The West Needs Champions

People visit the Nokia stand at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Feb. 26, 2019. Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Davos Man is dying. No longer is the globalized economy based on the fierce but mostly fair competition between firms from all over the world. Instead, many governments openly do their firms’ bidding at the expense of Western competitors. Western governments, though, cling to their belief in the old ways and are hurting their own companies as a result. As they look for ways to begin digging out of the pandemic’s economic collapse, Western governments and their allies should collectively protect their top-performing businesses against Chinese rivals who don’t play fair. Otherwise, it is precisely their top performers they risk losing.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a remarkable thing. Thanks to it, a lowly Finnish paper mill named Nokia, founded in 1865, grew into a large paper and pulp company, and then turned to rubber boots, tires, and televisions before becoming a globally leading manufacturer of cell phones and mobile telephony infrastructure. Nearby, in Sweden in the 1880s, two young engineers started a repair shop for telegraphic equipment. Their firm, named Ericsson after one of its founders, subsequently began making telephones before turning, in recent decades, to cell phones and then mobile telephony infrastructure.

These two Nordic companies are now the world’s second and third largest providers of 5G technology, with a 15 and 14 percent share of the market, respectively. They’re beaten only by China’s Huawei at 30 percent. China’s ZTE comes fourth at 11 percent; then there’s a gap until Cisco at 6 percent, Ciena (another U.S. firm) at 3 percent, and Samsung of South Korea at 2 percent. Absent of Nokia and Ericsson, Western countries would hardly be in a position to turn Huawei away, regardless of how much they feared the national security risks of allowing China deep access into their communications infrastructures.

But here’s the thing: Huawei only claims the top spot in the market thanks to its privileged treatment in China. Between 1998 and 2018, Beijing spent an estimated $75 billion aiding Huawei on its climb (assistance that helped the firm undercut rivals’ prices by around 30 percent). Western governments did nothing to help their firms fight off the unfair competition. Canada’s Nortel Networks went under but not before having been subjected to Chinese IP address theft. The Swedish and Finnish governments believed so much in globalization that they left Ericsson and Nokia to battle with Beijing and Huawei on their own. Swedish mobile operator formerly named Teliasonera even gave Huawei its international break when, in 2009, it selected Huawei for its pioneering 4G network in Oslo.

In a Davos Man world, that’s fine: Companies are supposed to fight and win (or fail) on their own merits. But as Beijing’s support of Huawei—which also included bullying countries on its behalf—demonstrates, that world is gone.

Western capitals could have awakened to the new world and decide to stand up for their own champions. Instead, they did the opposite. In the case of 5G, support for Ericsson or Nokia has not been forthcoming from Western governments now benefitting from the fact that there are still credible alternatives to Huawei. On the contrary, in February, the German government announced it will spend $2.4 billion on funding alternatives to Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia. Most of the money will be spent on firms working in the so-called Open RAN (or Radio Access Network) area, where 5G technology is supplied in pieces rather than one big package. The United Kingdom’s government, in turn, wants to create a “5G club of democracies” whose governments will invest in 5G alternatives.

Superficially, the two governments’ decisions make sense; they want to create a multitude of options that can compete with Huawei should Ericsson and Nokia get overwhelmed while also promoting a route toward creating government-owned 5G makers. The message they’re sending though is Western businesses that are currently on the front lines are on their own. Today, it’s Ericsson and Nokia. Tomorrow, it might be Airbus and Boeing, which are the only two viable Western alternatives to China’s new aircraft manufacturer Comac (which has, aided by the Chinese government, stolen considerable amounts of IP from Airbus and Boeing).

There’s also the problem that governments trying to spawn companies rarely succeed. And in the early 1990s, public unhappiness with government ownership caused scores of European governments to privatize.

But the West has plenty of firms that are already performing well, and Western governments should at least start standing up for them. All of these firms compete on the global market against Chinese rivals with unfair advantages. They should be treated as what one might call Western champions. Ferrari, AstraZeneca, Siemens, Saab, General Motors: there’s a long list of Western companies that face competitors bent on stealing their IP while enjoying high subsidies. Within the Western alliance, these businesses should, of course, compete fiercely against one another. But in the face of distorted Chinese competition, they should get more support.

Selecting Western champions wouldn’t even need to be a formal process—and if it were, it would run afoul of the World Trade Organization. It could simply be an agreement to publicly support providers of critical goods and services. And every Western country has at least one enterprise that’s competing against an unfairly supported Chinese rival. By banding together to protect them, they can fight off a collective challenge together.

If they don’t, those firms might simply decamp for China or switch to a different sector. Because nobody backed the West’s solar panel makers even as Chinese rivals unfairly undercut them, today most of them no longer exist, leaving the West dependent on photovoltaic cells made in Xinjiang. European stainless steel firms, makers of a distinctly unglamorous product that is vital to goods from surgical instruments to aircraft manufacturing, have had to contend with so much crooked competition from Chinese firms that it would be no surprise if they decided to switch to another sector and leave stainless steel to China.

Protecting national champions need not lead to the creation of a new military-industrial complex, against which U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned. Yet the world has radically changed since Eisenhower’s time. Today, distorted globalization presents such a fundamental threat to Western prosperity that a loose government embrace of vital Western enterprises in response to Beijing’s full-blown support for Chinese firms may well be inevitable. Keep the invisible hand alive among the group of countries that operate fairly. Against other rivals, tilt the scales back.

It’s been no bed of roses, but “I ain’t gonna lose,” as Freddie Mercury sang in “We Are the Champions.” Surely, this should be the West’s globalization anthem.

To Get to the Negotiating Table, India and Pakistan Had Help

A Pakistani girl holds a candle during a vigil for peace in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 3, 2019. Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 25, senior Indian and Pakistani military officials issued a simultaneous statement after a scheduled weekly telephone call. In it, they declared that both the sides would adhere to “all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors.”

Since 2018, the Line of Control, the heavily militarized 450-mile-long border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan since a United Nations-mandated cease-fire between the two countries in 1949, has thousands of violations. That’s despite a cease-fire agreed on by the two sides in 2003. Although the news about the cease-fire grabbed headlines, the more significant bit of the statement was that the two countries “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.

By agreeing to address each other’s core issues—for Pakistan, Kashmir; and for India, Pakistan-backed terrorism—the statement clearly indicates that the cease-fire is meant as the first step in a longer peace process. The announcement could not have emerged without weeks of back channel diplomatic work by the two governments, including the buy-in of the top political leaderships of both countries and of Pakistan’s powerful military leadership.

The question is: why now? Last month, New Delhi also announced a disengagement on its northern borders with China, ratcheting down a tense nine-month-long military standoff in the Himalayas. Within two weeks, in other words, both of India’s restive borders have become calmer.

Although the two announcements seem disconnected, India’s chastening experience along the border with China—where its military had to scurry and scrap for resources against a more powerful adversary—was one of the drivers for its move with Pakistan. U.S. President Joe Biden winning the November 2020 presidential election likely played a role as well, given expectations that he will lead a more consistent and coherent strategy in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific than the Trump administration. Finally, there may have been a third country with friendly ties to both India and Pakistan, pressing the two nuclear-armed neighbors for a deal.

The welcomed announcement of a cease-fire will prevent the further futile loss of lives of soldiers and residents due to firing and shelling on the Line of Control. On a deeper level, it also holds a promise for normalcy in India-Pakistan ties. But historical animosity, irreconcilable negotiating positions, and abiding mistrust leaves a process beset with risks. Talks can be derailed as much by a lone suicide bomber in Kashmir as by the powerful “deep state” in Pakistan or by the strident anti-Pakistan Hindu majoritarian electoral agenda of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These risks can be controlled and minimized if current engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad is supported by other countries that have a stake in ensuring peace in the region.


As early as 2009, the Indian political leadership formally asked its military to be prepared for a two-front threat from China and Pakistan, but the government seemed to operate on the unstated assumption that it could deal with Beijing through a combination of political, diplomatic, and economic engagement. The 2020 border crisis, where New Delhi was forced to scramble its soldiers, tanks, and guns to tackle multiple Chinese incursions into Indian territory in Ladakh, drove home the need for more military resources to deal with a belligerent Beijing. Soon, India made emergency purchases of ammunition and stores, and it reoriented some of its strike military elements from the border with Pakistan to the border with China.

The adjustments made evident that the Indian economy, just coming out of a recession following three years of pre-pandemic decline, cannot fund the military to fight a war on two fronts. Even worse, with no change in Pakistan’s policies toward supporting armed militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir, it became clear that India’s 2016-2017 military strikes inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir and 2019 airstrikes on Balakot in Pakistan had failed to deter Islamabad or alter its approach. Yet with China assessed to be the bigger strategic challenge, Modi’s government was left with no option but to strike a deal with Pakistan to cool down at least one front. New Delhi must also have noted that the Pakistan Army held back during the Sino-India border crisis, not using it as an opportunity to threaten India—a fact, Indian generals even publicly acknowledged.

