“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
As the Biden-Harris administration enters its second year in office, it will grapple with formidable foreign policy challenges that affect the wellbeing of Americans and global citizens alike. Seven members of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Initiative highlight seven of these challenges, ranging from ending the COVID-19 pandemic to reducing dependence on fossil fuels to identifying Unidentified (and perhaps unidentifiable) Aerial Phenomena — not to mention getting national security officials past the Senate and into leadership roles in order to tackle all of these challenges.
1. ENDING THIS PANDEMIC AND PREPARING FOR THE NEXT ONE
As the world heads into the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration will be looking to end the current pandemic and invest in programs to prevent and respond to future pandemics. With vaccination rates plateauing and high-income countries consider authorizing fourth doses, the need to vaccinate low- and middle-income nations will become that much more critical, as will increased access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and PPE tools.
As we have seen time and again, inequitable access to vaccines led to the development of more lethal, more contagious, and more severe forms of the disease. Rapid and accurate tests will need to be brought to scale as the world becomes more dependent on negative test results to attend school, travel, and access essential health services. Shortages of tests seen in the United States are far more severe in less wealthy countries and will not improve without significant donor intervention. It will be especially exciting to track new therapeutics, like those that significantly lower the risk of severe disease in immune-compromised patients. Careful attention should be paid to existing therapies, like medical oxygen and steroids, to avoid supply chain stock outs.
Rapid and accurate tests will need to be brought to scale as the world becomes more dependent on negative test results to attend school, travel, and access essential health services.
This year will also see US bilateral and multilateral global health programs pivot from the immediate response to the current crisis to planning on how best to prevent, prepare, and respond to future pandemics. To be determined are how the US government will structure and resource pandemic preparedness programs at State and USAID, and the role of US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) headed by the former Africa CDC Chief, Dr. John Nkengasong, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. In the fall of 2022, the United States will host the Seventh Replenishment Conference of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the largest global health funder. The upcoming Replenishment Conference will bring together donor and implementing governments, private sector, civil society, and affected populations to rally resources to end the deadliest infectious diseases and invest in efforts to prevent the spread of future epidemics. The Global Fund’s ability to draw on its strengths of achieving results against HIV, TB and malaria, civil society inclusion, and strengthening health systems will lay the groundwork for future pandemic preparedness and response. This will be a significant opportunity for the Biden administration to diplomatically engage other donors to increase contributions in global health, an area where many other high-income donors have fallen short. Without leadership — diplomatic, political, and monetary — there will be no end to this, or future, pandemics.
Shannon Kellman is the Policy Director for Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
2. A CITIZEN-LED APPROACH TO REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY
The deterioration of freedoms under the guise of pandemic response, successful coups in places like Myanmar and Sudan, and a violent insurrection in one of the most well-established democracies signal that democratic decline is unlikely to abate in 2022 without significant course correction. With general elections in declining democracies like India, Brazil, and Hungary, deepening toxic polarization heading into the US midterms, and a never-ending global pandemic, it is evident that we are at a turning point. Democracy advocates around the world will have to organize in ways that they never have before.
Commentary surrounding the Summit for Democracy and the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection provide exhaustive diagnoses of the problems facing the US and its democratic allies. Some proposed concrete solutions, including crafting country-specific agendas, pursuing electoral reform and establishing a formal global democracy alliance. Yet, many recommendations targeted governments and political party infrastructure and offered less detail for how civil society can organize for democracy globally and here at home in the United States. With so much at stake, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.
A sustainable movement for democracy needs a global coalition of activists, peacebuilders, organizers, academics, and community leaders to create pressure for local, national, and global reforms that translate into meaningful action at the community level. It requires organizing within and outside of elections, cross-sector strategic and scenario planning and mobilizing people who represent diverse constituencies, ideologies, and geographies. This is a big ask, but we have seen this level of coordination (albeit imperfect) before for issues like racial justice, climate change, and, on a smaller scale, to protect the 2020 US election results. With renewed attention internationally and new investments domestically, previously siloed democracy champions have a new opportunity to come together, learn, and share experiences, and plan this global movement.
Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson is the Director for Partnerships and Outreach at The Horizons Project, a new initiative focused on strengthening relationships among social justice activists, peacebuilders, and democracy advocates working to advance a just, pluralistic democracy in the United States.
3. OVERCOMING CONGRESSIONAL OBSTRUCTION TO NATIONAL SECURITY APPOINTMENTS
While not as headline-grabbing as other issues, one trend that will have major foreign policy implications in 2022 is the Congress’s refusal to confirm necessary staffing to national security positions. The Partnership for Public Service found that just over half of key Senate-confirmed positions, 97 out of 173, were filled as of Dec. 31, 2021. In part, this is the fault of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who single-handedly held up a number of positions due to disagreements over the Biden administration’s waiver of NordStream 2 sanctions. While Senator Cruz and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were able to find an agreement to move forward with confirmations, it only takes one senator to keep these jobs vacant.
This slowdown in appointments creates a variety of problems that often lurk in the background of headlines. France recalled its ambassador to the US over the cancellation of a submarine contract related to AUKUS. How might have that situation been different if we had had an ambassador in Paris or an Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department? Potentially to avoid these issues, the president has grown the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) to approximately 350, but the impact of growing the NSC is unclear. America needs these key national security and foreign policy positions filled now.
4. MITIGATING THE IMPACT OF FOSSIL FUEL DEPENDENCE
The pain of global dependence on fossil fuels will increase, with many domestic fuel issues exacerbating social unrest and bubbling up to become international security issues and humanitarian crises. First, there is the post-COVID demand recovery outpacing supply, increasing fuel costs, and angering consumers. Second, there is the volatility of geopolitics mixed with fossil fuel dependence, resulting in some groups harnessing the demand for fuel to impose their will. Any combination of these two factors makes fuel shortages a potent weapon.
