- Letter From the President
- A Precarious Future: The South Korea-Japan Deal on Wartime Forced Labor Compensation
Heewon Park, Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program
- Diego Garcia: A Test for the Rules-Based International Order
Nitya Labh, South Asia Program
- Opposing Oppenheimer: The Black Mark That Fortified America’s Nuclear Identity
Kylie Jones, Nuclear Policy Program
- Kuwait’s Stateless Stalemate: How the Weaponization of Citizenship Transformed State and Society
Mohammad Al-Mailam, Middle East Program
- The Year the Hawks Took Flight: Why 2018 Was a Turning Point of U.S.-China Relations
Gen Slosberg, Asia Program
- Great (Soft) Power Competition: The Strategic Problem of America’s Bad Reputation in the Middle East
Adele Malle, American Statecraft Program
- The Era of 193 Countries: Why the United Nations Has Stopped Adding New Member States
Ben Feldman, Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program
- From Rakhine to Tigray: Five Recommendations to Support Atrocity Prevention on Facebook
Caroline Crystal, Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program
- Regional Adaptation Blocs in the Global South: Finding a Solution to Tackle Climate Vulnerability
Aya Kamil, Middle East Program
Over the past 113 years, the Carnegie Endowment has played a vital role developing the ideas and institutions that have shaped international affairs. Our work has helped create institutions like the United Nations, inform policymakers on issues such as nuclear policy and democracy support, facilitate discreet backchannel diplomacy, and much more. For these achievements, we depend on recruiting thoughtful scholars and finding a receptive audience in capitals around the world.
But our efforts to help countries take on shared global challenges and reduce conflict will span decades and depend on the expertise and commitment of new leaders to carry the torch. Consequently, one of the Carnegie Endowment’s most important functions is to prepare the next generation of scholars and practitioners in international affairs.
The James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Program is our flagship effort on this front. Each year, students from universities across the United States compete in a rigorous nomination and interview process to spend one year working in one of our Washington, DC-based programs. While at Carnegie, they provide research support, publish with scholars, and engage deeply in the intellectual life of our organization.
The nine essays in this compendium are a product of that engagement and reflect the diversity of our work at Carnegie. They include analyses of the U.S.-China relationship, the sovereignty of Diego Garcia, the role of social media platforms in atrocity prevention, and climate adaptation in the Global South. Together, the essays offer insights into some of the most consequential issues shaping contemporary international affairs. They also highlight the incisive analysis and moral clarity we value at Carnegie.
I hope you’ll join me in congratulating this class of junior fellows—including the leaders of this initiative, Nitya Labh and Hannah Miller—on all they have accomplished this year.
International relations and global politics are inherently intergenerational. Just as the legacies of the past inform and shape our current world, the decisions of policymakers today will influence international politics in the future. Despite this historical inheritance, the role of young people in governance and policy is often overlooked. In this way, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stands apart.
Every year, Carnegie selects several recent college graduates for the James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Program. Through the fellowship, Carnegie provides a laboratory for young scholars to conduct rigorous analysis, learn how policy is developed, engage with global stakeholders, and challenge conventional wisdom. This year’s class of junior fellows (JFs), like the classes before it, came to Carnegie eager to join scholars in their pursuit of a more peaceful world. Hailing from seven countries, JFs are equipped with a diverse range of perspectives and experiences that shape our political sensibilities. JFs are valuable members of Carnegie’s team who provide the endowment with fresh perspectives on contemporary challenges.
This year’s JF cohort came together to create a compendium that seeks to elevate their voices and perspectives on challenges facing our world today. The selected theme, “turning points,” was designed to capture the intergenerational nature of global affairs, paying specific attention to the way that issues have transformed over time.
Heewon Park explains how unresolved historical grievances are preventing deepening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s desire to strengthen U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation faces a significant roadblock: the tenuous future of Seoul and Tokyo’s recent deal regarding compensation for Korean laborers forces to work for Japanese companies during World War II. Park argues that although international observers have applauded this moment as a groundbreaking new chapter in bilateral ties, the success of the deal is far from guaranteed. The agreement fails to sufficiently address victims’ demands or take Korean public opinion into account and is unlikely to mark a meaningful turning point in South Korea–Japan relations.
Nitya Labh argues that the sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius over Diego Garcia will test the credibility of the U.S.-led international order in the Indo-Pacific. According to Labh, the resolution of the dispute could be a historic and strategic turning point for the narrative of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, but only if policymakers recognize it. Labh concludes by recontextualizing the sovereignty dispute as an opportunity to bolster the West’s Indo-Pacific strategies rather than an impediment to its security posture.
Kylie Jones discusses how the United States government’s expulsion of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” entrenched the possession of nuclear weapons as both a cornerstone of U.S. defense and postwar American identity. Examining the evolving political landscape that became hostile to any perspectives critical of total nuclear dependence, Jones argues that this environment has endured today and demands a critical re-examination of the constraints that remain on nuclear policy discourse.
Mohammad Al-Mailam details how Kuwait’s 1959 nationality law laid the basis for the exclusion of the country’s stateless “bidoon” population. The bidoon are denied political rights, public services, and basic identification documents. Noting that reform on this issue remains elusive, Al-Mailam calls for a turning point in Kuwaiti institutional politics in order to build a clear path to citizenship and deliver justice for Kuwait’s stateless peoples.
Gen Slosberg identifies 2018 as a sharp turning point in U.S.-China relations—the year that the U.S. foreign policy establishment became definitively hawkish toward China. Slosberg argues that the era of “engagement” decisively ended with President Donald Trump starting the trade war, and Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell writing in Foreign Affairs that the strategy had failed. Slosberg explains that this understanding of when relations deteriorated is key to identifying how both countries can recover from the lost goodwill and severe animosity built up in the past five years.
Adele Malle argues that U.S. influence in the Middle East is crumbling due to a soft power vacuum. She attributes the vacuum to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which initiated the erosion of support for U.S. foreign policy. Despite recent fears that the U.S. withdrawal of force across the Middle East has created a power vacuum for Russia and China, Malle points out that the United States still has an outsized military presence in the Middle East and dissents from the claim that the U.S. exit was a turning point for its power projection.
Ben Feldman examines why the United Nations has stopped adding new members and asks whether the world has reached a permanent state of 193 countries. He finds that although the UN used to add new members more frequently, those were mostly states achieving decolonization or the UN playing catch-up by admitting countries that has long existed. Feldman defines the four mechanisms by which entirely new states are created and shows that the current pace of state creation is not abnormal.
Caroline Crystal details the role social media platforms have played in political violence and mass atrocities from Myanmar to Ethiopia. While the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar marked a turning point in atrocity prevention efforts on platforms such as Facebook, companies continue to fall short due to gaps in capability, capacity, and commitment. Crystal concludes with five recommendations for social media companies, regulatory bodies, and civil society to jointly address the role of online platforms in violent conflict.
Aya Kamil discusses the need for increased collaboration and cohesion on global climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Her essay highlights the recent emergence of climate adaptation blocs across the Global South as a turning point in global environmental governance. According to Kamil, these partnerships can help fill the existing gaps in climate financing, strengthen climate resilience, and unify otherwise fragmented climate response systems. Her essay recommends enhancing coordination on regional climate adaptation by establishing an interregional secretariat within the United Nations ecosystem.
Altogether, this compendium demonstrates that global affairs are dynamic and intergenerational. Just as the legacies of the past inform and shape our world today, the decisions of policymakers today will pave the way for a future era of international politics. In this way, this compendium expands on the individual and collective voices of a younger generation of foreign policy leaders. The JFs are concerned with confronting global challenges, including nuclear deterrence, global governance, international order, atrocity prevention, climate cooperation, and wartime reparations. Throughout the compendium, the JFs challenge the status quo, and, in the spirit of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, bring new perspectives to the study of international affairs.
— Nitya Labh and Hannah Miller, compendium editors-in-chief
We are grateful to each junior fellow for their contribution to this project, as well as to the support we received from the Carnegie Endowment to complete it. The authors would like to thank Megan Wiegand, Katelynn Vogt, and Natalie Brase for their editorial and production assistance; our supportive mentors Sarah Yerkes and Steven Feldstein; and Milan Vaishnav, Vishnu Kannan, Caroline Duckworth, Jacob Feldgoise, and the previous cohort of junior fellows who were instrumental in the conception, development, and legacy of this project.
On March 6, 2023, Seoul and Tokyo reached a deal addressing the thorny issue of compensation for Korean laborers forced to work for Japanese companies before and during World War II. Many journalists, academics, and regional experts have applauded the agreement as a much-needed turning point toward diplomatic progress and rapprochement. Strengthened U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations play an important role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been particularly vocal in its support for the deal, going so far as to call it a “groundbreaking new chapter” for Seoul-Tokyo relations.