Given Pakistan’s close relationship with China, any deal with Pakistan would have no meaning unless China was on board. In turn, it has been speculated that India may have effectively signed a composite deal for both borders, where Chinese disengagement in Ladakh was contingent on an India-Pakistan peace deal. Even if that isn’t the case, China’s incursions on India’s northern borders provided a strategic reality check to New Delhi, adding incentive for a chastened Indian government to deal with Pakistan.

In interviews in early March, senior government officials on both sides confirmed that the first moves toward the latest India-Pakistan deal were made around October 2020. They gained momentum after Biden’s election for several reasons.

First, unlike former U.S. President Donald Trump’s in-your-face, anti-China rhetoric, the Biden administration was expected to be more nuanced, leaving New Delhi unsure of unstinting U.S. support against Beijing. Second, Biden may want to focus on an orderly military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is not possible without Pakistan’s support. If he does, he may have to put pressure on New Delhi to mend its ties with Islamabad so as to get to a workable resolution in Afghanistan. Third, Modi had also cast his lot with Trump, organizing two well-attended public rallies in Houston and Ahmedabad, India, where he shouted thinly veiled slogans for Trump’s reelection. Between that and the Biden campaign’s stance on Modi’s harsh policies in Kashmir, his new religion-based citizenship law, and other authoritarian moves, it has been unclear how much personal geniality the new U.S. president would share with India’s prime minister. Indian fears may have been confirmed on March 3, when a U.S. state department spokesperson said, “what we have done is we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and … other issues of concern. Of course, we’ve continued to call for a reduction of tensions along the Line of Control, returning to that 2003 ceasefire.”

On the other side of the border, Pakistan also seems to have been undergoing reconsiderations, claiming to have “shifted its geopolitical priorities into geoeconomic priorities.” The $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, is envisaged as the linchpin of that shift. It has emanated from global pushback against Pakistan’s hard security moves for its support of nonstate violent actors in Afghanistan and against India, which has resulted in sanctions from the Financial Action Task Force and the suspension or reduction of U.S. aid. The shift, which includes seeking a detente with India, is forced by Pakistan’s domestic compulsions of sustained economic growth for greater development and providing employment to its burgeoning young population.

Finally, senior government officials on both sides confirmed that an unlikely third country, the United Arab Emirates, played an important role in bringing the two countries together once discussions started in October 2020. It was one of the few countries in the world to issue a statement welcoming the cease-fire announcement, where it highlighted the “close historical ties” it has with both India and Pakistan, which did not go unnoticed.

The UAE may seem like an unlikely candidate to play mediator between India and Pakistan, but it has had historically close ties with Pakistan. And India and the United Arab Emirates have become closer in the last few years, as evidenced by a recent report by a U.N. working group on arbitrary detention. The report noted that Modi’s government had conducted a “de facto swap” of wanted persons by seizing the daughter of the UAE prime minister off the Indian coast in exchange for extraditing a British arms dealer, Christian Michel, to the UAE. India and Pakistan provide the bulk of the UAE’s working population, which is an important source of remittance earnings for these two countries. Islamabad has historically had strong security and political ties with the UAE while New Delhi has forged closer ties in trade and counterterrorism intelligence sharing in recent years. The UAE also sees itself as an important geopolitical player, eclipsing the role played by the Saudis in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and seems to have taken this role in the peace process as an assertion of its status.


Any move that has a chance of bringing peace and normalcy to two countries who have fought many wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947 has to be welcomed.

This is, however, not the first time these two countries have stirred hopes of peace and normalcy. But their negotiating positions, particularly on Kashmir, have always been irreconcilable. Historical and emotional narratives are too deeply embedded in public consciousness to be overturned quickly. On the Indian side, the sustained effort required to build a pro-Pakistan narrative may be an even bigger challenge for a leader like Modi, who has contested even state-level elections on an anti-Pakistan and implicitly anti-Muslim platform. For Modi, it would be difficult to execute a sudden U-turn in his politics, especially devoid of any positive electoral agenda.

Meanwhile, Modi’s quick military retaliation after terror strikes linked to Pakistan, conducted twice since he became the prime minister seven years ago, have created a precedent that’s raised the bar for the response to any future terror attack. A lone wolf, young Kashmiri suicide bomber, with some links to Pakistan, could derail the whole process. A Hindu extremist group could create similar chaos to derail the peace process between the two countries, as was allegedly done in the Samjhauta Express train bombing of February 2007 when 68 people, including 43 Pakistan citizens, 10 Indian citizens, and 15 unidentified people, were killed in a blast on a train traveling from India to Pakistan.

On the Pakistani side, even though the Pakistan Army is clearly on board with the peace plan, similar thaws in the past have been undermined by the country’s “deep state.” For example, the country’s intelligence agencies and corps commanders may argue that Pakistan has conceded too much without gaining anything in return. The issue of Kashmir, which has been portrayed as essential to the idea of Pakistan since its creation in 1947, cannot be discarded so easily. Modi abrogated the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, bifurcating the would-be independent Kashmir and making it a federally controlled territory. Any Pakistani acceptance of the new status quo is bound to be seen as letting down the Kashmir cause. Unless there are major tangible gains in return, murmurs from security officials will become too loud to ignore.

Over the years, India and Pakistan have had numerous rounds of focused engagement, talks, summits, and photo opportunities, but none of it has led to a breakthrough. The structural reasons for earlier failures have not vanished, but geopolitical realties have. Given China’s rise, economic challenges, international pressure, and outside brokering, it is now up to India and Pakistan’s political leadership to decide whether this latest gambit ends up as a short-term palliative or the start of historical shifts in narrative and ideology.

Dozens Killed In Myanmar’s ‘Bloodiest Day’

A man lays flowers at the site of a makeshift memorial, where at least five people died from gunshot wounds the day before while attending a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon on March 4, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Violence against Myanmar’s protesters escalates, the ICC chief prosecutor plans to probe alleged war crimes committed in Palestinian territories, and OPEC+ meets to decide oil output. 

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Myanmar Violence Escalates in Bloodiest Day Yet

At least 38 people were killed in Myanmar on Wednesday as military forces dramatically escalated their use of violence against protesters. The overall death toll in the past month has now eclipsed the official toll of those who died in the country’s so-called Saffron Revolution, which lasted for three months in 2007 before a crackdown by the military, also known as the Tatmadaw.

Those killed on Wednesday include at least four children, according to a statement from Save the Children.

The speed with which the violence has increased over the past week is an indication that international efforts to deescalate tensions following the Feb. 1 military coup have been unsuccessful.

Tatmadaw defiant. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy on Myanmar, said the killings marked the “bloodiest day” since the coup. She also outlined how her conversation with Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win went when she warned that more sanctions could be coming for the country’s military leaders. “The answer was: ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived’,” she said. “When I also warned they will go in an isolation, the answer was: ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends.’”

Even those few friends—notably China, India, Japan, and Singapore—have so far proved unwilling, or simply unable, to convince the military to walk back its power grab.

Dark days ahead. While the bravery of the millions who have taken to the streets shows no sign of ebbing and the military show no appetite to back down, more bloody days must be expected. In the longer term, the options for the United States to exercise influence are limited, but not hopeless. As Foreign Policy columnist Stephen M. Walt explains, the Biden administration, along with its allies, could offer a balance to Myanmar’s increasing dependence on China, an issue that unnerves the junta, as an incentive for Myanmar’s military to alter its repressive course.


What We’re Following Today 

Israel condemns ICC investigation. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has announced plans to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Hamas in the Palestinian territories from June 2014 onwards. The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry referred to the move as a “long-awaited step,” while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin condemned it as “scandalous.”

In a statement referring to the Palestinian “situation,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken opposed the ICC decision and questioned its jurisdiction. Writing in Foreign Policy, Sari Bashi gives an overview of the “complicated” relationship the United States has always had with the ICC and calls for the lifting of Trump-era sanctions on its officials.

OPEC+ meets. OPEC+ member states meet today to decide on oil production levels for the coming months, as oil prices have recovered from the dramatic drops seen last year. With producers confident of a recovery in the global economy in the coming year, an increase in overall output is likely, Bloomberg reports, but the exact terms will be decided on today.

AfD under surveillance. Germany’s domestic intelligence service has placed the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) under surveillance over its links to extremism. It is the first time in the country’s postwar history that a democratically elected party has been targeted under laws in place to protect the German constitution. AfD leaders have accused the German state of acting “purely politically” with federal elections approaching in September.

Capitol police issue warning. The police force responsible for securing the U.S. Capitol has warned of a possible plot to storm government buildings today, citing recent intelligence it received. March 4 is a popular date among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory due to its connection to the supposed return of Donald Trump as president, although the Daily Beast reports that main influencers within the movement now dismiss the date’s significance.

