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Making America Normal Again?

Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

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The recent U.S. election has been one of the tensest and most unpredictable in American history. Suffice it to say that, for the first time since 1920, the race for the Oval Office took place with a global pandemic as its backdrop. Back then, the Spanish flu took the lives of over 600,000 Americans, and this played an important role in Republican Warren Harding defeating Democrat James Cox. The GOP boosted its ratings by criticising the passive stance taken by the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the entire democratic elite, who had failed to make the promised progress in reforming the healthcare system. This year, during the Republic Administration’s tenure, 238,000 Americans had already died from COVID-19, which is the world’s highest number of deaths in absolute figures. This situation by default provided the Democrats with ammunition for their guns as they built their strategy on the Republican leadership having ignored problems in healthcare for four years and having developed no clear plan of action for emerging from the crisis. Over the last year, the number of Americans displeased with the measures the White House used to combat the pandemic has grown exponentially. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign only had to construct the technical part of their broad anti-Trump propaganda shrewdly.

Another distinctive feature of this race is its racial backdrop. Two major waves of discontent had swept across the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidency. The first included fighting against the remaining Confederate monuments and flags. Unbridled though it was, it was mostly localised in Southern states, with a high percentage of the Black population. Protesters attempted to put forward demands, but the President responded rather harshly: he called on the protesters to respect the symbols of American history and not to politicise them. After that, the public and human rights organisations secured the support of the biggest media and launched a broad campaign painting the President and his administration as crypto-racists and white supremacists. The second wave took place after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer pressing a knee on his neck during his arrest. A wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass rallies swept across the U.S., accompanied by pogroms carried out by African Americans and radical left-wing activists. Democrats had great experience of using such a situation in their favour (John Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964), and they immediately seized this highly valuable electoral agenda. Donald Trump’s only response was statistics showing that his presidency marked the lowest growth rate of Black unemployment. Yet all the pragmatic figures were predictably drowned in well-organised propaganda campaigns.

Clearly seeing their inevitable defeat in COVID-19 and racial unrest cases, Republicans attempted to find some damaging information about Joe Biden in the Ukrainian case. The attempts themselves and the hullaballoo surrounding them did, for a while, slow down the growing popularity of the former vice president, who was alleged to have used his position to lobby his family’s business interests on the Ukrainian market. The famous “Burisma case” did not, however, produce the expected results. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s pushy manner turned against him. After dismissed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified in Congress, the President was forced to cease his attacks and go on the defensive. To be fair, we should say that the Democrats’ elite launched the anti-Trump campaign on the first day of his presidency. The unique feature of the state systems devised by the founding fathers is that the presidential race is not a race between two persons but between elite systems proposing a particular philosophy for the future and appropriate mechanisms for putting it into practice. Groups and clans who used to be rivals now united to suppress the Trump-led Jacksonian revolt, and they poured huge financial, human, technological and media resources into achieving their goal.

Technically, Joe Biden has secured the requisite number of electors to become the 46th leader of the U.S. and the second (after Kennedy) Catholic president. Even so, Donald Trump’s campaign is insisting on recounts in several states where the incumbent claims elections might have been rigged. The Republican’s behaviour shows that he is unwilling to concede defeat and do down without a fight. This situation is creating additional tensions and deepening the rift in the country. Consequently, we cannot rule out both candidates’ supporters holding more rallies throughout the country and new confrontation lines emerging. The future course of events will largely depend on the Republicans’ regional leadership and their leadership in Congress. Their united front in support of Trump will mean they are ready to stand to the bitter end even if this means a second civil war. This scenario is only possible if the Supreme Court agrees to consider the possibility of vote-rigging and makes the decision to recount votes. Otherwise, the incumbent will eventually have to acknowledge defeat and transfer power peacefully. During his tenure, however, Donald Trump managed to provoke the dislike of many influential fellow Republicans, which makes the Republican elite less willing to undertake such grave risks for his second term in office.