But recent history cautions against unfettered excitement: international observers should not ignore the lessons learned from the failure of another much-heralded wartime reparations agreement in 2015. Although success is far from guaranteed, Japan can take two key steps to show its willingness to compromise and enhance the feasibility and longevity of this latest deal.
The Failure of the 2015 “Comfort Women” Deal
Just eight years prior, South Korea and Japan sought to address another fraught wartime reparations dispute. In 2015, the two countries struck a deal to resolve the discord surrounding the compensation of “comfort women”—a euphemism referring to the tens of thousands of Korean women forced into sex slavery by Japan’s military before and during World War II. This had long been a hot-button issue in both countries, repeatedly stirring up historical grievances and hindering diplomatic progress. The deal was motivated by Seoul’s and Tokyo’s desires to improve strategic cooperation against shared regional threats—as well as by pressure from Washington to improve diplomatic ties—and was hailed as a breakthrough in South Korea–Japan relations. The agreement had four main components:
- Japan’s foreign minister would apologize to the victims on behalf of then prime minister Shinzo Abe.
- Japan would donate $8.8 million to the newly established Reconciliation and Healing Foundation to support the surviving victims.
- South Korea would commit to trying to remove the “comfort women” statue standing in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
- Both countries would refrain from critiquing the other on this issue in front of the international community.
The agreement faced immediate domestic pushback from the South Korean public. According to a 2015 poll, nearly 51 percent of South Korean respondents disapproved of the deal upon its announcement. One year later, another poll indicated that this sentiment had only increased, with 59 percent of respondents wanting to scrap the agreement entirely.
Opponents of the deal objected to several notable concessions made by the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. One important grievance was that the agreement failed to fulfill the victims’ expressed need for acknowledgment and apology. Not only did Japan refuse to recognize that its “comfort system” was a form of enslavement, but South Korea conceded to adopt Japan’s “comfort women” euphemism instead of the term “sexual slavery.” Additionally, high-level Japanese officials continued to sidestep taking full responsibility for this enslavement. Just three weeks after the agreement’s announcement, Abe claimed that there was no definitive evidence “that the comfort women were forcibly taken away.” Finally, the formal government apology was perceived as insincere: the statement used vague language that failed to comprehensively account for the atrocities of the “comfort system,” and did not come directly from the prime minister himself.
The deal was plagued by other issues, too. For example, the Park administration had conducted the negotiations in secret, in an attempt to hide all South Korean concessions to secure the deal. Thus, the administration neglected to involve the victims in the negotiations, resulting in a complete failure to solicit—much less prioritize—their perspectives. Finally, the South Korean government’s concession regarding the removal of the “comfort women” statue in Seoul was in direct opposition to the victims’ demands for memorialization.
The result was an untenable political deal that ultimately collapsed with the end of the Park administration. Once Moon Jae-in replaced Park as president, he created a task force in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to review the agreement and subsequently dissolved the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, thereby functionally killing the deal.
The agreement’s failure damaged the Japanese government’s trust in the reliability of bilateral agreements with Seoul. In South Korea, the effect was a broad surge in anti-Japan sentiment. Tensions further rose in 2018 when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to give $3 million to compensate former Korean forced laborers or their families. Japan refused, arguing that all wartime compensation disputes were already resolved in the 1965 treaty, in which Tokyo provided Seoul with $500 million in aid and cheap loans as a means of normalizing relations. Japan further retaliated in 2019 by restricting the export of chemicals needed for South Korean semiconductor manufacturing. This sparked a bitter three-year trade dispute, during which Seoul-Tokyo relations hit a nadir marked by the termination of an intelligence-sharing security agreement and boycotts of Japanese products by over 70 percent of South Korea’s population.
The 2023 Agreement: An Attempt to Improve Relations
Since his election in 2022, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has sought to institutionalize better diplomatic relations with Japan—a longtime priority for conservative parties in Seoul. As with the wartime sex slavery issue, the persistence of the forced-labor dispute has hindered both countries from effectively cooperating on broader regional security challenges like North Korean nuclear deterrence and countering China’s expanding influence in Asia.
In an attempt to move past these hurdles, Yoon struck a deal with Tokyo. In this agreement, victim compensations would come mostly from a South Korean foundation funded by civilian donations and local companies that benefitted from the 1965 treaty. The Japanese companies responsible for the forced labor campaigns—like Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries—would only be responsible for voluntary contributions and would not be required to extend official apologies to the victims and their families.
The Yoon administration’s plan was met with strong public pushback. Although the families of ten deceased victims eventually agreed to the plan, the remaining three living victims and the families of two deceased victims rejected it. Especially in South Korea, the deal is seen as a lopsided compromise in which the “Koreans have given far more than the Japanese,” who have gotten away with “the bare minimum.” Many former forced laborers—approximately 1,100 of whom are in the midst of their own compensation lawsuits—called Yoon’s plan a “humiliating” concession, and a joint statement from fifty-three opposition lawmakers deemed it “one of the worst diplomatic disasters in the history of South Korea-Japan relations.”
Public opinion wasn’t any more generous. According to a Gallup Korea poll, only 35 percent of respondents supported the deal “for the sake of national interest and Korea-Japan relations,” whereas 59 percent opposed it due to the lack of official apologies and financial compensation from Japanese companies. The forced labor compensation plan had even higher rates of disapproval than the 2015 wartime sexual slavery deal and faces many of the same criticisms. While the Yoon administration—unlike the Park government—did consult the forced labor victims throughout negotiations, the concessions in the finalized plan still failed to acknowledge the victims’ requests, notably their demands for the acknowledgment of their suffering and corresponding apologies.
However, the agreement did lead to several positive diplomatic developments. On March 16, 2023, Japan lifted the 2019 export controls on materials needed for semiconductor production, and in return, Seoul withdrew its World Trade Organization complaint against Tokyo. Further, Japan and South Korea agreed to resume defense dialogue and strategic talks, and business federations in both countries initiated plans to create a “future partnership fund” for cross-cultural youth exchanges.
Despite its short-term political benefits, the Yoon administration’s plan for forced labor compensation is far from perfect. While both countries see the value of bilateral cooperation in economic, security, and civil spheres, South Koreans are not willing to ignore unresolved historical grievances for the sake of national interests. A reconciliation deal that neglects victims’ needs and public opinion may lack the longevity needed to outlive changes in administrations, and more importantly, has the potential to reignite a deterioration of Seoul-Tokyo relations. In order to combat this fate, Japan should take two steps to alleviate some of the discontent among the Korean public.
First, the Japanese government should encourage Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Industries—either privately or publicly—to contribute to the fund established for forced labor victims. While the recent agreement does not stipulate that they are legally obligated to pay, doing so would be a meaningful step toward reparations.
Second, the companies should publicly apologize for their treatment of wartime forced laborers. In the past, Mitsubishi has extended apologies to Chinese forced laborers and U.S. prisoners of war who were forced to work for the company, yet it has failed to do the same for Korean victims who underwent the same treatment.
Neither Nippon Steel nor Mitsubishi Industries has yet indicated that it will offer voluntary compensations or apologies. But geopolitical realities should push Japan and the United States to encourage these moves. Japan, South Korea, and the United States face greater incentives for cooperation amidst rising tensions with China over the Indo-Pacific. Growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea continue to present security challenges to both Seoul and Tokyo. And South Korea’s and Japan’s increasingly interdependent economies would benefit from increased economic cooperation. The Japanese government should heed the lessons from the failed 2015 agreement and work to make this forced labor compensation deal live up to its promise.
The Indian Ocean is a critical theater for global trade and geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific. At the heart of this region lies the island of Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost of sixty islands in the Chagos Archipelago. Today, Diego Garcia is at the center of an intense sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Mauritius.
Successful resolution of the Diego Garcia dispute would affirm Western commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, reinforce U.S. credibility, and demonstrate the ability of the international rules-based order to deliver results for all its members. However, if left unresolved, the issue could drive countries such as Mauritius to seek redress with alternative partners, threatening the legitimacy of the existing system and raising the risks of global instability. The dispute will serve as a test for the U.S.-led international order, particularly over the issues of decolonization, forced removal, environmental protection, nuclear proliferation, and geopolitical competition.
For centuries, the Chagos Archipelago was the subject of European colonialism, thanks to its advantageous location. In 1964, anticipating that Mauritius would seek independence, the United Kingdom formulated planned to detach and retain the Chagos Archipelago as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). This move was motivated by a joint effort from the United States and the United Kingdom to establish a military base on Diego Garcia for “defense purposes.” More specifically, the United States sought a base in the Indian Ocean to contain the Soviet Union (and later China) during the Cold War.