The news came as the acting chief of U.S. Capitol Police asked for a 21 percent increase in the force’s budget to cover security upgrades. The U.S. Capitol complex remains ringed by high security fences, with 5,000 National Guard troops providing additional protection.


Keep an Eye On

Freedom’s decline. Less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in what Freedom House describes as “free” countries according to the think tank’s latest report, the lowest proportion since 1995. The drop was driven in part by the designation of India as only “partly free,” in response to the government’s increasingly anti-Muslim position and a crackdown on dissent. In the ranking of 151 countries, Freedom House found that roughly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country where rights and freedoms declined over the past year.

U.S. war powers. A bipartisan pair of U.S. Senators have introduced a bill to enhance the power of Congress to authorize military actions, following the Biden administration’s decision to bomb Iranian-linked targets in Syria last week. The bill would repeal two authorizations for the use of military force, in place since 1991 and 2002 respectively, that have been used by successive presidents as legal pretexts for military action in the region.

Israel’s oil spill. Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has blamed Iran for causing a major oil spill on Israel’s Mediterranean coastline last month, citing the findings of a two-week investigation into its cause. Gamliel said the spill was traced to a Libyan tanker that had recently stopped at an Iranian port. Haaretz reports that Israeli naval and intelligence officials expressed skepticism about Gamliel’s claims, which come three weeks before an election, and said they were not involved in the investigation.


Odds and Ends

Thailand’s navy saved four cats on Tuesday in a daring rescue mission after a sharp-eyed sailor spotted the felines on a sinking ship. The navy had previously evacuated the vessel’s human crew before noticing the cats huddled on a wooden beam while inspecting the ship for fuel leaks. A Thai sailor swam to the cats’ rescue, perching them on his shoulders while his team pulled him by a rope to safety. The cats are now in the care of their saviors at the navy command post on Koh Lipe island.


That’s it for today.

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Photo credit: Stringer/AFP

The Missing Realism of Biden’s Pro-LGBTQ Foreign Policy

People wave a rainbow flag as they celebrate the victory of Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in West Hollywood, California, on Nov. 7, 2020. DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

In nearly 70 countries, homosexuality is a criminal offense. In Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, the death penalty is among the punitive legal options for same-sex conduct. In five more countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates—there are conflicting legal arguments about potential penalties, but execution is on the table.

This is rightly considered a human rights dilemma across the West. In the United States, it is also now treated as a foreign-policy issue.

In 2019, U.S. foreign aid to the 11 nations listed above exceeded $7.4 billion with billions of dollars more authorized in arms sales. It may have been with that in mind that President Joe Biden issued a memorandum in February declaring LGBTQ rights a foreign-policy priority. In the memo, Biden directed “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights” of the LGBTQ community and to combat foreign governments’ criminalization of it. He also required U.S. agencies to consider the impact of programs on LGBTQ rights when making funding decisions, promised swift responses when rights abuses occur abroad, and ordered a 100-day review to rescind old policies inconsistent with the memo.

This is an impressive litany and consistent with Biden’s campaign promises. And the most direct path forward would be to work with Congress to begin conditioning some foreign assistance and arms sales on the decriminalization of the LGBTQ community around the world. But the administration is also in danger of overpromising. Delivering consistent and effective defenses of global LGBTQ rights is going to be tough—and, in some cases, impossible.

Anti-LGBTQ transgressions are, of course, only one expression of entire political systems devoted to wholesale violations of human rights. In China, millions of Uighurs languish in concentration camps. Iran regularly executes minors and imprisons dissidents, and Tehran-sponsored terrorists routinely attack civilian populations around the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned women protesting their right to drive and charged them with treason, even after the driving ban was lifted. The Kremlin has taken to trying to kill political opponents with internationally banned chemical weapons. It should be little surprise that the regimes that treat such crimes as a legitimate method of securing their domestic authority also include vulnerable LGBTQ individuals among their targets. Indeed, it may be impossible to fully guarantee their protection in any world where such regimes continue to exist.

That’s not to suggest focused efforts to protect LGBTQ people aren’t capable of making a difference. But here, too, the politics are complicated. The current composition of the United Nations Human Rights Council includes three states with the death penalty as an option for same-sex activity, with another 11 having lesser but still criminal penalties. In countries like Yemen, which in 2019 received nearly $700 million in U.S. foreign assistance, the United States possesses powerful leverage. In theory, tying some of that aid to LGBTQ decriminalization could cause meaningful change.

But it’s not that simple. Take the Yemen example: The country has been mired in a devastating conflict since 2015, with 24 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. In the hierarchy of priorities, ending the conflict is the easiest path to saving the greatest number of lives and thus will always be the priority for most citizens and their government. Even if the United States could quickly resolve the humanitarian crisis (a difficult ask), Yemeni society is staunchly anti-LGBTQ—trying do more than just incrementally liberalize Yemen in the midst of famine and conflict will be a Sisyphean task. Many devout Muslim leaders insist their faith is incompatible with LGBTQ rights. While some Islamic groups based in the West have started to adopt a softer tone, globally many have not. The Saudi state security agency has denounced homosexuality as extremism (along with feminism), and the supreme leader of Iran recently stated his belief that “there is no worst form of moral degeneration than [homosexuality].”

Even in Europe, there is a real risk that pushing countries such as Hungary (where same-sex conduct has been legal for decades) to recognize gender changes and same-sex marriage under the law could result in a backlash. (Less than half of Hungarians polled by the Pew Research Center said homosexuality should be accepted by society.) Eastern European culture wars are very real. Indeed, Russia is lurking in the wings and positioning itself as a defender of so-called traditional values in order to exploit U.S. pressure for liberalization to its advantage. For example, laws passed in Hungary in May and December 2020, respectively, that ban legally changing one’s “sex at birth” and define marriage and adoption rights as exclusively heterosexual mimic Russia’s summer constitutional amendments and earlier laws. Standing up for marginalized communities to ensure their safety is a necessary mission, but pushing conservative and divided societies too hard too fast could result in even more regressive laws.

All of this argues for the United States to be thoughtful in its strategy of protecting LGBTQ rights. Trying to force societies to legalize same-sex marriage and gender changes (in addition to decriminalization) is all too often labeled as cultural imperialism. Broader acceptance of these sensitive issues has to happen organically to be successful. After all, the United States itself did not legalize same-sex marriage nationwide until 2015.

Nonetheless, speed bumps on the road to greater global LGBTQ freedoms cannot be an excuse to do nothing, which has generally been the U.S. approach. The right choice is not revolution. Rather, it is finding a ratchet that works: For countries receiving U.S. assistance or purchasing U.S. arms, it is right to demand that the death penalty for homosexuality be put aside. Going forward, more aggressive advocacy may well pay off. Just over seven months ago, Sudan abolished both flogging and the death penalty as punishments for same-sex relations. There is more to do, and the United States should set aside support for local activists who are working to abolish anti-LGBTQ practices.

In the end, human rights promotion must be about marking success, not about political signaling at home. The challenge ahead consists of translating a genuine and legitimate commitment into global policies that work.

Biden Gives Turkey the Silent Treatment

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the presidential complex in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 21, 2020. Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden spent the first month of his presidency making routine calls to world leaders. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the call never came.

The quiet phone line became a major news story in Ankara, despite—or perhaps because of—years of perceived slights between the NATO allies, from jostling over Syria to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. But interviews with over a dozen officials, lawmakers, and other experts make clear that the U.S. president’s radio silence is indicative of a tougher American tone toward Turkey: Ankara will keep getting the cold shoulder unless it cleans up its act—and fast. 

“The relationship is very challenged, and we are not in a position where we can rely on Turkey in the same way that we’ve relied on, or that we feel confident that we can rely on, other NATO allies,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Yet most agree there are few good answers to stop ties from spiraling further downward, even as some of Biden’s secretary of state and top aides call up their Turkish counterparts, and few policy options for Biden beyond continuing to pressure Erdogan on human rights.

“This is the lowest point in U.S.-Turkish relations,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. 

Biden is no stranger to Erdogan. As U.S. vice president, he guided the relationship through a then-low point following an attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, which the Turkish leader has long blamed in some way on the United States. But how Biden navigates the diplomatic minefield of U.S.-Turkey relations as commander in chief will be a major test for his overarching foreign-policy agenda, showing whether he can both repair ties with a longtime NATO ally and temper Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leanings. 

Turkey’s aggressive approach to foreign policy creates a potential crisis in waiting for the Biden administration. Erdogan is stuck in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clutches after the Turkish purchase of the $2.5 billion S-400 air defense system, and he is at odds with U.S. foreign policy across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Turkey remains under U.S. sanctions against purchasers of Russian defense equipment, though former U.S. officials and experts said the penalties were not designed to hurt the Turkish economy. 

“This is the second rodeo for most of the people in the Biden administration,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “I just find that people are sick of it. Everyone comes in clear-eyed that this isn’t going well, but the ball is in Ankara’s court.” 

