influence authorities for the benefit of their organizations, such as facilitating sponsorship by a government partner.

Yet even with the beneficial circumstances enjoyed by Chinese ENGOs, the state dominated nature of the broader NGO ecosystem has limited their ability to organize, especially in comparison to their counterparts abroad. One analysis of ENGOs in Nanjing found that despite overall growth in their capacity, the local government nonetheless constrained their ability to influence policy by constructing a hierarchical and state-biased relationship between itself and ENGOs and even among ENGOs themselves. Specifically, the local environmental GONGO had much easier access to Nanjing’s policymakers and a greater resource endowment than true ENGOs, which had to either filter their views through the GONGO or take the much less successful route of directly contacting state institutions for any hope of advancing their reform plans. 

Additionally, some scholars have argued that the restrictive operating environment for Chinese NGOs hampers their ability to develop valuable knowledge and expertise in their particular field by incentivizing a conformist approach that does not innovate. As a result, the state has little awareness of the contributions made by NGOs and little incentive to change its engagement with them, leading to a vicious cycle. In sum, contemporary Chinese ENGOs do benefit from an operating environment that is more open and formalized than during the Maoist years and even enjoy greater freedoms than other NGOs, but this space is still limited to ensure that the Party remains the dominant actor.

 

 

 

With a Little Help from My Friends

Many American, Chinese, and multilateral ENGOs are currently doing the hard work of climate cooperation on the ground, proving that the U.S. and China can engage constructively on this issue, albeit indirectly. What follows is an illustrative overview of the progress made by three such organizations.

 

Clean Air Asia (CAA)

Founded in 2001 under a partnership with the Asian Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank, CAA works to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in over 1000 Asian cities by helping policymakers develop and implement pollution control policies, raising awareness, building technical capacity, and linking pollution to environmental preservation and public health. In response to public pressure from a 2019 CAA air quality report, multiple Chinese city governments improved air cleanliness and adopted best practices to ensure long-term improvement. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, CAA supported six Chinese ENGOs in reducing emissions from over 20 seaports across the nation in addition to raising public awareness about port pollution and submitting suggestions to government agencies to improve port city air quality. 

CAA has also trained over 60 representatives from 36 local ENGOs on air quality advocacy and published 10 articles offering suggestions on national and regional level pollution controls for the 14th Five Year Plan. On World Environment Day, CAA launched a multi-platform social media campaign to raise awareness on air pollution and climate change by gathering ten celebrities, five leading environmental experts, and 40 ENGOs to publish 100 articles and 30 short videos attracting over 14 million views in total, pushing World Environment Day to the top three trending environmental topics on China’s biggest social media site Weibo. Perhaps most impressively, CAA accomplished all of this and more across Asia with an annual income of slightly over $2.7 million.

 

Friends of Nature (FON)

Operating since 1994, FON has been working for nearly three decades to address environmental harms within China and raise public awareness about critical environmental issues like air pollution, biodiversity conservation, and climate change. For instance, in 1995 FON saved the habitat of the endangered Yunnan snub-nosed monkey after highlighting the issue in the media and pressuring Beijing to prioritize its conservation, and since 2000 the ENGO has taught more than 20,000 students across 200 schools valuable lessons about environmental issues. In 2017, FON joined forces with an ENGO coalition to mobilize public opposition to a hydropower project which would have destroyed the habitat of the Chinese green peacock. Following intense public backlash, the billion-yuan project was tabled, and the peacock was elevated to “extremely endangered” status. FON has also been at the forefront of bringing polluters to justice, winning the right to bring a public interest lawsuit against a polluting firm in 2011 after seven of its previous cases had been rejected by the Chinese government. Thanks to FON’s concerted activism, NGOs across the country finally gained the right to sue private firms on behalf of others through amendments to the national civil law in 2012 and environmental protection law in 2014, resulting in more than 40 such cases from FON being accepted by courts across China as of 2021.  Besides litigation, FON has also coordinated directly with the Chinese government at multiple levels to promote over 40 different pieces of environmental legislation, including those addressing air and soil pollution, transparency in public records, and general environmental protection.