After rounds of negotiations, both the United Kingdom and Mauritius agreed to the conditional sale of Chagos. In exchange, Mauritius was promised continued fishing rights and access in the archipelago, which its residents needed for their livelihoods. Upon the declaration of Mauritian independence in 1968, the Chagos Archipelago and its residents remained a part of the United Kingdom. But the detachment of Chagos violated multiple UN resolutions on decolonization that banned the breakup of colonies before their independence. As leading proponents of the United Nations, American and British indifference toward such a widely supported resolution raises questions about whether the international order can protect the interest of other nations.
In 1971, the United States and United Kingdom forcefully removed all the inhabitants across the archipelago to begin construction of their military facility. Chagossians were sent to Seychelles and Mauritius, where many of them eventually died as a result of extreme poverty and discrimination. In 2000, the British High Court found that the forceful removal of the Chagossians had been illegal and granted them immediate right of return to any islands except Diego Garcia. At the time of the ruling, British and U.S. officials opposed the plan for resettlement. In 2008, the House of Lords overturned the court ruling in favor of the British government. The rulings of the British High Court and its Court of Appeal against their own government suggest that the Western record on Chagos violates the rules-based system.
Denial of Fishing and Resettlement Rights
In response to public scrutiny after the Chagos ruling, the British government established a “no-take” marine protected area (MPA) around the archipelago in 2010. The MPA banned all fishing in the waters surrounding Chagos, blocking any potential resettlement plans for the Chagossians and reversing the UK’s commitments to Mauritian fishing rights. Notably, the MPA makes an exception for the island of Diego Garcia and its territorial waters to serve the interests of those living on the military base. Recreational fishing in the “Diego Garcia exclusion zone” amounts to over 28.4 tons of catch, including regionally protected fish stocks. Additional reporting indicates that the Diego Garcia exclusion zone may be the site of increased illegal fishing and pollution, contrary to the stated objectives of the MPA. In this way, the UK and the United States used the law as a tool to uphold their security interests in direct violation of legal commitments to Mauritius.
The Nuclear Disarmament “Exemption”
Over time, this dispute has also become entrenched in regional debates over nuclear proliferation. In 1996, Africa became a nuclear-weapon-free zone under the Treaty of Pelindaba, which also includes two supplementary protocols for non-African nuclear powers to commit that they will not violate this treaty. As an African country, Mauritius is a party to this agreement. As nuclear weapons states, the United Kingdom and United States have signed the additional protocols. According to a map appended to the treaty, the nuclear-weapon-free zone explicitly covers the “Chagos Archipelago-Diego Garcia.” A footnote inserted by the British states that the territory appears on the map “without prejudice to the question of sovereignty.” All participating African countries agreed that the Chagos Archipelago is included in the treaty’s parameters regardless of this additional language. However, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France claim the footnote means the Chagos Archipelago is exempt. The exemption preserves the ability of either the United States or the United Kingdom to station nuclear weapons on Diego Garcia in the future. However, this does not protect an existing presence or capability. This exemption is inconsistent with UK enforcement of its other related treaty commitments. As such, the Western record on Diego Garcia discredits its commitments to a rules-based international order.
In 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that the United Kingdom breached international law in seeking to maintain its claim over the Chagos Archipelago. A subsequent vote by the UN General Assembly endorsed the ICJ ruling and demanded that the United Kingdom remove its colonial administration of the region within six months. In January 2021, the International Tribunal for the Law of Sea ruled that Mauritius has sovereignty over Diego Garcia. Regardless of widespread international opinion in favor of Mauritius, London has largely ignored these decisions. As the leading architects of the existing international system, American and British disregard for international legal opinion repeatedly undermines the legitimacy of their so-called rules-based international order.
This year, the United Kingdom and Mauritius have renewed negotiations to settle the Diego Garcia sovereignty dispute. Noting the significance of the base on Diego Garcia, Mauritius has offered a ninety-nine-year lease on the island in exchange for full sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. This offer includes an explicit commitment that Mauritius “would permit the unhindered operation of the defense facility [for the US and UK], in accordance with international law.” The phrase “in accordance with international law,” however, revives outstanding questions about the inclusion of Diego Garcia in the African nuclear-weapon-free zone. The proposed lease thus raises an underlying tension in the sovereignty negotiations that challenge the principles of U.S. and UK nuclear nonproliferation. Under the current terms, the nuclear status of Diego Garcia must be settled before the sovereignty dispute can be addressed.
Resolution of the Diego Garcia dispute could be a historic and strategic turning point for the narrative of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, but only if policymakers recognize it. Diego Garcia has always been seen as a geopolitical asset for major global powers—whether as the subject of colonial competition, a stronghold against Soviet encroachment, a support facility for counterterrorism operations, or a bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific. Today, leaders of both the United States and the United Kingdom have come forward to assert their interests in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific where governments can make their own sovereign choices and territorial integrity is respected. Policymakers must recognize that the Diego Garcia sovereignty negotiations are not a threat to these security interests but instead an opportunity to bolster them. The United States and United Kingdom can reinforce their Indo-Pacific security strategies by upholding international laws and norms while finding way to fulfill their operational defense requirements. The two are not mutually exclusive.
In 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American hero, revered as the scientific mastermind behind the creation of the atomic bomb. By 1954, though, Oppenheimer had become a nuclear policy outcast. Under charges of being a “danger to the common defense and security” of the United States—particularly after expressing reservations about the country’s move toward more advanced nuclear weaponry—the U.S. government expelled Oppenheimer from its central political and scientific circles. In pursuit of nuclearization, Oppenheimer was seen as supremely American, but in pursuit of nuclear restraint, Oppenheimer was treated as a traitor.
So how could America’s famed nuclear protagonist so quickly move from hero to pariah? The suppression of the United States’ most influential nuclear critic was largely the result of a growing fusion between nuclear weapons and the post–World War II identity being constructed by Washington. The nation sought global omnipotence by chasing the weapon to which it had attributed omnipotence—the hydrogen bomb—thereby creating an environment hostile to any voices that challenged the imminence of further nuclear pursuit. Oppenheimer’s persecution marked a turning point in constraining the frame of debate for nuclear policy indefinitely, fortifying the possession of nuclear weapons as not only an integral part of U.S. defense but as an immutable facet of the American identity.
The Debate Over the H-Bomb
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, shattering the United States’ short-lived feeling of global omnipotence after the war and leaving it with a newfound sense of vulnerability. A fierce debate ignited behind the closed doors of elite scientific, military, and political circles about both the consequences of this erosion of power and how the country should respond. Before long, many settled on one route as the answer: pursuing the hydrogen bomb.
Initial pressure for developing the weapon came from scientific enthusiasts and their political supporters. Just two weeks after the Soviet test, Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), argued the United States could only regain military superiority over the Soviets with a “quantum jump” in technology, referring to the hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb. Others believed that in the same way American scientists raced to beat out Hitler’s Germany to the atomic bomb, the same rigor was needed to beat out Stalin’s Soviet Union to the H-bomb. To Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” Stalin and his ideology were no less dangerous, and as such, Soviet power could only be checked by American science. For many in the United States, the H-bomb came to represent the nation’s key to regaining preeminence on the global stage.
This burgeoning opinion particularly worried Oppenheimer, who chaired the AEC’s General Advisory Committee (GAC). The scientist expressed serious concerns about what the realization of such technology would actually mean for war and the prospects of peace. “What does worry me is that this thing appears to have caught the imagination, both of the congressional and military people, as the answer to the problems posed by the Russian advance,” Oppenheimer wrote. “That we have become committed to it as the way to save the country and the peace appears to me full of dangers.”
Oppenheimer recognized the arguments for total dependence on nuclear weapons that were gaining traction would have pernicious implications for global stability, likening the United States and USSR to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”
As chairman of the most influential group on the government’s atomic weapons decisions, Oppenheimer grew to hold a significant role in the country’s consideration of the issue. The GAC officially deliberated the question of the H-bomb in 1949, and in its concluding opinion expressed numerous technical, political, and ethical grievances about the United States’ potential realization of thermonuclear weapons. Oppenheimer agreed with the committee’s conclusions, but contrary to the accusations that were brought against him later, he had not led the GAC to its conclusions. Nevertheless, after the GAC voted unanimously against recommending a move toward developing the H-bomb, Oppenheimer emerged as the central figurehead in the debate—as an inspirational voice for nuclear restraint to his supporters, but as an obstacle in the way of American ascendancy to his foes.
The Hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Although then president Harry Truman decided to move forward with developing the weapon over the GAC’s objections, Oppenheimer’s resistance to the H-bomb pursuit made him an obvious target of numerous powerful figures. One of Oppenheimer’s most significant enemies was Strauss, who, beginning in 1949, cultivated a growing political crusade against him. For years, Strauss worked with the FBI to spy on Oppenheimer, orchestrated a public smear campaign, and turned president Dwight Eisenhower sourly against him. Aided by the onset of McCarthyism in the country, Strauss’ efforts climaxed in 1953, when Oppenheimer received a letter of formal charges from the AEC.
The letter entailed twenty-four charges. The first twenty-three concerned information about Oppenheimer’s alleged communist affiliations, painting him as a dissident whose continued employment with the AEC would “endanger the common defense and security” of the United States. All these charges had previously been examined and discounted in his original security clearance hearing in 1943. The same information was reviewed again in 1947. The final charge—appearing for the first time—revealed the real motivations behind the movement against Oppenheimer:
You were instrumental in persuading other outstanding scientists not to work on the hydrogen bomb project, and . . . the opposition to the hydrogen bomb, of which you are the most experienced, most powerful, and the most effective member, has definitely slowed down its development.
The inclusion of Oppenheimer’s objections to the H-bomb alongside charges of disloyalty to the country equated challenging further nuclearization to an act of defiance against America itself. Washington’s position had been made clear: to criticize nuclear weapons was to be anti-American.
After the weekslong hearing that followed, the AEC ruled against Oppenheimer, concluding that he was not at all disloyal but “did not show the enthusiastic support for the [H-bomb] program which might have been expected of the chief atomic adviser to the Government.” As a result, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, and the “blank wall” between Oppenheimer and the country’s nuclear secrets that Eisenhower desired had been achieved. The scientist was effectively exiled from government and nuclear policy circles for the rest of his life.
On December 16, 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy vacated the AEC’s decision, posthumously restoring Oppenheimer’s security clearance in what was an attempt to erase what was famously regarded as “a black mark on the escutcheon of our country.” However, what could not be erased was the impact that Oppenheimer’s public persecution left on fortifying the possession of nuclear weapons as an immutable feature of the American identity.
Nuclear weapons remain hotly debated today. Yet because nuclear weapons have become the source of many qualities America seeks to identify with—such as prestige, power, and global preeminence—policy discourse is constrained within narrow bounds, governed by unspoken assumptions about what is possible to change and what is immutable. Deterrence, for example, is taken for granted as a consensus, or a natural and inevitable consequence of the existence of nuclear technology. As such, proposals that accept this notion are substantively engaged with, while perspectives that challenge it are often dismissed on technicalities or repressed, without real engagement with the substance or merit of such ideas.
As Oppenheimer himself suggests: “The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.” Yet, as exhibited by his own exile from nuclear policy circles at the hands of the government, some assertions—particularly the permanence of nuclear possession—are not to be challenged in the United States without risk.
In June 2021, a sixty-year-old man set himself on fire in Kuwait after failing to acquire legal identification papers. He was a member of Kuwait’s bidoon, or stateless, population. He was not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, to resort to such drastic measures to protest the exclusions inherent to Kuwait citizenship.
The Arabic word bidoon means “without” and comes from the term bidoon jinsiya, referring to a lack of recognized nationality or citizenship. Since the legal codification of Kuwaiti citizenship in 1959, hundreds of thousands of people have been denied Kuwaiti nationality—though figures are imprecise, stemming from dubious census methodologies and the 1990–1 Iraq invasion prompting a mass exodus of bidoon. Of the more than 100,000 bidoon still residing in the country today, only an estimated 30,000 or so are recognized by the Kuwaiti government as eligible for naturalization.
Despite residing in the country for generations, the bidoon are often refused free public education, and are not entitled to the same welfare benefits afforded to citizens. They also cannot vote or run for office and are regularly denied basic identification documents or passports. Those leaving the country risk never returning, and since Iraq invaded in 1990, the Kuwaiti state has attempted to oust as many bidoon as it can.
The root cause behind this crisis is the codification of exclusionary citizenship in 1959. The law decreed that nationality was to be passed down patrilineally from the “original inhabitants” who lived in Kuwait in 1920 to their descendants. As a result, Kuwaiti women could not pass citizenship to their spouses or children. Nomadic tribes with irregular settlement were also denied nationality, later becoming the first bidoon. Naturalization—limited to exceptional cases in which the government took an interest—became the prerogative of the state, a tool for political control and demographic manipulation. In many respects, citizenship serves as the fulcrum of Kuwaiti politics and society, determining who is entitled to welfare, who is guaranteed political rights, and what lives people are able to lead.
But how did it come to be this way? The answer lies in the history of Kuwaiti citizenship and its use as an instrument of power.
The Road to Statelessness
A British protectorate until 1961, Kuwait first established citizenship on the eve of independence—well after the discovery of oil in 1938 and its commercial export in 1946. Concomitant with the rise of the oil economy was an influx of migrant labor, particularly from the Arab world. Urbanization and state developmentalism took off in the 1950s and 1960s, encouraging the settlement of nomadic tribes within the urban confines of Kuwait.
It was only in 1948 that a nationality law was drafted to distinguish those who were “Kuwaiti” from those who were not. Despite never seeing actual implementation, this first law was relatively liberal compared to its 1959 successor. It defined “original” Kuwaitis as all permanent residents settled in Kuwait before 1899 and permitted the naturalization of foreigners within ten years. The 1959 law, on the other hand, was less inclusive. It confined the category of “original” Kuwaitis to those permanently settled by 1920 and prolonged the residency requirement for naturalization to at least fifteen years (eight for Arabs). Successive laws and amendments further restricted naturalization, which was only granted by emiri decree. For all intents and purposes, legal immigration was not on the table.
The restrictions placed on citizenship are best understood in the context of the 1950s and 1960s, when the government faced fierce political contestation and feverish Arab nationalism. Demanding a say in government and a share of their country’s newfound oil wealth, Kuwaitis marched in support of Pan-Arabism and inclusive government, forged durable solidarities with Arab and South Asian migrants in the oil industry, and organized multinational strikes for better pay and labor rights. The Pan-Arab unrest reached its climax in the Shuwaikh incident of February 1959, when dissidents in Kuwait called for an “end to tribal rule,” a euphemism for the royal family.
Recognizing the threat to its rule, the government turned to a divide-and-conquer strategy. It passed the 1959 citizenship law, making naturalization exceedingly difficult and subject to the emir’s discretion. The new law effectively denied foreigners a path to citizenship. At the same time, the government began courting its newly minted citizens. Kuwaitis were placed in coveted jobs and afforded cradle-to-grave welfare benefits. Under the 1962 constitution, Kuwaiti citizens also gained the right to vote and run for election in the National Assembly. In drawing the lines between national and foreigner, citizenship did more than confine political and economic power to a citizen-minority. It also circumscribed the politic to which the government would be held accountable.
Indeed, the government did not shy away from outright demographic engineering, flagrantly violating its own laws when it saw fit. In direct contradiction of its annual naturalization limit of fifty people, the government naturalized between 160,000 and 220,000 bedouins from Saudi Arabia between 1965 and 1981. In exchange for political support, the tribes were granted first-degree citizenship (“original” status) with immediate political rights, waiving the ten-year waiting period for electoral participation so that they could vote for pro-government candidates in the parliamentary elections.
Besides the migrant-majority, the main losers of this evolving social contract were the newly stateless. Itinerant and largely illiterate at the time of the law’s passing, nomads who did not register for citizenship found themselves without Kuwaiti nationality. Several factors explain their failure or inability to acquire citizenship. Rural tribes may not have heard of the 1959 nationality law, recognized its importance, or been able to furnish sufficient documentary evidence to prove regular settlement in Kuwait prior to 1920. These bedouins thus became the first bidoon.
Though denied political rights, the bidoon were initially permitted welfare benefits. However, this came to an end in the turbulent 1980s, when the Kuwaiti government responded to the regional and domestic insecurity wrought by the Iran-Iraq War by effectively criminalizing statelessness. Viewing the bidoon as an internal threat, the government accused most of them of being Iraqi nomads who concealed their nationality documents for Kuwaiti citizenship. By 1986, the government had reclassified the entire population as “illegal residents” and stripped them of their welfare entitlements. By denying them basic rights and even birth certificates, the state hoped to force the bidoon to “confess” their former nationalities. This coercive campaign gained renewed force after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, leaving the problem of statelessness unresolved to the present day.
A Path to Citizenship?