When approached for comment on the story, the Turkish Embassy in Washington said Ankara attaches the utmost importance to relations with the United States and will work to strengthen ties with the Biden administration.

Turkey has been a NATO Ally for nearly 7 decades. The S-400 procurement does not signify in any way a strategic change of course for Turkey. Turkey continues to be a responsible and reliable member of NATO, the Turkish Embassy said. For over two years, Turkey has been proposing to establish a working group with the inclusion of NATO, to address concerns regarding the S-400s.”  

So far, the Biden administration seems to be searching for a balanced approach—but appears unwilling to let Turkey’s problematic behavior go unchecked. 

“They’re obviously not trying to blow up the relationship, they’re not being hostile. They’re not being obsequious either,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior nonresident fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “They’re making clear that if engagement is going to happen it’s going to be on U.S. terms.” 

Turkey has offered an olive branch, with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar floating a model that would allow Turkey to store the S-400s offshore—the first apparent show of good faith on Ankara’s part.

To some extent that reflects Erdogan’s growing political vulnerability, which is only exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. The Turkish economy, which weathered the COVID-19 downturn last year thanks to a spate of generous state lending, consequently suffers from high inflation, a plunging currency, and stagnant job growth. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which faces a reelection campaign in 2023, was defeated in local elections in Istanbul two years ago, underscoring his political weakness in some parts of the country—if he allows free and fair elections, that is. 

“If there were elections now he wouldn’t win,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And if he decides to pull a Trump, there’s no way after what happened in the U.S. that Biden will look the other way,” referring to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of vote fraud in the 2020 campaign.

The trick for the Biden administration is to maintain pressure on Turkey while preserving a decades-old military alliance. Some former U.S. officials are uneasy with the early makings of the Biden strategy, as they still view Turkey as a critical bulwark on NATO’s southern flank and don’t see Erdogan’s flirtation with Russia as a lasting trend. 

Defense ties between the United States and Turkey run deep: The U.S. Defense Department houses nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, less than 40 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and a NATO early warning radar system is set up in Turkey to defend against ballistic missile attacks further to the east. It remains an important actor in the Black Sea region, where West-Russia tensions have run high ever since Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. 

A former senior U.S. official who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity called Turkey a “natural foe” of Russia and a potential bulwark against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. 

The Biden administration insists it can both hold Turkey to account on backsliding democratic values and maintain a close relationship as NATO allies. “We have shared interests in countering terrorism, ending the conflict in Syria, and deterring malign influence in the region,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We can uphold our values, including human rights and rule of law, and protect our interests while also keeping Turkey aligned with the transatlantic alliance on critical issues.”

The Turkish embassy insists the country maintains democratic values. “[F]undamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the Constitution. Turkey continues to implement democratic reforms, the Turkish embassy said. In this vein, a comprehensive Human Rights Action Plan was announced just yesterday, emphasizing once again Turkey’s will in this respect.

But the institutional relationships that once helped the two countries weather past storms are fraying. “Traditionally, institutions played a huge role in Turkey-U.S. ties,” said Gonul Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Tol noted that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and U.S. State Department in the past worked closely together even as their leaders clashed.

That habit disappeared under Trump, when the State Department sometimes found itself sidelined by a president who mistrusted career diplomats and bypassed his advisors to forge a personal rapport with Erdogan. 

The frustrations began to boil over late in the Trump administration as then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began to lose patience with Ankara, former Trump officials said, despite Trump and Erdogan’s personal rapport. The former senior official said that Pompeo’s counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu was seen as difficult to work with, which hampered ties, as did pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which made the case to former officials that Turkey was a bullying power in the region because of Erdogan’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In one instance in late October 2020, the State Department prepared a routine statement to release marking Republic Day in Turkey, a major national holiday, but Pompeo’s office prevented the statement from ever going out, according to several officials familiar with the matter. (The State Department declined to comment.) 

The same goes for the military, other experts and former officials said, particularly after Erdogan’s government accused many in Turkey’s military establishment who had close ties with U.S. and NATO counterparts of taking part in the attempted coup. Over two dozen Turkish officers, including those based at a NATO command in Virginia, have sought asylum in the United States in recent years after facing such accusations, which they insist are false. U.S. military support for Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State in Syria further soured the institutional relationship. 

In the past, “the U.S. military would always come to the support of Turkey, and was one of Turkey’s biggest defenders when Congress or the White House would turn against Turkey,” said Merve Tahiroglu, an expert on Turkey with the Project on Middle East Democracy. “That’s no longer the case.”

Washington’s more hard-line push on Ankara, illustrated by Trump authorizing sanctions for the S-400 purchase after more than a year of deliberations, may have hardened even further with the new administration. Asked to identify who in the incoming administration might hold pro-Turkey views, the former senior official could not name a single new appointee they saw as sympathetic to Ankara. 

But the mistrust goes both ways. Erdogan has repeatedly railed against the West for supporting armed Kurdish groups in Syria. Turkish public opinion has steadily soured on both NATO and the United States as allies, fueled in part by Erdogan’s baseless claims that the United States played a role in fomenting the botched coup attempt against him. 

Some Turkish experts point to other U.S. missteps that exacerbated tensions from Turkey’s point of view: disputes over NATO withdrawing some Patriot missile defense systems when Turkey-Russia tensions spiked in 2015; U.S. policies on the Syrian civil war; and continued U.S. support for Kurdish groups that fought the Islamic State—groups that Turkey labeled terrorist organizations. 

“What kind of a NATO alliance is this? Their issue is not to support refugees. Their issue is something else. They still act with terrorists. We, on the other hand, maintain our fight against terrorism and terrorists everywhere, and we will continue to do so,” Erdogan said in a speech last month. “We open our hearts so long as friends act like a friend. Otherwise, we will do whatever we have done thus far.”

Despite the bad blood, though, most experts say the relationship isn’t about to shatter. For the West, it’s still—as it was almost 70 years ago when Turkey joined NATO—a matter of geopolitics: Turkey is just too important geographically and too critical for U.S. force posture in the Middle East. Even American and European officials who fume about Turkey’s antics in NATO never go as far as to seriously question whether Turkey belongs in the alliance. 

For Ankara, it’s a matter of security and economics. Turkey’s economy needs links to Western markets and investment, and despite the flare-up in tensions, Erdogan isn’t ready to abandon its deep ties with the West for autocratic rivals in Moscow or Beijing. 

Some experts believe that Erdogan’s pragmatism will ultimately outweigh his anti-Western platform. “Erdogan, ever the pragmatist, doesn’t really have many options other than to have a working relationship with the United States,” Tahiroglu said. “Turkey is not energy independent, its economy is not booming, it is militarily becoming more independent, but its entire successful indigenous military industrial complex is still very much dependent on U.S. licenses.

“It does need good relations with the EU and the United States.”

Interspersed between anti-Western tirades, Erdogan has sent some warmer diplomatic overtures to Washington. “As Turkey, we believe our common interests with the United States far outweigh our differences in opinion,” he said in televised remarks on Feb. 20. “Turkey will continue to do its part in a manner worthy of the allied and strategic partnership ties between the two countries,” he said, while noting ties with Washington have been “seriously tested.” Erdogan also unveiled a reform package Tuesday meant to forestall criticism of the country’s democratic backsliding.

But even those in Washington most fed up with Erdogan aren’t taking the relationship for granted, and say there need to be ways for the two countries to work together, lest Ankara definitively turn toward Moscow or Beijing. 

“We have to show real clear lines in the sand, but we also have to ensure that there’s a path for Turkey to kind of hit reset with us and with the rest of our NATO allies,” Spanberger said. “Certainly, we don’t want the Turks to turn toward Russia to any greater degree. We don’t want that relationship to become stronger.”

What to Expect From China’s Annual Legislative Sessions

Chinese soldiers march in front of the Great Hall of the People, the venue for the upcoming meeting of the National People’s Congress, in Beijing on March 3. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China’s legislative two sessions begins with new Hong Kong controls expected, strange flights continue from Myanmar to southern China, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma falls down an annual rich list.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Rubber Stamps at the Ready

Thursday marks the start of China’s annual two sessions, the gathering of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), where representatives meet in Beijing to rubber-stamp agreed legislation. While the NPC is technically China’s legislature, it meets for less than two weeks each year, largely to sign off on the state’s agenda. Some stray delegates used to attempt to raise off-message topics each year, but that has diminished under President Xi Jinping’s growing control.

In some ways, the CPPCC is more interesting. The advisory body brings together a wide range of the Chinese elite, from soldiers to business leaders. It is a classic example of the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called united front system, which attempts to control all elements of civil society to work together toward the party-state’s ends.

While united front actions abroad, like influencing Chinese-language media worldwide, have captured attention in the past four years, the majority of the work is domestic, such as control over religious institutions, ethnic minorities, and public intellectuals. The state doles out membership to both the NPC and CPPCC as a reward for public figures who follow the party line. The Hong Kong movie icon Jackie Chan is a faithful CPPCC delegate, for example.