Be it as it may, Joe Biden has essentially been elected, and the main question now is his policies for the next four years. He hails from one of America’s oldest political clans: one of his paternal ancestors was William Biden, among the richest capitalists in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware; on his maternal side, he comes from the once politically influential Blewitt family, who had for a long time been the backbone of Pennsylvania’s political and financial elite. Joe Biden’s great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, is believed to have been the founder of the Irish Catholic lobby and a key figure in the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, who assisted Irish immigrants and strove to have their representatives in all important public and political areas. With time, the organisation became an important mechanism for balancing the excessively powerful Celtic Protestant groups (Ulster Scots, Scotch-Irish), and the Bidens and the Blewitts played an important part in that respect. Throughout his career, Joe Biden had close ties with the U.S. Irish Catholic elites and enjoyed their support, particularly that of the Kennedys and the Fitzsimmonses. So it is unsurprising that, when he left the office of the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008, he handed on the vacant post to his closest comrade-in-arms, the Irish Catholic John Kerry; during Barack Obama’s second term, Joe Biden lobbied Kerry’s move to the office of State Secretary.

Personnel decisions Joe Biden made in the Senate and in the Obama Administration show that the notional Irish factor will become a principal element in forming the future cabinet. In domestic politics, the new President will face several fundamental difficulties. Even though the Democrats have retained their majority in the House of Representatives, the party rift will become more obvious under the new administration since, over the last four years, the Democrats’ iron party discipline and their unity stemmed from their mission to prevent Trump from being re-elected. This goal has been achieved. Now individual special interest groups (ranging from neo-socialists to moderates) will fight tooth and nail to advance their own agenda and initiatives on the most topical issues, the most pressing being combating the coronavirus pandemic (a reason to reform the healthcare system). Joe Biden’s principal trump card is his extensive experience in working within the legislation as a senator and with the legislation as vice president. Additionally, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker (an Italian Catholic) will also directly lobby Biden’s line on Capitol Hill; over the last two years, Pelosi has become quite influential among various narrowly partisan groups.

Another problem is the difficulty of completely rolling back all of Trump’s economic policies and those initiatives that are already being actively implemented throughout the country. Of course, as far as rhetoric is concerned, he will stress the importance of boosting social programmes by raising taxes and cutting military spending and by going back to the globalist model, which entails re-launching talks on Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic projects. During a first term, however, being an experienced politician well-versed in the rules of the game, the new president is unlikely to become locked in open conflict with the military-industrial lobby, the energy sector, the intelligence, and particularly with farmers and industrialists. The last two categories are the backbone of the Republic and Trumpian electorate for whom Joe Biden should become one of their own, otherwise overcoming the painful rift will be virtually impossible. Unlike the inexperienced Donald Trump, Biden knows that a re-election campaign begins the day after the election and it depends for its success on the ability to build the correct balance of power between all actors in social and public life: from public workers to billionaires. So, in 2020–2024, Biden should not be expected to take any radical economic steps. On the contrary, he is likely to keep in place many of the protectionist measures instituted by his predecessor.

Many American analysts predict that Joe Biden’s foreign policy will continue Barack Obama’s neo-Wilsonian line. This forecast, however, is hard to agree with. In his first four years, Obama largely relied on his State Secretary Hillary Clinton, who, through internal struggle, succeeded in dampening the influence of neoconservatives such as Robert Gates (Defense Secretary until 2011) and Leon Panetta (CIA director until 2011 and Defense Secretary until 2013). Even so, many of her initiatives failed and the Libyan Benghazi fiasco seriously hurt her influence among her fellow party members, forcing Barack Obama to distance himself from Hillary Clinton. At that time, the experienced Joe Biden preferred to hover on the sidelines and influence the President through National Security Advisors James L. Jones Jr. (2009–2010) and Thomas Donilon (2010–2013), whose appointments he had lobbied. He also used his influence with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by his long-time protégé John Kerry. This leverage was very important, given that all appointments from top positions to ambassadors go through this committee. During Barack Obama’s second term, Biden solidified his standing: he promoted John Kerry (Irish Catholic) to the office of State Secretary, Chuck Hagel (an Irish Catholic who later converted to Protestantism) to the office of Defense Secretary, and Denis McDonough (Irish Catholic) to the office of the White House Chief of Staff.