In recent years, the crisis of citizenship in Kuwait has worsened. After protesters and legislators stormed the National Assembly in 2011, the government weaponized denaturalization as a tool for political control. Convicted critics and members of parliament were stripped of their citizenship and disqualified from running in subsequent elections. Those watching the drama unfold were deterred from exceeding the boundaries of tolerated dissent. The bidoon, on the other hand, had little else to lose. Taking up their own cause, they demanded serious change and a path to citizenship.
In response, the government promised to solve the question of statelessness. Pledging mass naturalizations in 2010, it established the Central System for the Remedy of the Situations of the Illegal Residents with a five-year mandate to investigate and process citizenship claims. More than a decade later, hardly any progress has been made as the promised naturalizations never materialized. Instead, the Central System renewed the administrative assault on the bidoon, again demanding claimants “disclose” their foreign nationalities in exchange for drivers licenses, birth certificates, or passports. Since naturalizing the bidoon, let alone revising the 1959 nationality law, is considered unthinkable, meaningful reform remains elusive.
This is in part because the political system built around the institution of citizenship is self-reinforcing. Since the stateless community lacks political rights and does not constitute an electoral constituency, some parliamentarians champion the cause to curry favor with sympathetic voters only to abandon it when no longer convenient. The executive branch has also dragged its feet. Despite promising mass naturalizations, the government has only renewed the Central System’s mandate, with no end in sight. The prerogative of granting citizenship also remains solely in the hands of the emir, with Kuwait’s highest court declaring in April 2022 that not even it can hear cases relating to citizenship, since it has no jurisdiction over “acts of sovereignty.” Together, electoral disincentives and executive centralization combine to keep citizenship reform out of reach.
Barring a legislative overhaul of the 1959 nationality law or the revival of judicial review over citizenship cases, progress in resolving Kuwait’s stateless stalemate is unlikely. Though systemic transformation is improbable in the near future, a turning point in institutional politics is urgently needed if justice is to stand a chance.
In the past few years, the climate on China policy in Washington has completely shifted. Many policy analysts referred to China primarily as a competitive cooperator. Now, the framing of a “new Cold War” and “great-power competition” has gained prominence.
While a number of events—from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ascension to power in 2012 to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s “tough on China” rhetoric during his 2016 campaign—helped to shift the zeitgeist, 2018 was the year in which the consensus among the foreign policy establishment landed on a more hawkish stance on China.
Since the administration of former U.S. president Bill Clinton and stretching into the early days of the administration of Barack Obama, the United States had pursued a strategy of engagement with China. Analysts and policymakers widely hoped that if Washington welcomed Beijing into international institutions, particularly economic ones such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), a more developed China would eventually adopt more liberal democratic norms.
Toward the start of the 2010s, data clearly showed that China was benefitting tremendously from its WTO accession and had drastically expanded trade networks—but without the kind of internal democratic shift U.S. actors had hoped for.
Then, in 2018, a number of rhetorical and concrete policy changes rippled through U.S.-China relations. In February 2018, prominent Asia experts Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell argued in Foreign Affairs that the United States, ever since normalization of relations with China in the 1970s, has had a pattern of thinking it can change China’s behavior more than is realistic. They stated that on the economic front, U.S. policymakers and executives had long fought tooth and nail for small concessions and accepted China’s favoritism toward its domestic enterprises as the cost of doing business. But cooperative and voluntary approaches to open China’s economy had mostly failed.
And China hadn’t become more democratic. In March 2018, Xi eliminated term limits, essentially making himself “president for life.” In addition, the state has used access to communications technology not to empower individual thought but to exercise tighter control on its citizens. Washington had believed that by inviting China into its security order in Asia, Beijing would find challenging U.S. security leadership on the continent and in surrounding maritime contexts both unnecessary and too costly. However, China was well on its way to building a military arsenal rival to the United States’ and has taken increasingly bold action to assert itself in the South China Sea. Taking stock of all these major miscalculations and blunders, Ratner and Campbell concluded that U.S. policy must abandon the wishful thinking of the past and focus on its own power rather than trying to either isolate and weaken or transform China.
Then, in June 2018, Trump announced he was levying 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods, marking the official start of the trade war. While this confrontational strategy was a departure from the more conciliatory approach during the Obama administration, it was not entirely unexpected, given Trump’s posturing in his first years in office. Even before taking office, Trump signaled he had plans to aggressively counter China’s unfair trade practices via tariffs based on the U.S. 1974 Trade Act. Once he assumed office, he struck a more antagonistic and competitive tone on China policy: in August 2017, he ordered a probe into Chinese intellectual property theft, and in the December 2017 National Security Strategy, his administration accused China of “economic aggression” and China was for the first time listed as a “strategic competitor.” The 2018 National Security Strategy went further, pointing fingers at China for using “predatory economics” and “intimidating its neighbors.”
China met the first round of tariffs with immediate retaliation. It quickly announced a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion worth of U.S. goods. Then a rapid-fire round of U.S. tariffs and Chinese retaliatory tariffs ensued, even amid attempts to call a truce and reach deals—eventually leading to tariffs on $550 billion worth of U.S. goods and $185 billion worth of Chinese goods. In 2019, the United States officially put Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei on its Entity List, banning Huawei from acquiring U.S. components and parts and campaigning for U.S. allies to reject deals with Huawei. Trump and Xi eventually reached a purchase agreement in early 2020, but China bought almost none of the goods it promised to buy from the United States that year.
Although Trump had been tough on China in rhetoric for years before 2018, the ugly tariff tit-for-tat was a key inflection point in no longer seeing value in a conciliatory posture toward China. Armed with the “strategic competitor” framing of 2017, Trump decisively injected animosity into U.S.-China relations in 2018.
Since 2018, a failed trade truce, the coronavirus pandemic, and a tech war have left U.S.-China relations on shaky ground. The United States has abandoned the idea that cooperation with China will transform it. Instead, Washington has taken dramatic steps to “decouple” or “de-risk” from Beijing. From sweeping export controls to the maintenance of Trump-era tariffs, the Biden administration has adopted a more protectionist stance toward economic ties with China.
By looking back and identifying the turning point when relations became more competitive than cooperative and U.S. preservation of hegemony superseded cooperative engagements with China, U.S. foreign policy experts can draw lessons on how to handle the so-called China threat in a way that protects the country’s security interests and leaves room for cooperation.
Great (Soft) Power Competition: The Strategic Problem of America’s Bad Reputation in the Middle East
Describing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 as a turning point is not controversial: the war has transformed the U.S.-Russia relationship, reorganized the global economy, and reshaped alliance politics around the world. But another major turning point is less obvious: U.S. attempts to rally support for Ukraine in the Middle East have laid bare how little political influence Washington has over its closest partners in the region.
The Saudis, Iraqis, and Emiratis have ignored U.S. requests to increase oil production to keep prices low. Saudi and Emirati leaders have refused phone calls from President Joe Biden and used oil production as leverage to gain support for their ongoing war in Yemen, for their nuclear power programs, and for legal immunity for Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the United States. An April 2023 leaked document indicated that Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi planned to secretly ship 40,000 rockets to Russia. Even the Israelis, the largest cumulative recipients of American foreign aid, declined to impose sanctions against Russia for months and refused to arm Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese ties in the Middle East have grown. Trade between Russia and Gulf countries jumped from $3 billion in 2016 to over $5 billion in 2021, owing largely to growing economic ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, China successfully brokered a rapprochement between long-term rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, without U.S. involvement. China has also taken over the United States’ position as the main trading partner in the Middle East. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia joined China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2023, indicating deepening diplomatic ties between the kingdom and China.
Given that America’s decreasing influence in the Middle East and China and Russia’s rising influence coincided with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, much of the analysis on great power competition in the Middle East argues that the U.S. has left a hard power vacuum in the region. For instance, a Middle East Monitor article from the month of the withdrawal warned that “China and Russia's growing dominance in the Middle East and surrounding areas may accelerate, as both superpowers seek to fill the ever-expanding vacuum that Washington is leaving.” Similarly, an SWP Berlin report summarized: “In the Western debate, the prevailing belief is that Moscow and Beijing are now using the power vacuum left by the United States.” Despite the fact that Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, these two authors voice a widely held conception that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan created a military power vacuum that decreased U.S. influence in the Middle East.
However, this conventional wisdom rests on two incorrect assumptions. First, it requires there to be a U.S. military power vacuum in the Middle East, which there is not. As of 2022, the United States has more than 40,000 troops throughout the Middle East, compared to Russia’s 4,000 in Syria, and China’s 240 troops in Djibouti and 419 troops in Lebanon as part of a UN mission. The United States also vastly outpaces Russian and Chinese arms sales to the region, and U.S. arms sales to regional powers like Saudi Arabia have grown in the past five years. Even after the end of the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States remains highly militarily present in the region.
