Biden Must Learn the Lessons of His Successes | Opinion

The anniversary of President Joe Biden's inauguration is an opportunity to debate his record. That's what the politicians and pundits will do. But it is also a chance to learn from experience. That's what the world needs the administration to do.

The chaotic August days before the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will no doubt be cited for what not to do, but that crisis also provides a positive lesson. Seventy thousand at-risk Afghans were brought to the U.S. from Afghanistan. They have been met by a bipartisan, innovative, effective welcome. We need to learn from that.

Operation Allies Welcome is a genuine whole-of-government effort. Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services all contributed. The White House added political muscle. It is also a public-private partnership, with NGOs (including mine, the International Rescue Committee), working at U.S. government facilities to document, register and prepare Afghans for resettlement across America.

Red tape was scrapped in the refugee resettlement system to bring refugees into the country rapidly. Existing policies were revised, for example, offering cash allocations rather than fixed purchases to new arrivals. A new workforce was recruited, including previous waves of Afghan refugees, to help Afghans who had fled for their lives—and left behind family and friends—start the road to a new life.

The recipe for tackling momentous challenges involved thinking about the whole system, breaking through bureaucratic barriers and bringing a diverse coalition of allies on board. As the administration gears up for the next three years, this provides a roadmap to address the plethora of global challenges at the administration's doorstep. There are three immediate international challenges where the same bold thinking could enable serious progress.

The first is the catastrophe unfolding inside Afghanistan. The urgency and clarity of Operation Allies Welcome has been missing entirely from moves to address the spiraling humanitarian disaster inside the country that American forces have left behind. Nine million people, including 1 million children, are at the door of the U.N.'s most severe level of food insecurity—famine. And the reason is that the economic life of the country is being strangled by withdrawal of funding, freeze on assets and a sanctions regime which has made private sector economic engagement too risky.

Humanitarian aid cannot make up the gap. The administration needs a new agenda which delivers development funds to pay the salaries of public servants, including teachers and nurses. The $1.2 billion of unspent World Bank funds is the place to start. The banking system needs liquidity—if it cannot come from frozen assets it must come from another source. And the limits of the sanctions regime need to be clarified to enable the private sector to have the confidence to engage with Afghanistan. This is about helping the people of Afghanistan, not doing favors for the Taliban.

Second, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 shows that the phrase "none of us are safe until all of us are safe" is a cliché because it is true. We need to fight the pandemic globally, not just locally. As a member of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, I argued for the need to elevate pandemic threats to the highest levels of government—not just the desks of health ministers—through a Global Health Threats Council (GHTC) to ensure maximum coordination, progress, additional resources and accountability for pandemic response.

President Biden has committed to hold a series of international summits to push forward this agenda, and to get the international financing to fight this pandemic and prepare for the next one. Over the last 20 years, 11 different international reports have proposed changes to the regime for handling pandemics, including more independence for the World Health Organization. It is way past due for changes to be implemented.

President Joe Biden sits in Oval Office
President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Third, the U.S. knows from the situation at its southern border that failed and failing states leave people little option but to flee. This is a global problem, with more than 80 million people forcibly displaced as a result of war and disaster. The current immigration system is failing and needs new thinking to staunch the misery.

There are 55 civil wars ongoing at the moment, reflecting a crisis of diplomacy. The 20 poorest countries in the world have one third of their population (nearly 300 million people) in need of humanitarian aid. Rogue states breach international law by bombing their own civilians, at will. And the humanitarian aid system cannot run fast enough to catch up.

There are tactical steps that could make a difference. Aid programs should be concentrated in fragile and conflict states. Humanitarian access should be taken out of the realm of politics, with a new Organization for the Protection of Humanitarian Access. Military coalitions in which the U.S. participates in should have respect for humanitarian law built in.

But there is also need for a strategic view. The global system is being torn apart by the impunity of those who want to ignore international law. The U.S. needs to stand on the side of those who will sustain global stability—like the German courts did in finding guilty a Syrian general shown by civil society organizations to have committed war crimes, and the French government suggest in jump-starting global diplomacy by abandoning the U.N. Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocity.

The Biden administration started strong in its first days. It rejoined the World Health Organization. It banned arms sales to support the Saudi war in Yemen. It needs to renew its mojo by learning the lessons of its successes.

David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He was previously the U.K. foreign secretary.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.