After four years of “America First” ultranationalism and xenophobia, ActionAid USA is excited to work with a new administration that cares about constructive engagement with the rest of the world. However, we also recognize that our country’s relationship with the rest of the world has always been fraught, well before Donald Trump brought white nationalism directly into the White House.
The myths we tell ourselves about how the United States is perceived around the world are steeped in the glory of being the “good guy” that saves the world for democracy. Often though, the United States is seen as a bully, an imperial power that uses nice words about democracy and human rights but that always uses its economic and political might to further its own interests, often at the expense of everyone else’s. To quote a local organizer, “This may be the last day of Trump in office, but it’s surely not the last day of US imperialism.”
But there are concrete actions the Biden administration can take to turn the page towards a more just United States, including with respect to our place in the world. Here are just a few:
1. Comprehensive COVID relief and global solidarity
The new administration’s top priority, rightfully, is addressing the pandemic that the Trump administration so badly mishandled, to the tune of an astounding 400,000 dead and rising. A comprehensive national plan, including economic relief for struggling families, is desperately needed. In addition to turning the tide on COVID at home, the Biden administration must consider the impacts of COVID on the world’s most vulnerable countries and communities as well. Already there are rampant stories about rich countries hogging the world’s vaccine supply. ActionAid’s own research has shown that COVID has exacerbated food security and gender-based violence crises in developing countries, while institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have exploited these crises to impose further economic austerity programs on these countries.
The United States government, under a new administration, must use the vast resources available to it to mobilize relief for everyday people here at home, and to provide badly needed support for poorer countries struggling with a pandemic that has compounded existing crises of debt, austerity, climate change and more.
2. Democracy reform at home
The United States loves to tout “democracy” as a reason to intervene in other countries, ironically often at the expense of democratically elected governments that happen to be antithetical to some perceived U.S. national interests (usually the interests of elites and wealthy corporate actors). The rise of an anti-democratic, neo-fascist movement right here at home, as tragically revealed to the world during the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6, makes this even more transparently farcical.
The administration, alongside Congress, should immediately implement reforms to our democratic process to ensure that our democracy is truly inclusive, with every voice counting as much as every other. That means everything from reversing racially-loaded voter suppression trends to passing DC statehood so that everyone in the country has representation in Congress. This kind of democracy reform is essential to ensuring that our government serves the will of the people and upholds a social contract in which the rights of everyone are protected.
3. A genuine agenda for global climate justice
As we have written, rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change is only the beginning. The global community has no reason to take the United States seriously when it comes to climate change. We have watered down two separate global agreements on climate action and then either refused to join them (the Kyoto Protocol) or withdrew from them (the Paris Agreement). All the while we have utterly failed to meaningfully reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, putting the world even deeper into a hole that will now be extraordinarily challenging to get out of.
Given this history, the only way we can show that we’re serious about tackling the climate crisis in cooperation with the rest of the world is to do our fair share. That means urgent emissions cuts here at home and a huge increase in the amount of international support we provide to poorer countries. For years on climate, the United States has talked a huge talk without walking any kind of walk. That must change immediately, and while Congress needs to play a role, Biden (and John Kerry) can easily make a first step beyond simply rejoining the Paris Agreement. A significant new commitment to the Green Climate Fund, and a process for developing a new, much more ambitious emissions reduction target in line with our fair share, would be a good start.
4. Rejecting corporate agriculture and turning to agroecology
Our current food system is built to benefit the interests of big agribusiness corporations, not farmers, eaters or the planet. In the United States, rural communities are disappearing as family farms are swallowed by agribusiness, farmworkers continue to be exploited, and indigenous communities and people of color struggle to access and hold onto land as the wealthy hoard farmland as a speculative investment. Abroad, food crises are being exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, while smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, struggle to make a sustainable living. Meanwhile, the industrial agriculture model is a massive source of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.
Small farmers have long had the solution: agroecology. Agroecology is a science, practice, and movement that grounds food systems in ecological principles and social and political equity. Significant investment into agroecological approaches, backed up by an agenda centered on the human right to food, will directly benefit farming communities and improve food security outcomes, while also making agriculture part of the solution to climate change rather than part of the problem. At home, the United States has never taken agroecology seriously; in international spaces, the US government has actively undermined efforts to develop agroecological agendas.
The Biden administration’s pick of Tom Vilsack is not a good sign for long-overdue reforms of the food system. Vilsack must be open to the kinds of policy changes he has been opposed to in the past. Meanwhile, the Biden team can make progress in the international space by appointing a progressive successor to Kip Tom, the Trump administration’s ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome. Tom was a self-interested critic of agroecology, a shameless booster for Big Ag corporations like Monsanto, and a constant obstacle to countries and civil society organizations seeking to make progress in venues like the UN Committee on World Food Security. The new Ambassador must affirm that the human right to food is essential, support the centrality of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in the food domain, and ensure a constructive and inclusive approach to the upcoming CFS negotiation on agroecology.
5. Supporting land rights defenders around the world
Supporting community land rights is key to protecting human rights for all and for protecting invaluable ecosystems that help keep our environment and climate stable. Land rights for marginalized communities and Indigenous peoples around the world, including the United States, are constantly threatened by corporate actors, ranging from Big Agribusiness, biofuels and bioenergy interests to buttoned-up financial advisors who see farmland as the next big asset class.
The Biden administration must throw its weight behind policies that prioritize human rights – by strengthening indigenous and community land rights and stopping the takeover of land by corporations. That can and should include support for fair land tenure regulations that provide secure land rights for women and families, a moratorium on farmland speculation, direct support for land and human rights defenders who are being targeted by paramilitary or government forces for their work, protection for people forced to migrate because of loss of land or livelihood, and more.