Second, this set of arguments assumes that a high military presence is associated with a high level of political influence. However, the United States remains the sole military superpower in the Middle East, yet Washington’s influence has been decreasing anyway. If the United States outpaces Russia and China regarding military power while countries in the Middle East are increasingly challenging American influence, then military power must not be the decisive factor in influencing partners in the Middle East.
Instead, soft power may hold more explanatory value than hard power in describing great power competition in the Middle East. Analyzing U.S. soft power in the region offers an alternative explanation for America’s dwindling influence. The Iraq War is a particularly salient case study of American foreign policy decisions that have eroded U.S. soft power in the Middle East.
Declining American Soft Power in the Middle East
In 1990, Joseph Nye proposed a distinction between coercive power and soft power. According to Nye, “A country’s soft power can come from three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).” American cultural exports such as Netflix and Hollywood continue to outpace competitors, but the other two categories of foreign policy and political values show critical slippage to American soft power.
Public opinion data is the most common measurement of soft power. (This data is often unreliable in the region, so only the most scrupulous sources are included here.) In the Middle East, public opinion data indicates broadly negative perceptions of the United States. In 2022, 21 percent of respondents in the Arab Opinion Index saw the United States as the “greatest threat to the Arab countries.” Only 3 percent awarded that designation to Russia, and China was among the 2 percent who named “other” countries. Furthermore, 78 percent of respondents said that the U.S. poses a threat to the security of the region, compared to 57 percent for Russia, and 37 percent for China.
A country’s foreign policies are the “primary driver of public opinion,” according to SoftPower30, a project by USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy that measures global trends in soft power. The Arab Center found that in 2018 79 percent of respondents viewed American foreign policy negatively. When asked about specific U.S. foreign policies, “vast majorities of Arabs had negative views of US policy toward Palestine (87%, up from 79% in 2016), Syria (81%), and Iraq (82%).”
The second Iraq War dealt a particular blow to U.S. soft power and began the lasting downturn in American political influence in the Middle East—which had been pervasive in the post–Cold War era. Arguing that the Iraq War damaged public perceptions of the United States throughout the Middle East is hardly novel, but the 2003 invasion is an illustrative case study of the connection between soft power and political influence.
The Invasion of Iraq
In 2003, Pew Research found “the U.S. was less popular in the Middle East than in any other part of the world.” Respondents in all surveyed Middle Eastern countries agreed that the war in Iraq “has made the world a more dangerous place.” The damage to Washington’s reputation echoed throughout the region. A 2003 Brookings survey found that only 4 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, 6 percent in Jordan and Morocco, 10 percent in the UAE, and 13 percent in Egypt expressed a favorable view of America, with most respondents agreeing “that their negative view of the United States was based on American policy in the Middle East.”
The Iraq War’s damage to U.S. soft power in the Middle East is not a thing of the past. In 2018, respondents in the Arab Opinion Index were more opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq than to U.S. policy in Syria. Given that this poll was conducted in 2018—when the Syrian refugee crisis was about to hit its peak and in a year when the U.S. only accepted seventy-six Syrian refugees—it is striking that the Iraq War drew ever more negative marks in the 2018 Arab Opinion Index.
The Iraq War continues to sow skepticism about America’s political values in the region. In 2022, Gallup conducted a poll asking respondents if they agree that “the US is serious about encouraging the establishment of democratic systems in this region.” In all thirteen countries polled, most respondents disagreed with the statement. In Iraq, 72 percent of respondents disagreed. After the United States fought a twenty-year-long war in Iraq aimed at democratizing the country, it is damning that 72 percent of Iraqis are skeptical of America’s commitment to democracy. In the case of the Iraq War, military power significantly eroded U.S. soft power in the Middle East.
This erosion of soft power has had real consequences for Washington: perceived parallels between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and America’s invasion of Iraq have dampened political will for partners in the Middle East to take Washington’s side against Moscow. In his first speech after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin played up the comparison for a Middle East audience, describing the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a “tremendous loss in human life, damage, destruction” and pointing to “lies made at the highest state level and voiced from the high UN rostrum.”
This comparison resonated with many in the region. Iraq abstained from the March 2022 United Nations General Assembly vote denouncing the invasion, citing the “historical background in Iraq and because of our sufferings resulting from the continuing wars against our peoples.” Furthermore, Abbas al-Zaidi, an Iraqi official in the Popular Mobilization Forces, warned that the United States would use its experience “forming gangs, mafias and deaths squads in Iraq” in the war in Ukraine. This view is far from fringe: Paul Salem, president and CEO of the Middle East Institute, summarized a frequent response from regional partners to Washington’s requests for solidarity against Russia: “‘The U.S. illegally invaded Iraq two decades ago, and under false pretenses, so you have no moral leg to stand on.’”
Ultimately, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrates how military power, when it is not deemed legitimate, harms soft power and weakens political influence.
Repairing U.S. soft power in the Middle East would be a wise investment for Washington, especially given its concern over great power competition with China. The United States can show its commitment to its political values in the region in three ways.
First, the United States should reconsider its strategy of so-called arms sales diplomacy. The United States is the region’s largest arms supplier, but little evidence suggests that Washington has won influence via these transactions, and no evidence indicates that Russia and China are either willing or able to replace the United States in the arms trade. In March 2023, Senators Chris Murphy and Mike Lee introduced a resolution that would require the State Department to conduct a review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Passing this resolution would be a clear indication that the United States is serious about human rights.
Second, the U.S. should re-sign the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty. In 2002, then president George W. Bush withdrew from the ICC, threatening to cut off military support to all signatories, except Israel and NATO members, unless they agreed U.S. troops would be exempted from the ICC’s jurisdiction. This decision, which followed on the footsteps of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and preceded its invasion of Iraq, particularly resonated in the Middle East. In 2023, self-selecting that international oversight would make clear that Washington is breaking from the global war on terror and the exceptionalism that accompanied that period in American foreign policy.
Finally, American policymakers ought to consider a program of reparations for Iraqis. For decades, human rights activists have called for reparations to Iraqis materially harmed by the U.S. invasion. In 2004, then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested compensation to Iraqi victims of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, but no such compensation occurred. The United Nations compelled Iraq to pay $52.4 billion in reparations to Kuwaitis after invading in 1990 because its invasion was deemed a violation of international law. In 2004, the UN secretary general said America’s invasion of Iraq was illegal as well, but there was no discussion of the U.S. paying reparations. Selecting to pay reparations to Iraqis would indicate a willingness to be held to the same international standards that the United States wants to represent globally.
Taken together, these three policies would communicate a serious effort to repair the reputational harm brought on by the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
South Sudan’s admission to the United Nations in 2011 was the last time that the number of UN member states changed, making this ongoing period the longest drought without a shift in membership in the institution’s seventy-seven-year history.
Two broad trends explain why the number of new UN member states has ground to a halt: countries that were already independent before World War II joined the United Nations (more gradually than one might realize) and former colonial possessions achieved independence after the outbreak of World War II. These processes both peaked decades ago and were exhausted by the early 2000s. While there are already independent countries and current colonial possessions that could seek UN admission today, their leaders by and large want to maintain the status quo without UN membership.
But that doesn’t mean the world is done making new countries. There are four other state-creating mechanisms responsible for the addition of twenty-three current UN countries and the elimination of four former members. The pace of these changes has been erratic and unpredictable in the past few decades. Although none of the four categories have any imminent contenders for UN admission, they are all possible avenues for future states.
Trend I: Already Independent Countries Gained UN Recognition
In the early years of the UN, the institution was mostly playing catch up, adding countries already in existence. The UN has admitted sixty-eight countries whose independence (defined as having full control of their foreign relations) predates World War II. Yet only forty-five were founding members in 1945; the rest joined later.
Geopolitics helps explain the progression. The United Nations was created by and for the victors of World War II. In fact, “United Nations” was originally the term that the Allies of the war used to refer to their coalition. Thailand was the first Axis power to join the UN in 1946 and the last until December 1955. That year, the UN added eleven already independent countries, most of which had joined the Axis powers during the war.
Of the countries already independent by the start of World War II, the last five to join the UN—Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, and Switzerland—are all small European states or European microstates, most of which were neutral during World War II.
This category is unlikely to produce new UN member states. The Holy See is the only remaining non-UN member of this category, and the chances of it seeking full UN membership are minuscule.