Reading the two sessions is like an exercise in Kremlinology. How long do delegates have to clap for particular figures? Which preset proposals will be put through? Last year’s NPC introduced the national security law that kicked off a crackdown in Hong Kong. Increased restrictions, possibly including travel bans and internet controls, are likely to be formalized this week.

Another big takeaway: China’s family planning policies could be seriously loosened—that is, outside of Xinjiang, where forced sterilization and mass arrests have caused birth rates to plummet by half since 2017. Elsewhere, the state has universally allowed families to have two children since 2015, but that policy hasn’t produced the baby boom officials hoped for. China’s long-term demographic figures remain dire, with last year seeing a record low number of new babies.

If restrictions are loosened or eliminated altogether, that will leave the vast family planning bureaucracy—which still enforces regular pregnancy checks and other coercive measures, especially in the countryside—in need of a new role. Over the long term its purpose may shift, as in other communist states, toward a coercive natalist policy.


What We’re Following

Beijing’s image in U.S. hits record low. Gallup polling shows that a higher percentage of Americans have an unfavorable view of China than ever before, with just 20 percent holding a mildly or strongly positive view of China—a 13 percent drop from last year’s strikingly low figures. At present, China is less popular in the United States than after the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The pandemic has clearly driven the shift, but China’s genocidal actions in Xinjiang, crackdown in Hong Kong, and increasingly aggressive rhetoric also seem to factor in.

As a result of this unpopularity, and also in part because the Republican Party is attempting to paint President Joe Biden as weak on China, lawmakers are pushing record number of bills on U.S. business with China at the state level. Florida’s HR 439 bill, for example, would prohibit any state agency from dealing with Chinese services, especially tech ones.

Similar bills in other Republican-controlled legislatures may prove an unexpected hazard for U.S.-China business relations, just as new technology controls come in at the national level.

Midnight flights to Myanmar. Rumors among Myanmar’s opposition about strange flights from China have turned out to be true, according to data obtained by researchers in Australia. Since taking power in a coup on Feb. 1, the military has halted almost all international flights to and from Myanmar, but regular night flights continue between Yangon, its largest city, and Kunming, in southern China.

There is plentiful speculation on what could be on the planes. It’s possible the flights could be carrying ammunition, weapons, and crowd control equipment, or that some trade deal mattered too much to important people on both sides to be halted. If it does turn out that China is supplying the regime’s security forces, who killed 38 people on Wednesday, anti-Chinese sentiments among Myanmar’s people will grow even fiercer.

Colonialist propaganda. The BBC has unearthed a remarkable Chinese state documentary from 2017 about labor transfer program from Xinjiang. The film directly depicts the coercion involved, but it portrays it as part of a heroic government effort to “modernize” the Uyghur population. Absent from the program, of course, is the camp-to-forced-labor pipeline that foreign researchers have investigated.

Despite China’s claims of uplifting Xinjiang’s population, those coerced into factory work have included businesspeople, university lecturers, and other high-earning professionals. (Who exactly has seized control of former Uyghur-run enterprises remains relatively uninvestigated.) Meanwhile, government spokespeople this week launched personal attacks against women who have testified about rape in Xinjiang.


Tech and Business

The rich list. The annual Hurun Rich List, which compiles data on China’s 1,000 wealthiest individuals, is out. The big news: Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma was knocked out of the top spot to fourth place, due to the government’s blocking of Ant Financial’s initial public offering at the last minute. Zhong Nanshan, now in first place, is not well known beyond China. He owns one of the most popular bottled water brands, but his biggest boost came from his ownership of a bioscience firm involved in vaccine manufacturing.

As elsewhere, Chinese billionaires’ wealth has swelled during the pandemic even as others suffered. But mega-wealth remains risky business in an autocratic communist state with extreme income inequality, and some of the wealthiest work hard to conceal how rich they are. The Hurun List, which is compiled by Luxembourg-born Rupert Hoogewerf, has been nicknamed the “fat pig killing list,” since past members have fallen victim to political machinations.

Property checks. Guo Shuqing, one of China’s top regulators, gave a press conference in which he discussed domestic and foreign property bubbles. Guo noted that real estate within China remains overinflated—which he called “very dangerous.” Property has outstripped all other investment vehicles in China for at least two decades. Many enterprises, when you dig beneath the surface, are actually vehicles for circumventing property laws.

The government frequently tries to rein real estate in due to economic fears and societal consequences—only to face pushback from upper-middle-class urbanites, a key support group for the Communist Party.

Pirates arrested. One of the last remaining major websites for pirated TV shows in China has been taken offline. Such sites, which break both copyright law and Chinese censorship laws, were a major part of the entertainment experience for Chinese millennials. Pirated DVDs, once a mainstream product, largely disappeared from the streets of cities as a result.

With streaming services now ubiquitous and the government cracking down, it’s much harder for young Chinese to watch uncensored foreign media than it was even five or 10 years ago. Even the most banal of foreign shows can end up pulled for unspecified reasons: Friends, once a cultural behemoth, is no longer streaming in China.


What We’re Reading

“Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State,” by Ben Mauk, the New Yorker

This detailed story in the New Yorker, based on interviews that Mauk conducted with refugees in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, powerfully conveys the stories of the victims of China’s abuses in Xinjiang. Artist Matt Huynh compiled the accompanying illustrations from witness details and documented evidence, down to the type of security camera used.

This method is particularly effective in making up for the lack of photos of life in China’s internment camps. While extensive satellite imagery has reached the outside world, there are almost no images from within the camps save for those from propaganda tours.


That’s it for this week.

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The Mice Who Caught the Cat—and Rattled the Kremlin

Eliot Higgins, the founder and executive director of Bellingcat, speaks during the world’s biggest tech festival, Campus Party, in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on May 27, 2016. Piroschka Van De Wouw/AFP via Getty Images

In late January, as people took to the streets in more than 100 towns and cities across Russia to protest the arrest of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, my Foreign Policy colleague shared a meme that was circulating on Twitter. It showed a row of planks lined up like dominoes. The catalyst was labeled “Eliot Higgins unemployed, bored.” The end of the row was titled “Putin regime in danger.”

Higgins, who a decade ago was a college dropout with a rapacious appetite for news, wasn’t quite unemployed, but he was bored. Stuck in a grim administrative job in Leicester, England, Higgins set out to do what he felt traditional news media weren’t doing: get to the heart of what was really happening as the Arab Spring exploded. He scoured social media and online forums for new tidbits of information on the rapidly escalating crisis in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Later, he would turn his sights on Russia—culminating in this year’s explosive revelations about Moscow’s failed efforts to assassinate by poison its biggest gadfly, Navalny.

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News, Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pp., .20, March 2021

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News, Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pp., .20, March 2021

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News, Eliot Higgins, Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pp., $25.20, March 2021

We Are Bellingcat offers a firsthand account of just how those dominoes got set up—and how they have fallen so far. It’s Higgins’s firsthand account of how his team of digital sleuths, who publish their detailed findings online, has again and again exposed the Kremlin’s lies, outed the Russian poison squad that trailed Navalny, and proved the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. It’s a David-and-Goliath story for the digital age but one that relies on cutting-edge mining of open-source information rather than a primitive sling.

As Higgins, now Bellingcat’s executive director, notes in the opening to the book, the rise of social media turned investigative work on its head. While extracting information on global affairs was once the preserve of journalists, diplomats, and intelligence agencies working with secret sources, the internet made it possible for citizen journalists to break news on major events without ever leaving the couch. The challenge in the digital age became verifying the relevant needles within the vast haystack of information available online.

In 2011, as protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa, Higgins set out to separate the fake news chaff from the wheat. He sought out new information on battles fought and weapons used and then verified it using context clues and open sources. In his first major breakthrough, Higgins was able to verify the rapidly shifting front lines in the battle between Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces and rebel groups in the town of Brega, Libya. With a YouTube video as his starting point, Higgins drew a crude map of the rebel movements on a piece of printer paper as he sat in an empty office in England and then pinpointed the exact location on Google Maps. “This was a rush, and it contained a revelation. With a bit of a brain shift, you could construe video images from a top-down perspective, flattening the distraction of three dimensions, transforming wobbly footage into something as precise as a map. From there, it became a matching game,” he writes. 

Three years later, Higgins and a team of volunteers founded Bellingcat—named after the classic fable describing mice who tag the cat tormenting them with a bell—and got serious. On July 17, 2014, three days after Bellingcat’s founding, a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile over eastern Ukraine, killing everyone on board. As Russian state media got to work churning out conspiracy theories about the crash, the story of how a ragtag band of Ukrainian separatists came to be in possession of a powerful Russian missile became the first major breakthrough investigation for Bellingcat and Aric Toler, who would go on to oversee the group’s Eastern Europe investigations. Bellingcat investigators cross-referenced press photos, publicly available videos, and social media posts to track the Buk missile’s journey from Russia into Ukraine. Pointing the finger at Moscow was a risky step, Higgins knew—but he had the goods.