While fuel may not be the direct cause of some of these problems, the world may really start to feel the need for energy diversification this year.
Kazakhstan is a good example of what may be in store for 2022. What started as a protest over increased fuel prices grew into a humanitarian crisis stemming from a violent crackdown and internet blackout. Russian military involvement, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, unnerved the West as experts initially speculated whether Russia’s military would leave. There is also Yemen, where potential rebel control over the oil-rich city, Marib, could financially legitimate Houthi governance over the country. In Haiti, gangs cut off fuel supplies in October 2021 to provoke domestic chaos amidst the turmoil sparked by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. With the end of the assassinated president’s term nearing in February, some are concerned over the potential flash point this could create, forcing more refugees to the US border. If the gangs weaponized fuel once, they may do it again.
While fuel may not be the direct cause of some of these problems, the world may really start to feel the need for energy diversification this year.
April Arnold is a Senior Nonproliferation Adviser for Culmen International, where she advises the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence. She is currently pursuing her MA in Sustainable Energy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
5. REVIVING THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
After a full year of stop-and-go diplomacy, 2022 could finally be the year that the United States and Iran return to full compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA put into place the most stringent nonproliferation restrictions on a country in history until the Trump administration withdrew in 2018 and reopened the nuclear crisis with a failed “maximum pressure” policy. In response, Iran increased its nuclear leverage by reinstalling advanced centrifuges and stockpiling uranium up to 60% enriched. For a nuclear weapon, 90% enrichment is required, but under the deal, Iran can not surpass 3.67%.
In 2022, the reality that a diplomatic agreement is in the interest of the United States, Iran, and global security will not change. CIA Director Bill Burns has said there’s no evidence Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon while State Department spokesperson Ned Price has stated that Iran has made “modest progress” since the negotiations in late December 2021. We should, therefore, remain optimistic. Still, negotiators need to move faster as there are two looming hurdles ahead: Iran’s growing stockpile of highly enriched uranium and increasing technical knowledge, and the political chaos of midterm elections in the United States. Tehran is also demanding assurances that the US won’t withdraw, again, under a future president. Meanwhile, the Iranian people continue to suffer under corruption at home, economic sanctions from abroad, and an ongoing pandemic. A return to the JCPOA, or at least an interim deal to give diplomats breathing room, cannot come soon enough for all involved.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a Middle East Analyst and communications consultant.
6. REPEALING ANTIQUATED WAR AUTHORIZATIONS
In 2022, expect Congress to debate whether to reclaim its ever-eroding constitutional war powers and withdraw far-reaching authorizations for the use of military force. Soon after withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said, “for the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war.” However, the open-ended laws that authorized the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and the Iraq war remain on the books. Congress will likely consider whether to repeal standing authorizations for the use of military force this year. Recent revelations of widespread civilian casualties from airstrikes conducted under GWOT and Iraq war authorizations make Congress’s efforts to rein in executive uses of military force all the more important.
Last summer, Biden announced his support for a repeal of the 2002 Iraq war authorization. The House of Representatives then passed Representative Barbara Lee’s bill to repeal the Iraq war authorization. Schumer soon after promised a 2021 Senate vote on a bipartisan proposal to repeal two laws authorizing the Gulf War and Iraq War. The vote, however, was delayed amid negotiations around the year’s largest defense policy bill. If the Senate finally votes on the repeal, it will likely pass, teeing up a debate over the 2001 war on terror authorization. Congress may also try to update the War Powers Resolution, a Vietnam War-era law that governs when the president may conduct military operations and what the president must report to Congress.
John Ramming Chappell is a J.D. and M.S. in Foreign Service candidate focusing on human rights and national security law at Georgetown University.
7. FINDING A NEW APPROACH TO UNIDENTIFIED AERIAL PHENOMENA
Perhaps the most fascinating trend in national security in the last year was increasing executive and congressional interest in the topic of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Following the bombshell 2017 revelations in the New York Times that the Pentagon had concealed an ongoing UAP monitoring effort, public interest has grown regarding repeated incursions into protected US airspace. A June 2021 unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) investigated 144 incident reports from 2004 through 2021, and 18 reports included what ODNI termed “unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics” — including movement that defied physics and craft that operated without visible propulsion systems or emitted radio frequency energy. In addition, no evidence was found that any of the investigated cases could be attributed to a foreign adversary. As such, the report concluded that “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to US national security.”
When asked about the report, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently remarked that the obvious question remains, “…is there something else that we simply do not understand, that might come extraterrestrially?” Haines’ remarks seem to reflect a growing tone shift within the US government at both the executive and congressional levels. The Rubio-Gillibrand-Gallego UAP Amendment included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the first publicly acknowledged UAP office since the 1969 termination of the US Air Force’s controversial Project Blue Book.
While Air Force Regulation 200-2 prohibited the public release of UAP incident reports without a conventional explanation, the new UAP office will provide annual unclassified briefings and biannual classified briefings to Congress. Regardless of the explanation(s) behind these phenomena, the UAP issue represents an ongoing threat to US territorial sovereignty that must not be silenced due to the decades-old stigma attached to the topic.
Katie Howland, MPH, is an award-winning humanitarian with experience managing programs related to genocide response, literacy, and global health across the Middle East and Africa. She has been recognized as a 2021 National Security Out Leader, 2020 Aerie Changemaker, and a 2019 Nonprofit Visionary of the Year finalist by San Diego Magazine.