Trend II: States Achieved Decolonization
Of UN member states today, 106 of 193 are former colonial possessions that achieved independence after the outbreak of World War II. Between 1940 and 2000, decolonization proceeded at a relatively steady pace across the continents. The exception was an especially busy period from 1955–68, when thirty-nine countries in Africa joined the United Nations—including sixteen in 1960 alone.
Millions of people still live in dozens of colonized territories around the world—from the forty-seven who live on the British Pitcairn Islands to the 300,000 in French Polynesia. While these people usually have far-reaching autonomy over local governance, they often lack the right to vote in national elections and do not control their foreign affairs.
However, this category is also not fertile ground for new UN member states. Most people still living in colonial territories do not want full independence and a seat at the United Nations. Instead, most prefer either the status quo or full citizenship rights from their colonizer, as evidenced by referenda in such places as New Caledonia, the Falkland Islands, and Bermuda.
Four Other Mechanisms Through Which New Countries Form
These two broad trends explain how the set of countries and colonies that existed in 1939 produced most of the UN member states today. But entirely new countries can still come into existence—or countries can cease to exist—through one of four other mechanisms.
The first is regional breakaways. Only four states achieved UN membership by gaining independence from their national governments. Unlike colonial possessions, these regions had equal legal status before breaking away. Three of these polities won sovereignty after a devastating civil war—such as Bangladesh, which fought in 1971 to separate from Pakistan. Singapore is an unusual case: it was expelled by Malaysia in 1965 and obtained independence with minimal bloodshed.
A country acceding into its neighbor—the opposite of a regional breakaway—is a net negative for the number of UN member states. This has happened only once when the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) gave up its UN membership to accede into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1990.
The formation of union states is also a net negative for the number of UN members. This happens when two or more states give up their UN memberships to receive admission to the United Nations as a new country. Examples include Tanganyika and Zanzibar joining into the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964 and the 1990 merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) into the Republic of Yemen.
Finally, union states dissolving occurs when a union country ceases to exist after all its members gain independence. In three of the five cases in this category, one state inherited the UN membership of its former union country, as the Russian Federation did when the Soviet Union dissolved. The United Nations grew by seventeen countries between 1991–1993 due to the breakups of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
Today numerous polities fall into one of these four categories, but none seems to be a strong contender for UN membership in the near term. Numerous breakaway regions—such as Catalonia from Spain, Kurdistan from Iraq, and Bougainville from Papua New Guinea—have voted in referenda for independence, but strong (and sometimes bloody) pushback from their national governments has stymied most of these nationalist movements, leaving them with various degrees of autonomy short of statehood. UN membership is especially coveted for these fledgling states because it is the gold standard of sovereignty, gives power and a platform, and implies equality before the world’s nations.
New regional accessions could form eventually. A rising share of Moldovans favor accession into Romania, with the most recent polling data showing 44 percent in support. Union states are also unlikely but possible. A declining share of South Koreans—44 percent in 2021—say that reunification with North Korea is necessary. Union states dissolving are the hardest to predict. But commentators have recently predicted war-torn Yemen could shatter into multiple new countries.
While admission for previously independent states and decolonization seem unlikely to produce new UN member states, declarations of unity with or separation from neighboring nations—the basic, longtime mechanisms through which new states form—will almost certainly continue. What remains to be seen is whether the members of the United Nations choose to recognize those nations.
The Rohingya genocide in Myanmar marked a turning point in international attention to the role of social media platforms in mass atrocities. In 2018, a UN fact-finding mission reported that social media had a significant role in mass violence in 2017 and that Facebook was a “useful instrument” for spreading hate speech. International condemnation of Facebook’s role in the genocide pushed its parent company, Meta, to implement new policies and strategies to detect and remove potentially harmful content.
But four years later, Facebook was once again in the spotlight for viral and hateful posts, this time in Ethiopia. In October 2022, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide stated that hate speech “often propagated through social media” was fueling violence in the deadly conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Shortly after, a $1.6 billion lawsuit brought in Kenya’s high court accused Meta of amplifying hate speech and incitement to violence in the Tigray War.
Online hate speech in the conflict in Tigray demonstrates both the progress and the limitations of Meta’s atrocity prevention efforts since the Rohingya genocide. Going forward, Meta, regulatory bodies, and civil society should pursue five interrelated lines of effort to comprehensively address and prevent potential harm associated with Facebook.
A Transnational Problem
Meta significantly augmented its atrocity prevention efforts in the wake of the Rohingya genocide. In Myanmar, human rights groups alleged that pervasive online hate speech plausibly contributed to offline incitement and a permissive environment for the military’s genocidal campaign. International outrage pushed Meta to invest in human rights policies and expertise; engage with civil society on digital literacy and fact checking; and issue regular reports on coordinated inauthentic behavior, community standards enforcement, and civil rights. Meta has introduced technical measures such as warning labels, automated hate speech detection and removal systems, and suppression or removal of potentially harmful content and accounts. In Myanmar and beyond, the company has also increased the number of native language speakers reviewing content and expanded lists of banned slurs.
Nevertheless, incendiary hate speech also has proliferated in Ethiopian online spaces since the outbreak of hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF in 2020. Viral posts have called for violence against specific ethnic groups and designated people and communities as “terrorists,” “killers,” “cancer,” and “weeds.” Social media users have frequently named and posted photos of individuals or even entire communities, often resulting in death threats and physical violence. One of the plaintiffs in the Kenyan lawsuit against Meta is the son of a man murdered after being accused of association with the TPLF in viral Facebook posts. Hateful speech has predominantly originated from the Ethiopian government and pro-government forces, but TPLF members and supporters have also participated, as have diaspora communities. Even posts that were taken down often remained visible for weeks.
During the war, the gaps in Meta’s harm mitigation measures quickly came to light. By October 2020, Meta had invested in collaboration with independent local fact-checking organizations in the country, employed more native speakers of local languages, developed AI-assisted hate speech detection and removal in Amharic and Oromo, and demoted content from repeat policy violators in Ethiopian users’ news feeds. But in fall 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents that revealed that by December 2020, the company lacked sufficient employees with local language competency who could manually monitor the situation in Ethiopia, and the inadequacy of their automated “classifiers” in Oromo and Amharic meant that the company knew it remained “largely blind to problems on [their] site.”
Meta responded to the leak with additional but limited atrocity prevention efforts in Ethiopia. In November 2021, Meta described advances in automated and manual hate speech detection, integration of civil society feedback, and a media literacy campaign, yet it could review content in only four of the eighty-five languages spoken in the country, potentially leaving up to nearly 25 percent of the population uncovered. In addition, by late 2022, Meta had hired only twenty-five content moderators in the country. It also still failed to consistently remove unambiguously hateful content reported through Facebook’s tools. In June 2022, the company failed a Global Witness test by approving for publication twelve of the worst examples of hate speech that had previously been removed from Facebook for violating community standards.
Progress, to a Point
Evidence from Ethiopia and elsewhere demonstrates where Meta’s efforts have fallen short and how hateful content continues to slip through the cracks. Though Meta has made real progress in developing human rights policies, instruments, and expertise since the Rohingya genocide, it still lacks critical capabilities, such as language competency and adequate automated tools. Capacity—including numbers of non-English content moderation staff and resources—also remains an issue: 84 percent of the company’s misinformation prevention efforts go toward the United States, while only 16 percent go toward the rest of the world. As tech companies currently face dwindling revenues and implement mass layoffs, their capacity gap will only increase, and countries in the Global South likely take the biggest hit as low priorities for companies.
Another gap is commitment. Despite initiating partnerships with local fact checkers and civil society, Meta has allegedly frequently ignored requests for meetings or support from these organizations and been reluctant to meaningfully incorporate lessons learned. Moreover, content moderation improvements still fail to address more fundamental concerns about how social media algorithms and business models can promote inflammatory, divisive, and harmful content that is more likely to maximize engagement and therefore advertising revenue. Without addressing these underlying challenges, social media companies will remain locked in a continuous game of whack-a-mole with producers of hateful content.
Five Avenues for Atrocity Prevention
Meta, regulatory bodies, and civil society must simultaneously pursue five measures to close the remaining gaps. Steps to pursue remediation and make Facebook “do no harm” must accompany offline efforts in atrocity prevention.
First, Meta should publicly acknowledge and provide appropriate compensation for victims of violence associated with their platforms. In addition to the lawsuit on Facebook’s role in Tigray, several other lawsuits are currently pending against Meta for its role in violent incitement, including at least three active cases seeking remediation for the Rohingya. The company should establish and strengthen procedures and entities for not only individual-level grievance mechanisms, but also group-level ones. While continuing to cooperate in providing evidence for the International Court of Justice case against Myanmar for the Rohingya genocide, Meta should also set a companywide standard for compliance in any similar future cases.