“When published on Bellingcat, we would be levelling serious allegations against Russia, a major world power whose current leadership displayed both a propensity for information warfare and for violence,” Higgins writes. 

Since its inception, Bellingcat has defied definition: It’s part journalism, part criminal investigation. Higgins calls it an “intelligence agency for the people.” The investigators’ use of open sources and the detailed methodologies that accompany each investigation allow any interested party to retrace their steps and come as public trust in the traditional media, and its reliance on anonymous sources, is waning. 

But Bellingcat goes where the media doesn’t in more ways than one. Bellingcat and its Russian partner, the Insider, have in recent years crossed what has long been held to be a red line for journalists: paying for databases on Russia’s thriving black market of leaked information. This has opened new frontiers in Bellingcat’s investigations, enabling it to identify the poisoners of Navalny and Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy poisoned in Salisbury, England, but it has also opened new ethical dilemmas, which Higgins confronts in his book. On Monday, Russian media reported that St. Petersburg investigators were looking into allegations that a local law enforcement officer had sold the passenger data from the flight Navalny was traveling on when he first fell ill last August—the first sign of an impending crackdown on the traffic in information that has enabled some of Bellingcat’s recent breakthroughs. 

Bellingcat’s open-source skills are now being emulated by the New York Times and human rights organizations. The group runs regular workshops to train more people in open-source investigative skills. But like a lot of digital pioneers before him, in the book Higgins does not reflect on how to prevent those tools from being used for ill. If far-right groups or authoritarian governments mustered the skills and determination of Bellingcat’s wonks, it wouldn’t be pretty.

But Higgins isn’t done yet, and he’s not stopping at exposing wrongdoing. His next step is to establish a blueprint for open-source approaches to crises of the future, starting with the conflict in Yemen, where fighting between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition has helped create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Bellingcat has used cutting-edge techniques, such as the software Hunchly, which records every click its investigators make, enabling prosecutors examining atrocities in the future to easily retrace their steps. In collaboration with the Global Legal Action Network, the goal is to categorize and verify footage from the conflict, creating a searchable trove of information for future investigations, including at The Hague, where Higgins is a member of the International Criminal Court’s Technology Advisory Board. 

“[P]rosecutors building war-crimes cases could pull up evidence gathered and preserved to judicial standards. With the click of a few buttons, they would save themselves years of research,” Higgins writes.

Like Bellingcat’s work, this book is both straight to the point and thrilling. It is a balm for the soul of anyone who has grown weary of the chaos wrought by social media and a timely reminder that—in the right hands—the internet can still be an awesome force for good. 

El Salvador’s Homicide Rate Hit a Historic Low in 2020

A Salvadoran police officer guards a crime scene where a member of the National Civil Police was allegedly killed by gang members, in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, on October 17, 2017. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 27, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced via Twitter that the country had gone 48 hours without a reported homicide—a significant feat. In El Salvador, gangs have exerted control over entire communities for decades through extortion, disappearances, and frequent killings. “There is still much to do, two days without homicides doesn’t mean that El Salvador doesn’t still suffer from violence and delinquency,” Bukele wrote. “But two consecutive days without homicides was something unthinkable before, when we were the murder capital of the world.”

El Salvador has made notable advances in reducing homicides since it earned the undesirable title of deadliest country outside a war zone in 2015 with more than 6,600 murders in a country of almost 6.5 million people. Five years later, the country closed out 2020 with the lowest homicide rate in more than two decades with 1,322 homicides, according to government statistics.

Although reducing homicides is an important part of improving security in El Salvador, many experts say relying on homicide statistics as the only indicator risks missing the big picture—gang control has only become more entrenched. Homicides are just one way that gangs exert control on communities. They show their force through extortion, threats, and sexual violence as well. Even though crime statistics have gone down, there is little evidence—such as fewer active gang members or increased entry into the formal workforce by former gang members—showing government policies have actually dismantled the structures that enact this violence, meaning crime could spike again at any moment.

In El Salvador, understanding the reason behind the drop in homicides is just as important as the numbers themselves, according to Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, which focuses on studying, preventing, and resolving conflict. Although the government has claimed its policies are at the root of the drop, Breda believes other factors may be at play.

Bukele credits his security plan—known as the Territorial Control Plan—for El Salvador’s historic drop in homicides. The plan specifically targets 22 out of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities by increasing law enforcement presence and building community centers to provide a safe space for youth to spend their free time and prevent gang recruitment. But an analysis by the International Crisis Group in July 2020 found the reduction of homicides in El Salvador was nationwide, rather than restricted to these targeted communities, undercutting the claim that the plan can be credited with the overall decrease. The creation of social programs included in the plan was only 20 percent complete at the time of the report, and the small scale of these programs could not account for the nationwide drop. Plus, the plan does not explain sporadic spikes in violence, including a period of five days in April 2020 with more than 80 murders.

Breda suspects that the pandemic played a role in homicide reduction, as demonstrated in neighboring countries. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, homicide rates dropped temporarily during lockdowns, when fewer people were in the streets, only to spike again as restrictions eased. Each country ended the year with a homicide rate lower than the year before, although the difference from the previous year was starkest in El Salvador. Although the lockdown was one factor in El Salvador, it is not sufficient to explain the drastic drop.

In September 2020, Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro revealed that members of Bukele’s government had been meeting with high-level members of MS-13 in prisons since at least July 2019. The report alleged that reduction of homicides was among the concessions that gang leaders had agreed to in exchange for prison privileges, including the reversal of a government decision to merge cells of opposing gang members. Bukele has denied negotiations occurred but has not offered any explanation as to why documentation exists of these visits by members of his government.

Past negotiations between officials and gangs in El Salvador have led to a spike in murders when they fell apart, leading to El Salvador’s most homicidal year in 2015. Breda fears this could happen again. “If you buy the government’s narrative, that would mean the gangs’ presence in the neighborhoods would have been reduced and less members would be out in the streets,” Breda said. “But to the contrary, what we hear from people on the streets is it’s not like that. [The gangs] have not vanished. They’ve just scaled back their forms of violence.”

Regardless of the factor, or combination of factors, driving the drop in homicides, gang presence and control have only increased in 2020, according to security experts and community leaders on the ground. During the pandemic, gangs have taken the opportunity to consolidate their status in communities as the de facto authority, taking temperatures, handing out food to struggling families, and monitoring who enters and leaves. “The territorial control is something that has grown,” said an expert in migration working in El Salvador who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of her work. “There’s no place in the country where the gangs don’t have presence. They’re everywhere, from the most remote towns where the bus doesn’t even arrive and there’s no electricity, and they exercise the same control everywhere.”

Salvadorans living in these communities disagree on what the homicide statistics mean for their personal safety. One religious leader working in a gang-controlled community on the outskirts of San Salvador, who asked to remain anonymous for his security, has felt safer in the past year. He is starting to believe that these security gains could be long term. “As a society, we hope that this isn’t just a political smokescreen,” he said. “It’s going in the right direction, and we hope that it lasts.”

He’s not alone in this view. Bukele’s policies continue to be popular among citizens, who turned out in high numbers to vote for his party in legislative elections on Feb. 28, handing the party a majority of seats in the country’s congress. This support will make it easier for Bukele to pass his plans without dealing with opposition.

Other Salvadorans doubt that much has changed. “They recognize that homicides have dropped. Taxi drivers, street vendors, people in the communities will all say that,” said Rick Jones, an El Salvador-based analyst with three decades of experience in peace building in Central America. “Do they feel all that much safer, or has that diminished the gang’s presence? They say no.”

Security conditions in El Salvador will continue to be of interest to the new administration in Washington. As the Biden administration takes on the daunting task of attempting to improve security in Central America, it will have to reckon with complex questions of what it means to transform country conditions and how it will know improvements are significant and sustainable.

In recent years, the high level of violence experienced by ordinary citizens has been a major driver of migration from El Salvador. Since 2014, more than 375,000 Salvadorans have arrived at the border, according to U.S. government statistics, and many are asylum seekers. In a 2015 survey, Doctors Without Borders found that nearly 40 percent of migrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala left after experiencing an assault, a threat, forced gang recruitment attempt, or extortion.

The growing understanding of push factors for migration led the Obama administration to launch the Alliance for Prosperity aid package to “address the structural causes of irregular migration” through targeted programs to reduce violence, provide job opportunities, and root out corruption. U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to take a similar approach, with a promised $4 billion aid package that prioritizes building “security and prosperity” in Central America to reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving at the border. Violence reduction is a key pillar of that plan.

