What Would a Biden Administration Mean for International Religious Freedom?

Benjamin Harbaugh – At the time of this writing, most media organizations have called the 2020 US presidential election for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. While the Trump Administration is contesting the election results through lawsuits and potential recounts in multiple swing states, it appears as though Joe Biden will take the oath of office come January 2021. This begs the question, what will International Religious Freedom (IRF) look like in a Biden Administration? First, I believe Biden will continue to move IRF in the same general direction as the Trump Administration, but without the weight that the current Ambassador for IRF, former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, has brought to the position. Second, I expect the position of Senior Director for IRF on the National Security Council (NSC), currently held by Sarah Makin, to remain vacant throughout Biden’s term. Lastly, I believe a Biden Administration will cement IRF as a component of the US foreign policy establishment despite the structural setbacks it faces.

In the IRF space, the Trump Administration has been able to keep the issue largely bipartisan. For instance, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke one after another regarding the importance of a whole of government approach at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2019.[1] While some politicization has occurred, it is one of the few policy areas in DC where politicians are still able to work together constructively.

With this in mind, I posit that Biden will pursue an IRF strategy similar to that of the Trump Administration. China will likely be the primary focus, with Iran and other State Department designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) close behind. One caveat is that President Trump’s apparent sympathy towards the terrible IRF records of Saudi Arabia and India will likely end with a Biden presidency. In India, Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, has already expressed concern over India’s crackdown on Muslims in the disputed Kashmir region.[2] As for Saudi Arabia, Biden threatened to withhold billions of dollars’ worth of arms if the Kingdom does not fix their record on human rights during a presidential primary debate.[3]

Unfortunately, going down the same path as the Trump Administration writ large will likely weaken IRF’s position in the foreign policy establishment in the short run. The informal consensus of most IRF advocates I work with is that Ambassador Brownback is unparalleled in his content expertise and political stature. His appointment skyrocketed the prominence of the IRF Office—which can be seen in IRF’s reorganization within the State Department from being a subcomponent of the Democracy Rights and Human Labor Bureau (DRL) to a standalone entity under the Undersecretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (referred to in bureaucratic jargon as “J”). Ambassador Brownback’s unique combination of experience and political prowess does not appear to be matched by any other prospective appointees. So, while the Biden Administration may try to continue developing IRF as a bipartisan foreign policy priority, it is unlikely to enjoy the same weight that is has under the Trump Administration.

In a similar vein, I believe that a Biden Administration would likely leave the position of Senior Director for IRF on the NSC vacant. I do not believe this is a sign of antipathy from the incoming administration, but rather a sense of priority. Biden has made it clear that he wants to return US foreign policy back to “normal.”[4] In this instance, “normal” would mean that this position stays vacant—as it has been in every other administration since the position was created by Congress in 1998.[5] The Biden Administration sees the COVID-19 pandemic and multilateral effort on climate change as its highest priorities—not religious freedom.[6] In all fairness, I do not believe that the Trump Administration saw IRF as its top priority either. However, even if only to please his domestic audience, it seems as though IRF was a core pillar of Trump’s foreign policy.[7]

Lastly, I believe that the IRF establishment—both in the government and in civil society—can benefit from a Biden Administration in spite of these difficulties. Trump greatly increased IRF’s role in US foreign policy, but he has been a divisive figure. I believe that Biden’s focus on both reconciliation and a values-based foreign policy mean that the Trump Administration’s legacy on IRF will not be rolled in together with his other controversial policies. As such, IRF could be one of the few areas in US foreign policy that might experience continuity between the Trump and Biden Administrations. In the end, it appears as though IRF could come through the Trump Administration stronger than it ever was and without the baggage that many of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives have had.

Although structural difficulties, such as replacing Ambassador Brownback and the serial vacancy of the IRF position on the NSC, will cost the IRF movement momentum, Biden’s Administration will likely allow IRF to firmly root its newfound influence across administrations—ensuring that international religious freedom remains an integral component of US foreign policy.


Benjamin Harbaugh is the Vice President for Global Engagement with the International Religious Freedom Secretariat. He recently served as an intern in both the Office of the Vice President of the United States of America and the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State. He is also pursuing a graduate degree at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between foreign policy and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for religious minorities around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.


[1] https://www.state.gov/vice-president-pence-and-secretary-pompeo-deliver-remarks-at-the-second-ministerial-to-advance-religious-freedom/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/08/world/asia/kamala-harris-india.html

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/09/world/saudi-arabia-trump-biden-presidency-analysis-intl/index.html

[4] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/11/07/can-joe-biden-make-politics-boring-again-434584

[5] https://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/releases-statements/uscirf-applauds-impending-appointment-national-security-council

[6] https://www.vox.com/2020/8/18/21334630/joe-biden-foreign-policy-explainer

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/trump-administration-religious-freedom/594040/

 

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