Throughout his prosperous career, Joe Biden has never displayed an overly ideological approach to foreign policy. On the contrary, he might be called a classical realist who has always had a nose for topical trends and has endeavoured to minimise his involvement in undertakings that were obviously doomed to fail. Given his cautious attitude to war as a means for achieving external goals, he will primarily stress the philosophy of soft power and collective responsibility (via allies in Europe and Asia, too). Once again, no radical changes should be expected: the trade war with China is hard to stop quickly and painlessly and regaining control over Venezuela is equally difficult (yet support for the opposition will continue). Democrats and Joe Biden consistently accused Trump of liking Russia and of having ties with President Vladimir Putin. Consequently, Biden has, by default, to step up the anti-Russian policies (increased sanctions). Clearly, in some cases, including the Ukrainian one (which Biden supervised under Obama), Russia and the U.S. have certain red lines that, in themselves, are likely to keep the parties from arriving at fundamental agreements. The U.S. Administration’s stance on Russia’s domestic developments and on Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space has always been an important indicator for the Kremlin. Open support for non-mainstream opposition forces and complete disregard for Moscow’s opinion on, for instance, the Ukrainian question, were the principal causes of the acute cooling-off in the bilateral relations.

In the near future, the Belarus matter, to which Russia is highly sensitive, and the Nord Stream II problem may become the most urgent issues. Joe Biden has dwelled much on these subjects and frequently stated that Lukashenko’s rule and Europe’s remaining energy dependence on Moscow are inadmissible. Being, however, a pragmatic Democrat, he will do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. For instance, in the Obama Administration, Biden opposed selling lethal weapons to Ukraine, and they were provided during Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Joe Biden was always rather critical toward Kyiv and he repeatedly noted the Ukrainian authorities’ inability to succeed in fighting corruption and democratising their country. The scenarios involving the parties going back to the problem of dismantling the fundamental treaty framework that both played an important role in bilateral relations and served as a global security foundation (the INF Treaty, nuclear arsenal reduction, etc.) are quite possible. At the same time, as regards Joe Biden and his future Administration’s potential approaches, it is important to remember that a determinedly harsh policy toward Russia is based on a bipartisan consensus. Congress has always approved sanctions and other anti-Moscow measures virtually unanimously, which is very rare for them.

As for the Middle East, Joe Biden, as one of those who had lobbied the Iranian deal, will attempt to revive it. If Democrats succeed in January in taking the Senate away from Republicans, there is every chance of rapid developments in that area. Much will depend on Tehran itself being willing to resume the dialogue. Pro-Israeli lobbyists will have little influence on the White House, but Biden is unlikely to abolish Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. At the same time, Israel should be getting ready for the new administration to put major pressure on it regarding the West Bank settlements. Some changes will certainly be seen in U.S. relations with the Gulf monarchies and with Turkey: the White House will certainly demand results in protecting human rights and it will also create new mechanisms for limiting the influence their lobbyists have in Washington. The Turkish opposition has been greatly inspired by Donald Trump’s defeat and has even congratulated Biden on his victory, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted wait-and-see tactics. The Turkish leader realises that Biden will certainly want to use the Fethullah Gülen (Erdogan’s principal opponent currently residing in the U.S.) factor and the mounting discontent with the current regime in Turkey itself to put pressure on Ankara on several strategic issues, including the purchase of Russian S-400s.

***

In general, Joe Biden’s victory should not be seen as a precursor of inevitable radical changes in domestic and foreign policy. The new President and his Administration will have to devote a significant chunk of their time to searching for formulae that would enable them to overcome the deep rift in American society. The record voter turnout also evidences a highly politicised nation, which is a marker of deep-running systemic problems. As a rule, heightened expectations do not materialise (as Barack Obama’s story clearly demonstrates), while many problems remain unresolved. The dilapidation of today’s political system (particularly the party system) is so obvious that no president, no administration will be able to introduce fundamental changes without revamping the system first. Only time will tell whether Joe Biden sets himself the task of going down in American history as a president who launched an in-depth transformation or whether he will become another top manager for the executive branch mired in the Washington swamp. One thing is certain: this election showed how serious and dangerous the crisis of state and national identity in the U.S. is.

From our partner RIAC

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America

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Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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