“Homicide rate is only one push factor of migration, and homicide rate is also just one component of violence in the country,” said Ken Baker, co-founder and CEO of Glasswing, a nongovernmental organization that works with youth in El Salvador. “There’s still a real question of durability. Is what we’re seeing going to continue or is violence going to pick up again?”

If security gains don’t prove lasting, another surge of Salvadoran migrants could end up fleeing the country in the future. To see a long-term decrease in violence in El Salvador, Jones recommends steps that will lead to long-term security gains, not just a temporary homicide reduction. These include reducing gang recruitment, promoting pathways to leave gang life, and rehabilitation for people leaving prison.

And in the short term, there are some indicators that other factors, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, are playing a bigger role in driving migration. According to a study by the San Salvador-based research group University Institute of Public Opinion, more than 50 percent of Salvadorans who wanted to migrate in 2020 said the main reason was to improve their economic situation. Only 7 percent of Salvadorans in this survey said violence was the main reason.

The pandemic will affect migration for years to come, according to experts. They believe an uptick in migration is likely after the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, and that factors including domestic violence, climate change, corruption, and job loss will continue to play a role. If the current administration wants to understand why Salvadorans leave, policymakers must look beyond gang violence to complex, ongoing factors.

From Pariah to Kingmaker

Eritrean soldiers wait in line to cross the border to attend a reopening ceremony with Ethiopia in Serha, Eritrea, on Sept. 11, 2018. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

After months of bloodshed in Tigray, a region of Ethiopia claiming the right of self-determination, the United States is ramping up pressure to end hostilities, protect civilians, facilitate an independent investigation of atrocities, and permit humanitarian access to starving populations. In a call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali on March 2, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated his call for the immediate withdrawal of all Eritrean troops from Tigray that are operating there as part of the Ethiopian effort to quash the rebellion. This last point is emerging as a central demand, since most of the crimes in Tigray documented by journalists and human rights groups were carried out by Eritrean forces.

These atrocities are ongoing. On March 1, leading Tigrayan scholar Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, in a rare phone call from the mountains, described how Eritrean troops had razed villages, cut down mango orchards, destroyed irrigation systems, and slaughtered dozens of people from young children to grandparents in the town of Samre and the villages of Gijet, Adeba, and Tseada Sare in recent days. “Famine is coming,” he said. We should heed Mulugeta’s warning: Action now is essential to stop further crimes and a vast humanitarian catastrophe.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki rules a tiny nation of 3.5 million people, with a GDP of $2 billion as of 2018. But the country’s military is vast; its army has an astonishing 200,000 people, most of them enrolled in compulsory and indefinite national service on reaching eleventh grade. Eritrea doesn’t publish a budget, but an estimated 20 percent of the country’s GDP is spent on the military as well as an undisclosed sum on Afwerki’s much-feared national security and intelligence services.

Several recent reports make clear just what Eritrean security and military forces are capable of. Over the last week, three different reports attributed atrocity crimes in the war in Tigray to Eritrean forces. Amnesty International documented a November 2020 massacre in a cathedral in Axum, where hundreds of civilians were slaughtered. CNN compiled and cross-checked reports of a mass killing at a monastery called Maryam Dengelat, where more than 100 people died. And VICE World News matched satellite photos of destroyed villages with eyewitness accounts to detail other atrocities.

And the fighting, burning, and forced starvations continue. Last week, satellite imagery showed at least 508 buildings burning in and around the town of Gijet in southern Tigray. This is close to the area where Tigray’s defense forces destroyed an Ethiopian armored division two weeks earlier, and in phone calls to me from the area, Tigrayans reported five Eritrean divisions—about 10,000 soldiers with tanks backed by both Ethiopian and Eritrean combat aircraft—converging on the area conducting what they called a “scorched earth” operation.

In July 2018, when Abiy flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, to sign a long-overdue peace agreement between the two countries, citizens of both countries hoped the occasion would push Afwerki to at last begin to demobilize his army; redirect his national budget to spending on health, education, and development; and liberalize his politics. None of that happened. It’s now clear that Afwerki saw the peace deal as a security pact with Ethiopia to eliminate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) leadership, which is leading the uprising in Ethiopia—and inflict such damage on the Tigrayan people that they could never again challenge either country.

Afwerki’s animosity to the TPLF dates back to a dispute between him and TPLF leaders, then-Ethiopia’s leaders, which led to a border war in 1998 that he lost. The Ethiopian army under the TPLF didn’t march all the way to Asmara and impose regime change, but it might as well have.

In the wake of defeat, Eritreans themselves clamored for change: First, a group of democracy activists petitioned for reform, and then 15 of the most senior Eritrean politicians—known as the G-15—followed suit. In the brief “Asmara Spring” of 2001, an independent press flourished, and Eritreans demanded that all freedoms promised after the country’s independence eight years earlier—and contained in the new constitution finalized in 1997 but never adopted—should be realized.

The G-15 included Afwerki’s oldest comrades-in-arms and all heroes of the war for independence, including former foreign ministers and defense ministers and some of the founders of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Likely feeling encircled, Afwerki’s response to demands for reform was to clamp down. On Sept. 18 and 19, 2001, he arrested 11 of the G-15 and consigned them to literal oblivion; they have not been seen or heard from since. Neither have Eritreans seen or heard of their cherished constitution and freedoms. Instead, all independent media were closed, journalists were imprisoned, and religious freedoms were circumscribed. Compulsory national service for all school leavers was introduced.

To divert attention from his own military adventurism and growing authoritarianism, Afwerki tried to blame his nation’s ills on Ethiopia—and especially the TPLF. And he supported any opposition group ready to wage war against Ethiopia, including Somali jihadists. That last venture prompted a fierce U.S.-led backlash that included placing the country under sanctions in 2007 before lifting them in 2018.

In all this, Afwerki did have one legitimate complaint. The peace deal that ended the 1998-2000 war between TPLF-led Ethiopia and Eritrea set up an independent boundary commission, and that commission awarded a small but symbolic piece of land—the village of Badme—to Eritrea. A dispute over Badme had been the spark for the war, but Ethiopians repeatedly stalled on implementing the decision. On that single grievance, Afwerki kept his people in a state of emergency, mobilized against Ethiopia, and cultivated a national paranoia, schooling Eritreans in the view that both Ethiopia and the entire world were conspiring against them.

Young Eritreans fled abroad rather than endure military service or the hopelessness of life in a police state with a stagnating economy. The country is one of the world’s largest generators of refugees proportionate to its size. Only a (mostly illegal) tax on diaspora Eritreans plus royalties from cobalt, gold, and potash mining kept the country afloat—until the conflict in nearby Yemen offered a lifeline. Eritrea’s Red Sea coast suddenly became a strategic asset, and Afwerki leased out the port and airbase at Assab to the United Arab Emirates to use as a forward base. That not only brought in much-needed cash but also a political opening to the Gulf states.

It’s notable that when Afwerki and Abiy signed their peace deal in 2018, they didn’t attend the African Union summit—even though the continental organization was the official custodian of the treaty, signed under its auspices in Algiers. Instead, they flew to Abu Dhabi, UAE and then to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Eritrea was becoming a willing junior partner in the transactional politics of the Arabian peninsula, sidelining the African Union and its carefully crafted peace and security architecture.

More remarkable has been Afwerki’s emergence as kingmaker in the Horn of Africa. He has been shrewdly offering two things to the region’s insecure rulers. One is practical advice on political survival against the odds—specifically, how to face international pressure to democratize. The other is a model of military training that transforms high school students into obedient fighting machines.

In this regard, Eritrea is now the senior partner in the Ethiopian war in Tigray. Eritrean troops are also reported to be stationed in al-Fashaga, the disputed border area between Ethiopia and Sudan—quietly exacerbating the conflict between those two countries. Afwerki is confidante and supporter of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi, commonly known as Farmaajo. In February, political crisis in Somalia intensified as Farmaajo’s presidential term expired without either an election or an agreement with the opposition on how to handle the interregnum. Farmaajo is determined to hang on, and on one occasion, his forces fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. Worryingly, Somali special forces trained in Eritrea were flown back to Mogadishu last month.

Afwerki is constructing a three-cornered axis of autocracy in the Horn of Africa with him as its leader and Abiy and Farmaajo as junior partners.

Afwerki’s public relations strategy is simple. He says as little as possible. Four months after the war erupted in Tigray, he hasn’t told the Eritrean people that as much as half of the country’s army is currently conducting operations inside Ethiopia. In fact, he has made just one public statement: a long speech disguised as an interview in which he covered world affairs but said only that Eritrea was “fulfilling its responsibilities” with respect to Ethiopia. He has said nothing about his war aims, but decades of unremitting ruthlessness tell their own story.

