President Joe Biden’s address to G-7 leaders at the virtual Munich Security Conference last month made it clear there has been a fundamental change in American policy, and that now the U.S. “will work closely with our European Union partners and the capitals across the continent — from Rome to Riga — to meet the range of shared challenges we face.”
The address prompted an exuberant Boris Johnson to tweet: “America is unreservedly back as the leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing.” We agree with the British prime minister that U.S. leadership is indispensable when it comes to advancing liberal democracy in the 21st century, just as it was in the 20th century.
With the growing power of dictators and authoritarians in countries like China, Russia, North Korea, Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Venezuela, and the rise of “illiberal democracy” in European countries such as Hungary and Poland, U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever. As Biden said in his address, the U.S. will once again be “pushing back against those who would monopolize and normalize repression.”
First and foremost, the U.S. can do this by maintaining the world’s most advanced fighting forces, keeping them deployed where needed, and making sure friend and foe alike — from Europe to the Middle East, Africa to Asia — know we will honor our alliances and partnerships, no matter the cost.
When it comes to so-called soft power, we support the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the World Health Organization and once again seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This will better position the U.S. to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, earn international goodwill while reinforcing the tenets of liberal democracy, and counter the illiberal narratives of countries like China, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela, all of which are current UNHRC members with a long track record of egregious human rights violations.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the U.S. would rejoin the UNHRC, he said the administration recognizes that the council “is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it.” The best way to improve the council, he continued, “is through robust and principled U.S. leadership.”
That’s a good sign, but the proof here will come in the details. We will soon know whether the Biden administration is willing to make tough choices and take hard — even unpopular — stands in defense of basic principles and sound policies.
An early test may come in prioritizing the release of unlawfully or wrongfully detained Americans abroad. And here, the Biden administration should build on the work of the Trump administration. In former President Donald Trump’s four years in office, more than 50 U.S. citizens were released from 22 countries.
The Biden administration has pledged to continue those efforts while improving transparency and better communicating with the families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. In acknowledgment of the prior administration’s successes, Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, was asked to stay on.
According to the Foley Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the freedom of Americans wrongfully detained abroad, there are currently 45 “publicly” known hostage or detainee cases in 11 countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
The Foley Foundation was founded in 2014 to honor the legacy of James Foley, an American journalist taken hostage in Syria in 2012 and executed by Islamic State terrorists 21 months later. His mother, Diane Foley, created the foundation to raise awareness and lobby the government to rethink its hostage-rescue protocols.
“There was no structure or no accountability to bring Americans home at that point,” Foley told The Associated Press in 2019, “and how I wished our government had been honest with me that they really didn’t know how, if possible, they could bring him home.”
According to the Foley Foundation, the actual number of Americans wrongfully detained is likely in the hundreds, since many families choose not to make their cases public in the hope that discretion will aid negotiations.
One of Blinken’s first duties as secretary of state was hosting a videoconference call with the families of Americans wrongfully detained. In that 90-minute call, according to Foley, Blinken “promised to make the return of our hostages a priority and (said) that he cared very deeply and this would be at the top of the list of his interactions with countries or groups holding our citizens.”
That’s good news for Americans held abroad, as is the recent statement by national security adviser Jake Sullivan that the continued wrongful detention of American citizens is a “humanitarian catastrophe.” On Feb. 15, the Biden administration endorsed, along with 57 other nations and the European Union, a Canadian initiative called the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, denouncing the practice of states arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals for the purpose of political leverage.
As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told us recently, Canada initiated the declaration after China unlawfully detained Michael Spavor, a Canadian businessman, and Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat, to use as leverage to force the release of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is under house arrest in Vancouver and facing charges of bank fraud in the U.S.
“Iran often plays a similar, despicable game,” said Roth. “And there have been other examples such as North Korea.” What’s needed, he continued, is “a principled commitment to fighting all forms of arbitrary detention, including by allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.”
If that seems a tad idealistic, it also would be a positive step away from transactional foreign policies that undercut our credibility and, in the long run, make it harder to counteract the spread of tyranny abroad. Working to end unlawful detention would promote freedom and the rule of law around the globe and thereby serve American interests while also living up to our founding principles.