This past weekend, I was one of the many Virginians who spent the majority of their Saturday afternoon outside, and didn’t complain once about the 60+ degree weather. A warm afternoon in February is nothing short of a treat. It was great to shed the heavy layers of winter, get some Vitamin D, and spend time away from artificial lighting, sans gloves and scarves and puffer coats.
But warm weather in February is not a win for everyone. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, residents watch the water line creep upwards, year after year. The Army Corps of Engineers projects relative sea level in Virginia could rise as much as six feet by the end of the century. Much of Norfolk’s infrastructure has been built on swamps and streams, and the land has been slowly sinking for thousands of years. But climate change is also affecting these sea levels.
Norfolk’s Deputy City Manager Ron Williams cites that by the year 2100, neighborhoods as much as a quarter mile inland could be inundated or need design changes to protect them from flooding. In recent years, Norfolk has installed road signs that act as “essentially huge vertical rulers” so that people can measure the depth of floodwater at low-lying intersections in the event of a flood.
For decades, environmental activists and environmental policy researchers have warned that human carbon emissions would cause land ice to melt, ocean water to expand, and sea levels to rise. Virginia is not alone in its concerns. All along the Atlantic shoreline, cities and ports are witnessing water creep up, inch by inch. New research using GPS and prehistoric data has shown that nearly the entire coast is affected, from Florida to Massachusetts and parts of Maine.
However, Virginia faces a unique situation - Norfolk and the larger Hampton Roads area are among the worst-hit parts of the United States. The region is second only to New Orleans, in terms of highest rates of sea level rise. It hosts a significant military presence, with ports and naval bases right on the Virginia shoreline. Hampton Roads has the second largest concentration of military capacity and activities in the United States, and is home to the world’s largest naval base – Naval Station Norfolk.
Forty-six percent of the local Hampton Roads economy is supported by Department of Defense spending. Should ports or military bases need to be relocated due to rising sea levels, Eastern Virginia is particularly at risk of severe economic downturn.
What are Virginian legislators and policymakers doing to address the creeping waterline? Virginia has established a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses make changes to their properties in anticipation of sea-level rise - a step the program's advocates say no other state has taken. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation establishing the “Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund.” Senator Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, sponsored the bill, SB282.
The legislation is similar to a program sponsored in Connecticut. However, Virginia’s loans differ from this legal precedent. Virginia will lend funds to citizens not just to deal with immediate flooding threats and damage, but to mitigate future flood damage. What advocates of the program may not know, however, is that the fund has virtually no money, and might not receive state funding for several more years.
Right here in Charlottesville, a team of University of Virginia faculty members are helping Virginia’s coastal communities rise to the challenge of encroaching seas. “As a state institution, we have a particular obligation to engage in these issues that are a threat locally, nationally and globally,” said Associate Architecture Professor Phoebe Crisman, who directs UVA’s Global Environments and Sustainability program. Crisman, Ellen Bassett, and Mark White lead the Charlottesville charge to address rising waters in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
As our local team of experts survey best practices from around the world, including the Netherlands, and introduce new methods of containing coastal flooding in the Norfolk region, we in Virginia should stop and think twice before celebrating another prematurely warm February afternoon.
by Kate Clark
During his campaign, President Donald Trump made more than one inflammatory remark about the United States’ involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), calling the organization “obsolete.” This came as quite the contrast to former President Obama’s statements and actions during his time in office, which included reassurances of the U.S.’s commitment to the organization, and to its allies.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ view on NATO is slightly more nebulous than the new President’s. During his hearing and confirmation, he affirmed his support for NATO, calling it “vital” to the interests of the U.S. and stating “if we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it.” Additionally, Secretary Mattis served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, one of NATO’s two strategic commanders, from 2007 to 2009. However, recent news has reported that in his first official NATO meeting as Defense Secretary, Secretary Mattis demanded that member countries reach NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending quota, or the US would “moderate its commitment to the alliance.”
This statement was not unfounded; it is true that the compliance of other nations to NATO standards is questionable. As of 2015, only 5 of NATO’s 28 member countries were meeting the defense-spending quota. The U.S. ranks first in defense spending at 3.6% of GDP, almost doubling the quota, and accounts for roughly 75% of NATO’s overall defense spending.
So, where does NATO stand in our interests and priorities today? We are in a post-Iraq War isolationist phase – evidenced by the isolationist, protectionist, “America first” Trump campaign. His election victory could be in no small part contributed to Americans’ prioritization of economic and military strength. The new President even applauded the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, addressing it as an explicit decision to put its national identity, autonomy, and self-interest ahead of international commitments.
With the dynamic security threats we could face from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other areas of the globe, America’s national security interests are not occurring in isolation. Our allies face many of the same issues, and perhaps the solutions lie in cooperation. Secretary Mattis has taken a more measured approach in response to national security threats. His stance strengthens NATO by ensuring compliance with its rules and regulations. With this action, we are not forsaking our commitment to our allies, but rather showing its importance and investing in its value for the future. Whether or not the argument of NATO being obsolete is true right now, General Mattis’ actions are preventing this from becoming a fact in the coming years.