Biden Can’t Claim ‘Moral Leadership’ While Sanctioning the ICC

Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s head prosecutor, speaks during the Assembly of States Parties at The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 2, 2019. Abdullah Asiran/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In his Feb. 4 foreign-policy address, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to make human rights and multilateralism cornerstones of his approach to global affairs. But that’s a pledge he appears to have forgotten just a day later, on Feb. 5, when the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled that ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has the authority to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—by Israeli and Palestinian personnel alike. Biden’s State Department immediately criticized the court’s scrutiny of Israeli activity—though it had commended its probe into an Ugandan warlord hours earlier.

Restoring U.S. credibility around the world—which Biden says he will do—means resetting the United States’ relationship with the ICC, the premier body of international criminal justice. Ideally, Washington would join the court; at the very least, it should refrain from interfering in the ICC’s scrutiny of U.S. nationals and allies like Israel. But all signs indicate that Biden is reverting to the Obama-era modus operandi: selective support for the ICC, which undermines U.S. credibility and threatens the viability of the court itself.

The ICC’s Feb. 5 ruling was the latest move toward opening an investigation into the situation in the Palestinian territories, including the conduct of hostilities during the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the Rome Statute—the ICC’s founding document—defines as a war crime. Bensouda opened a preliminary examination into “the situation in Palestine” in 2015 and concluded it in late 2019, but she chose to seek judicial approval to open a full investigation due to lingering questions about jurisdiction over Palestine.

The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of a state party, by nationals of a state party, and those referred to the court by the U.N. Security Council. Until recently, Palestinians were unable to bring their case to the state-centric court because of doubts about Palestinian statehood. In 2009, the ICC prosecutor rejected a Palestinian bid to join the court, citing uncertainty about the status of Palestine and lack of guidance from the U.N. General Assembly on how to proceed.

In 2012, however, the U.N. General Assembly—over U.S. opposition—overwhelmingly recognized Palestine as a state, which paved the way for Palestine to join a number of international institutions, including the ICC. Key members of the global community, including the United States, continue to reject Palestinian statehood, and Washington continually uses its veto on the U.N. Security Council to prevent Palestine from becoming a member of the United Nations.

Palestine joined the ICC in 2015, triggering Bensouda’s preliminary examination. But because Gaza and the West Bank are occupied by Israel—and Palestinians lack control over their own land—there continue to be questions about the true bounds of Palestinian statehood. Now, the ICC pre-trial chamber has determined that, for the purposes of ICC jurisdiction, Palestine qualifies as a state whose territory extends to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. State Department immediately objected to the announcement.


The United States has always had a complicated relationship with the ICC. In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed but failed to ratify the Rome Statute and become a party to the nascent court, citing concerns about the possibility of “unfounded” prosecutions of U.S. nationals.

Since then, U.S. posture toward the ICC has vacillated between Democratic support for the court’s prosecution of anyone who is not a U.S citizens or U.S. ally and near-total Republican opposition. In May 2002, the George W. Bush administration announced that the United States would not ratify the Rome Statute and, shortly thereafter, Congress passed legislation barring U.S. state, local, and federal agencies from cooperating with the court in prosecuting U.S. nationals.

The Obama administration participated in ICC meetings, helped turn over African nationals wanted by the court, and repealed George W. Bush-era legislation that punished states that did not agree to shield U.S. officials from prosecution. President Barack Obama also voted for a February 2011 —then in the throes of a revolution against the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi—to the ICC. Here, Obama went further than George W. Bush, who merely refrained from vetoing a similar referral on atrocities in Darfur in March 2005.

Still, while Obama was more conciliatory toward the ICC than his predecessor, his engagement with the court was explicitly selective, described by then-State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh as “a pragmatic, case-by-case approach.” According to Koh, as of 2012, the United States supported the ICC’s ongoing formal investigations and prosecutions—all of which involved African suspects and defendants.

U.S. President Donald Trump, by contrast, adopted a consistently hostile approach toward the ICC. Following a March 2020 judicial decision allowing Bensouda to investigate possible war crimes perpetrated by U.S. personnel and others in Afghanistan, Trump issued an executive order declaring that the court’s “illegitimate assertions of jurisdiction over personnel of the United States and certain of its allies” constituted a national emergency. Trump imposed broad travel bans and asset freezes on Bensouda and another senior ICC official, as well as their families. Such sanctions are usually slapped on human rights abusers, not the lawyers who bring them to justice.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will lift the sanctions on Bensouda and her colleague—and how her scrutiny of potential serious crimes in Gaza and the West Bank would imperil that relief. There are early indications that Biden intends to restore Obama’s policy of supporting the ICC—as long as it exempts U.S. personnel and allies from scrutiny.


Immediately after the Feb. 5. pre-trial chamber decision on Palestine, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed “serious concerns” about the ICC investigating Israeli nationals, though it will investigate Palestinian nationals as well. Price said the court’s jurisdiction should be limited to nationals of states that consent to investigation or to U.N. Security Council referrals. But this is a fundamental misreading of the Rome Statute: It authorizes investigations in the territory of state parties, irrespective of the alleged perpetrators’ nationality. This is why the Trump administration was so shaken by the prospect that U.S. personnel could be prosecuted for serious crimes committed in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Price’s rationale for opposing the Palestine investigation—the lack of Israeli consent—could be raised just as easily by militias that commit atrocities in the territories of ICC member states. Indeed, on Feb. 4, a day before criticizing the Palestine investigation—and the day of Biden’s foreign-policy address—the State Department welcomed the ICC’s decision to convict Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen for atrocities committed in Uganda—calling the verdict “a significant step for justice and accountability.” Like Israel and the United States, the LRA did not consent to an ICC investigation. Instead, its commander put himself within the ambit of the ICC by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity within the territory of a member state.

Since its founding in 2002, the ICC’s failure to prosecute individuals from outside of Africa—particularly people from powerful, Western-allied countries—has been a central factor undermining its legitimacy. Although 123 states are members of the ICC, the court has thus far brought only Africans to trial, in 30 cases arising from nine country situations. Of the 13 situations currently under formal investigation, 10 are in Africa. That imbalance has led to charges of neocolonialism, though the court’s docket reflects more distortions in global power dynamics than overt racism.

Most ICC prosecutions have taken place at the request of the African state in which the crimes took place—in some cases due to post-conflict institutional weaknesses in the domestic court system—rather than by U.N. Security Council referral. The latter process has only been invoked in the ICC’s investigations in Libya and Sudan—countries that lack friends among the council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), who can easily wield their veto power to block investigations of themselves or their allies.

The problem is not that the ICC prosecutes Africans. The problem is that so far, it hasn’t prosecuted anyone else. Even those who support the ICC have called on it to do more in other regions. Not only is expanding scrutiny a matter of justice, but it’s also a question of legitimacy. In 2016, South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia announced they would leave the ICC, alleging bias. Of the three, only Burundi actually ended up quitting the court, but such initiatives are nevertheless emblematic of a brewing crisis at the ICC.

Bensouda’s preliminary examination in Palestine is an attempt to diversify the court’s docket; it’s one of seven preliminary examinations outside of Africa from a total of nine preliminary examinations currently underway. That means future prosecutions may cover a broader geographical range—if the examinations are permitted to ripen into investigations and trials.

But the Israeli government is mounting pressure on the United States to shield its officials from scrutiny. Israeli diplomats have launched a campaign asking allies to pressure Bensouda not to investigate, despite her authorization to do so. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the acting U.S. ambassador to Israel, Jonathan Shrier, gave assurances of U.S. assistance in a recent phone call with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Even though the United States is not a member of the ICC, it can exert pressure on the court through allies in the Assembly of States Parties responsible for funding the court and selecting its officials or by initiating and maintaining orders and statutes that punish cooperation with the court. Washington could also push for the U.N. Security Council to use its Chapter VII authority to suspend an investigation in Palestine.

Of particular concern is the possibility that—after punishing Bensouda and her family with sanctions that make even mundane bank transactions difficult—the United States will try to intimidate the court’s incoming prosecutor too. On Feb. 12, member states chose Karim Khan, a British criminal and human rights lawyer with extensive prosecutorial and defensive experience, to succeed Bensouda in June.

There is still hope that an ICC investigation, and perhaps ICC prosecutions, will finally bring a measure of accountability for victims of serious international crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. Victims include Palestinians displaced from their homes by Israeli settlements, civilians in Gaza with no protection from unlawful attacks on their bodies and property, and civilians in southern Israel, bombarded with rockets fired at them indiscriminately or deliberately. Any prosecution outside Africa would move the ICC one step closer to becoming truly international.

How the United States approaches the ICC in the coming weeks and months will signal how serious Biden is about rehabilitating the United States’ moral leadership. It’s time he realizes that resetting U.S. foreign policy requires reforming and decolonizing international criminal justice—in addition to domestic criminal justice—by allowing the ICC to prosecute U.S. allies and U.S. personnel. This can be a multistep process: First, rescind sanctions against ICC officials, then refrain from interfering in the work of the new prosecutor, and, ultimately, join the ICC. At stake is not just Biden’s credibility but also the future of the court.