 

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Established during the U.S. environmental awakening of the 1970s, the NRDC has grown into one of the nation’s leading ENGOs and began operating in China by the mid-1990s, becoming one of the first foreign ENGOs to do so. Among NRDC’s many other firsts in China, it launched the country’s first clean energy program, developed the first building energy codes, established the first research program for green energy vehicles, and implemented the first utility-based energy conservation initiative. In fact, NRDC’s pilot efficiency programs in Jiangsu province proved so successful that Beijing required all grid companies to invest in similar programs, and the 13th Five Year Plan’s mandatory coal reduction target drew directly from an NRDC strategy. No less important, NRDC has increased the capacity of domestic ENGOs within China, including through its 2013 Coal Consumption Cap project with some 20 civil society groups and its 2018 Oil Consumption Cap project organized with more than 10 Chinese partners.

 

Harness Your Hopes?

American and Chinese ENGOs have been working tirelessly over the past few decades to address environmental harms by sharing best practices and technical skills, mobilizing their respective publics to fight for their environmental rights, pressuring government officials for policy reform, and holding polluters accountable. Although impressive declarations by Washington and Beijing capture more attention, those declarations are big on rhetoric, small on substance, and entirely at the mercy of the increasingly acrimonious bilateral relationship. In contrast, the daily grassroots-level work conducted by ENGOs produces stable cooperation yielding tangible results, even when the geopolitical winds are unfavorable. Certainly, this work is not without challenges which are influenced by worsening Sino-American relations. For example, some congressional conservatives lambasted the NRDC as a “foreign agent” for its environmental work in China, while Beijing’s recently implemented Foreign NGO Law, adopted to combat so-called foreign interference, has made it far more difficult for domestic and international ENGOs to operate within the country.

Despite this, and given all the positive results seen thus far, leaders in Washington and Beijing would be wise to facilitate rather than suffocate the activities of ENGOs operating across their borders. An easy start for the U.S. would be to reengage with CAA, which it originally cofounded but has since been largely absent from, either directly through USAID or indirectly through federal grants to charitable foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund or the Macarthur Foundation. The latter route could be a particularly effective one, considering that many such U.S. foundations already have designated climate programs providing grants to ENGOs like FON and NRDC to implement practical projects with high-impact, meaning that Washington could outsource the difficult work of identifying feasible projects while also maximizing the impact of taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers and media could also help by not demonizing ENGOs for simply operating within China on climate issues, given that such rhetoric could spook individual and foundation donors that provide critical funding. On the other side of the Pacific, Chinese policymakers should simplify and streamline the cumbersome “dual registration” process for ENGOs. Facilitating the legalization of its mountain of unregistered NGOs would greatly expand the opportunities for local collaboration available to foreign ENGOs operating in China while also increasing the technical and administrative capacity of local ENGOs. Although less likely, it would also be of great benefit to the ENGO community if Beijing rolled back some of the more draconian aspects of its new foreign NGOs law so that ENGOs could more easily operate within the country. 

These recommendations are by no means exhaustive and only serve as an illustrative list of options open to policymakers across the Pacific to bolster bilateral cooperation on shared climate goals. Of course, in an ideal world the first-best option would be for Washington and Beijing to engage regularly and directly to address the climate crisis, but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world, and it is all but certain that bilateral competition rather than cooperation will remain the norm. That being the case, adopting a second-best option of indirect climate cooperation via ENGOs would provide both countries and the international community with a workable method for ensuring stable progress on the most pressing issue facing the world today, even as its two most powerful countries seem destined for entrenched rivalry and competition.

 

Joshua Brown is currently a master’s degree student of International Relations at Peking University in Beijing, China. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Joshua worked in the international development sector with a focus on strengthening trade links and promoting sustainable development practices throughout Latin America, including managing a multimillion dollar fund to eliminate deforestation in the South American soy supply chain.

You can find Joshua Brown online at his blog personal blog or on Twitter/X at @Brown_Joshua_J

Dan Nott (he/him) is an artist and author living in Vermont. His debut nonfiction graphic novel exploring the history and workings of infrastructure, called HIDDEN SYSTEMS, was longlisted for a national book award in 2023. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Dan_Nott.