How the new President will use NATO is still up for debate. Since 2014, NATO’s member countries have stood in solidarity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Trump’s close relationship with Russia could put this stance in jeopardy. Additionally, President Trump’s insistence on “America first” could breach the trust and mutual support that NATO has historically offered its members. With the rise of populist campaigns across Europe, NATO could see similar reactions from other members such as France, the Netherlands, and the UK. And when countries start to sacrifice the security of their NATO allies in favor of their own agendas, the alliance risks losing its credibility and its core purpose.
In truth, the future of NATO could hold any number of outcomes. The interactions between Secretary Mattis and President Trump will surely help determine which path the organization takes—whether it be restoring the alliance to its intended glory or driving it into the ground. Recently, Secretary Mattis remarked that President Trump has thrown his “full support” behind NATO. However, we have yet to see whether or not NATO will remain the same organization it was created to be in 1949.
by Chimmuanya Obi
When Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America, Africa watched with keen interest. A man with a Luo heritage from the country of Kenya was expected to offer a new direction in US-African relations, one that would encourage economic partnership beyond aid, as well as political support. In his first term, Obama travelled to Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania to promote political transparency and encourage leadership among a new generation of African men and women. The Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), hosted by our very own Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, has invited young professionals from different African nations to learn effective strategies to become better leaders for their respective nations. Despite initiatives like these, Obama could have done more to proactively include Africa in American foreign policy.
On the political front, Obama called for more transparency in African governance, but rarely pushed leaders to be more accepting of the will of the people and human rights. For example, in 2010 the US was fairly quiet during the Ivory Coast conflict that broke out when then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his election defeat. The US was similarly quiet on the protests in Ethiopia last year, and the recently resolved election crisis in The Gambia. While Obama did not have a horrible relationship with Africa, it was below the expectations of many African people.
Now enter President Donald Trump. A character if there was ever one to enter the White House. In his inaugural address, he pledged to put “America first,” which could greatly alter the status quo of American foreign policy. While Trump has listed the usual areas of interests – Russia, China, the Middle East, Europe – in which he will address policy, Africa was left widely unnoticed. With a wild card like Trump in the White House, we could see an opportunity to reset US-Africa relations by focusing on areas of shared interest.
One area to look at for this reset is terrorism. While many see the Middle East as the breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorism, Africa has also attracted terrorist groups to set up base. In Somalia, al-Shabaab has caused much instability not only in the country but in neighboring Kenya where there is a current refugee crisis as Somalis flee violence in their country. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has a strong presence, and one of their most heinous acts was the kidnaping of hundreds of school girls from Chibok in the North-Eastern part of Nigeria, in addition to killing 29 schoolboys during the night as they slept. These actions propelled Boko Haram to international notoriety, sparking the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in 2014. Both organizations have one thing in common – they have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. One of Trump’s campaign promises was to eradicate ISIS. This can be approached by reducing their sphere of influence, which can be done relatively easily. Despite the prevalence of both al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, the spread of their influence has been largely restrained. African Union troops led by Kenya have managed to secure parts of Somalia. In December, Nigerian forces pushed Boko Haram insurgents out of the Sambisa Forest, the Boko Haram stronghold. Trump could offer American tactical support to help locate insurgents, working with these nations in their fight against terrorism. It would not require any ground force commitments, as militaries from both Nigeria and Kenya are capable and prepared to maintain lead combat roles.
Economic partnership is another area where Trump and Africa can improve relations. Africa, specifically Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania, has a vibrant budding middle class as economic growth continues to increase on the continent. The next goal is to reduce aid dependence and increase financial self-sufficiency. While development agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have worked with African governments on development projects, facilitating transatlantic trade with the continent will be the next crucial step. Although Trump is taking a more populist approach to trade, Africa can still benefit by increasing trade directly with the United States. This could be done by taking a more specific approach when trading with the continent such as crafting bilateral trade deals with different African nations. Tailoring trade to specific countries would build on each nation’s economic strengths and combat their weaknesses. This would play well for Trump as it could be beneficial to reduce China’s influence on the continent through intense American economic cooperation.
President Trump has already changed the dynamics of policy making in the US domestically and internationally. There is the possibility for a true reset in US-African relations, and for change that will benefit all parties. Trump has an opportunity to advance relations with the African continent in a less conventional way than his predecessors have. Trump and Africa could be an odd couple, but one that could be a potential highlight achievement in his presidential career.
 Baker, P. (2009, May 16). Obama Will Travel to Ghana. Retrieved from https://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/16/obama-chooses-ghana-for-first-africa-trip/?_r=0
 Hussein, H. (2015, July 28). What exactly is Obama’s Africa legacy? Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/7/what-exactly-is-obamas-africa-legacy.html
 Lilley, K. (2016, November 15). DONALD TRUMP'S AFRICA POLICY: THREE PRIORITIES. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/three-priorities-donald-trump-africa-521375
 Campbell, J. (2016, December 22). Africa Shouldn’t Freak Out About Trump. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/12/22/africa-shouldnt-freak-out-about-trump/
 29 Boys Killed as Boko Haram Attacks Boarding School in Nigeria. (2014, February 25). Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/29-boys-killed-boko-haram-attacks-boarding-school-nigeria-n37991
 Army presents captured Boko Haram flag to Buhari. (2016, December 22). Retrieved December 31, 2016, from http://punchng.com/army-presents-captured-boko-haram-flag-buhari/