Second, to adequately fulfil its responsibilities as a content moderator, Meta should commit to locally specific and transparent human rights due diligence. Meta should invest more resources into hiring or otherwise engaging with and meaningfully incorporating feedback from local partners who can help with non-English content moderation and develop tools such as early warning systems and updated hate speech lexicons. These procedural improvements must be paired with greater human rights oversight, particularly through greater data transparency so external parties could evaluate these policies’ adequacy.
Third, with mounting financial pressure, realistic measures require prioritization. Within its content moderation, Meta should prioritize countries at high risk of violence based on reliable external estimates such as those of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as the risk assessments Meta already performs, and offer commensurate support. Despite recent financial hardship, Meta is not a bare bones operation and should also consider shifting more resources to content moderation as a whole.
Fourth, governments should enact and enforce regulations to hold social media companies accountable for risks and harm associated with their platforms. Companies cannot be the sole determinants of the nature and extent of their atrocity prevention efforts. For one, their vulnerability to individual incentive and market forces makes them unreliable partners. Moreover, individual company actions are not enough when bad actors can migrate to other platforms, as was the case in Myanmar where pro-government users moved from incitement over Facebook to incitement over Telegram. In tech regulation, states and other regulatory bodies can look for guidance from the voluntary United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide operational principles for states to ensure social media companies incorporate human rights standards into risk mitigation while guarding against biased or sweeping censorship that threatens legitimate speech. Another model is the EU’s new Digital Services Act (DSA), which among other human rights tools, mandates co-regulatory mechanisms such as assessments, codes of conduct, and audits, attached to significant potential financial penalties. The EU should follow through by adequately resourcing and enforcing the DSA while other countries work toward these models.
Finally, even states where the creation of a DSA-like framework may be less feasible may choose to focus on other pieces of the larger atrocity prevention puzzle. For instance, current violence in Myanmar has become so intense and far-reaching that offline efforts such as peacebuilding may be equally if not more impactful. Moreover, blanket statements blaming all violence on social media precludes accountability for actors such as Myanmar’s military, which has also conducted a deliberate offline campaign of violence. Similarly, other researchers suggest that Ethiopian social media risk management strategies must also work in conjunction and support healthy, independent media in Ethiopia. These are also all efforts that international organizations and civil society can and should support.
Since the Rohingya genocide, Meta has made genuine improvements in its atrocity prevention on Facebook. From investments in human rights policies and expertise to local civil society engagement and automated hate speech detection systems, harm mitigation tactics are increasingly integrated into the platform’s architecture. However, the war in Tigray demonstrated that these efforts still face significant gaps in capability, capacity, and commitment, particularly in the Global South and conflict-affected contexts. Ultimately, effective atrocity prevention requires a coherent, integrated plan across technical, sociopolitical, and legal domains.
South-to-South regional climate adaptation collaboration is an untapped venue to chart a new course of global climate adaptation efforts. Today, global climate adaptation suffers from its fragmented nature, which prevents an equitable distribution of resources and strategies to help combat climate change globally. In particular, the countries with the smallest share of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, largely in the Global South, suffer from the failure of the biggest emitters, largely in the Global North, to control climate change. With more global recognition of equity concerns, a “new wave” of global climate-resilient strategies is attempting to address historical asymmetry between Northern polluters and their Global South counterparts. To scale up climate adaptation and mitigation, South-to-South partnerships are well positioned to reinvent climate diplomacy.
From 1850 to 2019, the least developed countries’ (LDCs) share of CO2 emissions was a mere 0.4 percent. Similarly, small island developing states (SIDS) presented a commendably low 0.5 percent, while Africa contributed a modest 7 percent and South Asia accounted for 4 percent. In comparison, North America and Europe together amounted to a staggering 39 percent of the global CO2 emissions during that same period. This imbalance not only represents record-breaking levels of CO2 emission with spiraling consequences on the biosphere, but also significantly exacerbates climate-induced vulnerability in the LDCs and SIDS.
Climate-induced vulnerability is caused by the combination of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity—whether a country is exposed to climate change, how sensitive the country is to its effects, and how well-equipped the country is to address it. In the global environmental governance regime, adaptive capacity is the ability of a system to adjust to climate change variability and mitigate its consequences via institutional and human resources. And vulnerability results from shortfalls on the adaptive capacity of a country.
There are several different iterations of adaptive capacity, including farm-water management and storage, cultivar improvements, agroforestry, and flood defense systems. To best capture the transnational, multisectoral, and scale-varying nature of adaptive efforts, indicators such as the global stocktake are put in place under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) system to gauge shortfalls in adaptive capacity. This nuanced tool assesses the adequacy of adaptation and mitigation capacity-building while accounting for developing countries’ positionalities in this global effort.
However, less than one quarter of countries have established monitoring and evaluation systems, and global climate adaptation efforts are still disjointed, sector-specific, and uneven in scale. The 1987 Montreal Protocol remains a unique expression of unanimous multilateral efforts yielding actionable results on the climate adaptation front. The cornerstone of the global climate adaptation regime, the protocol paved the way for the establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992. Ratified by 1994, and soon followed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, these transnational linkages are pillars of global environmental governance, as they attend to norm creation, capacity building, and scientific and technical knowledge transfer. But South-to-South cooperation remains an untapped venue to tailor specific climate adaptation strategies for developing nations, with the potential to serve a leading tool to bolster climate adaptation capacity building in the countries suffering most acutely from inequality in climate adaptation.
South-to-South Collaboration: Cross-pollination in Climate Adaptation
Some efforts are being made to create South-to-South collaboration in the climate space. Brazil has recently developed a solid partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the climate front. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s visit to the UAE, which he deemed “highly fruitful,” sealed numerous climate-related deals with the goal of “encourag[ing] ambitious climate action” worldwide. Egypt’s hosting of COP27 and the upcoming COP28 in the UAE break with the traditional co-optation of climate agenda discussions by the Global North and offer additional opportunities for countries in the Global South to take the lead on developing more equitable climate adaptation strategies. The South-South collaboration has also borne fruit in Abu Dhabi’s support for Brasilia’s bid to host COP30 in Bélem. The next steps for the cross-pollination of the climate portfolio between Brazil and the UAE will include logistical and technical input from Abu Dhabi. UAE-to-Brazil cooperation is a great example of interregional climate response in the Global South, which charts a new course for a multipolar climate resilience architecture.
Successful regional climate adaptation initiatives in the Global South are organic vehicles for localized capacity-building, such as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). Financed by the Global EbA Fund, EbA has seen success in transboundary water management, resilience building, and regional cooperation in South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Leading EbA projects include the promotion of the Climate Smart Village approach in the Santa Rita and Olopa communities of Honduras and Guatemala that introduces an innovative people-centered approach toward climate adaptation that places local knowledge, socioeconomic inclusion, and participatory methodologies at its core. Retaining this approach in future EbA programming could help with South-to-South knowledge transfer in respect to participatory methodologies, bridging the gap between local scientific knowledge and policymaking.
EbA South is another groundbreaking project laying the foundation for further South-to-South collaboration. Participatory countries are Seychelles, Mauritania, and Nepal, while China provides executive support. The project focused on three vulnerable ecosystems: drylands, mountain, and coastal—and developed strategies that could be applied to other countries in the future. These lessons included the establishment of interregional green knowledge transfer banks, transfer of technologies, and concrete EbA actions such as mangrove restoration in Seychelles, community-based watershed restoration in Nepal, and desertification control in Mauritania.
Green regional knowledge transfer banks are essential tools for wider access to patent-free climate adaptation technologies. South-to-South collaboration can remedy the exclusionary nature of green technologies primarily developed in the North. For example, Colombia and Costa Rica are also developing community-centered EbA for water and energy security. This project cultivates public-private partnerships as it incentivizes hydropower companies to build a sustainable water procurement strategy for the long term. Highly replicable, this project actively participates in the greening and popularization of regional knowledge banks. These green technology banks consolidate the institutionalization of South-to-South climate adaptation.
Regional climate adaptation blocs are effective alternatives to traditional diplomatic channels. South-to-South coalitions can strengthen the workings of preexisting regional bodies, such as the African Union and the Southern Common Market. Climate risk assessment centers are the building blocks of climate adaptation research networks in the Global South. Boosting research on the adaptation front is a visionary strategy, moving the needle from the aspirational to the practical. Adapting to the immediate imperatives of climate change will give way to the elaboration of long-term, structural mitigation strategies. And what better than regional climate adaptation blocs to achieve this long-awaited yet imperative shift?