PF Topic Analysis by Ben Brazelton

Ben Brazelton is a Victory Briefs Writing Fellow from Madison West High School. 

Opening Words

When I saw this topic, I thought that the NSDA should be given a 140 character limit on their resolutions. This is, at face value, a long, complex, and very framework-driven resolution. This is unfortunate, because November has some of the largest tournaments in the country, including Apple Valley and the Glenbrooks. So pull out your LD and policy backfiles and start reading your Morgenthau, because this topic is going to be a doozy.

This topic does give debaters a very good opportunity to discuss international relations and the nature of a government and its obligations. The question that, I can only imagine, drove this resolution was something like, “should governments really help refugees?” Are they obligated to help citizens of other nations? Above the quality of life of their own citizens (this line of questioning is getting increasingly xenophobic)? Is an idealist and internationally-cooperative world really better? Are national interests as a whole good? Are they even possible to get rid of? All of these answers should be sought during research and competition on this topic.

One note before I begin my analysis: refugees are human beings with lives and families and stories. Media sources have already condemned many refugees as ISIS agents and, while this is patently false, it exemplifies a kind of ‘easy way out’ for debaters– to take a false, unethical, and racist stance on a very sensitive topic– which is seen all too often. My rule for debaters is to write a case that they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable reading in front of a judge who had just fled from Syria. In addition, the rhetoric we use is very important; when debating this topic, be aware of the difference between a migrant and a refugee. While a refugee is *technically a migrant, the word ‘migrant’ implies that the individual is fleeing because they want to seek a better job and a better life. While this isn’t a misuse of the word, the issue is that ‘migrant’ implies that fleeing was a choice when, in reality, refugees flee because they would lose their lives if they didn’t.

Background on the topic

Over the course of the past few years, what was once a protest (back in 2011) grew and escalated into an international proxy war with belligerents including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and of course, Syria. In the wake of this conflict, millions have been displaced, and have sought safety behind the borders of other nations. This is one of the largest refugee crises in history, and has the potential to change international relations, views, and conflicts forever. In addition to Syria, there are several other refugee crises, including those in South Sudan, South America, and Nigeria. South Sudan saw hundreds of thousands fleeing in the wake of the Civil War, and the establishment of a new and chaotic government. In South America, others are fleeing flooding and the effects of global warming (known as climate refugees). There are similar conflicts in Ukraine, Colombia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia, among others.

Worldwide, people are suffering and dying not just in their home countries, but en route to a new location. As of September 30th, an estimated 3,000 individuals have died in the Mediterranean crossing from Turkey into Europe. This is only one route of many. However, the crisis isn’t solved once refugees travel to a new country, as there is international and national political resistance to refugees, and resistance to resettlement. Several Eastern European nations have stated that they would accept no refugees (Slovakia said that they only would accept them if they were Christians). The United States, in spite of its role in the creation and continuation of these conflicts, has only agreed to take in 10,000 Syrians (which one Presidential Candidate promised he would promptly send back, #makeamericagreatagain). Western resistance to helping refugees has led to the brunt of the crisis being on direct neighbors of wartorn countries. Lebanon, for instance, has accepted over 1.4 million refugees, despite the fact that they only have a population of under 4.5 million.

What happens inside of a country also matters to this debate. In Germany, a particularly wealthy nation, refugees are given housing, monthly stipends, and language classes. In Lebanon, refugees are confined to small areas. The BBC describes the conditions: “they are urban slums, confined to an area of about ½ of a square mile, with more than 10,000 people living in desperate conditions.” In many countries, refugees face violence perpetrated by citizens and governments alike. Turkey, for instance, recently bulldozed the houses of thousands of refugees. The juxtaposition of countries who want refugees versus those who accept them unwillingly can be grounds for both the affirmative and negation.

Wording and analysis

The resolution reads: Resolved, In response to the current crisis, a government should prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees over its national interests.

Let’s define the terms. First, “the current crisis.” Many teams are going to initially jump to the Syrian crisis, largely due to the mainstream media coverage. This is inaccurate, however, because it neglects crises elsewhere; the UNHCR states that approximately 3 million refugees are currently of Syrian descent, while there are nearly 19 million in the world. It is Palestine, in fact, that has the largest amount of refugees at 5 million (largely due to a classification under international law, wherein all Palestinians are legally designated as refugees). Because there are so many crises, because they are global, because there is literature on each, and because most teams ought to try their best to avoid topicality battles about which crisis is ‘more important,’ debaters should look at the resolution as ‘all crises.’ More specifically, I would recommend defining the crisis as ‘the international failure to deal with refugees.’

Next up, “a government.” The resolution does not claim a certain country, therefore it is reasonably inferred that the resolution is tautological, and applies to all (or at least most) cases. This gives the negation a lot of ground, because, when paired with the aforementioned definition of the crisis, allows the neg to hold the aff to a global obligation, rather than just cherry-picking specific examples where it is convenient to prioritize.

“Should” a government prioritize? Similar to the word ‘ought,’ should can signify duty, rightness, and an obligation. Consequently, debaters can parameterize the round in a similar manner as they did during the reparations debate. The negation can offer that should implies can, and (loosely) that should implies ought. This can open up new routes to arguments and justifications.

“Prioritize” gives Neg a lot of ground, because the affirmative can be held to the burden of showing that humanitarian needs need not only be fulfilled, but actively prioritized above national interests. Affirmative teams may try to constrain the debate to cases where national interests and humanitarian needs are in conflict, but note that the resolution does not say “when in conflict.” It follows that the negation can claim that, if national interests and the humanitarian needs of refugees are one and the same, then prioritizing is impossible and the resolution is false. Under this interpretation, any of these cases are grounds for the negation.

Humanitarian needs are perhaps the most straightforward aspect of this debate: food, water, shelter, and the protection of basic human rights. The negation should have arguments that are general enough to win off of different definitions of humanitarian needs. One note for the negation is to make the distinction between the ideal implementation of humanitarian aid and the results; many countries can barely provide for their own citizens, and the result when they prioritize ‘humanitarian needs’ is not the active fulfillment of said needs, but oftentimes people constrained to small camps with poor conditions.

Refugees are specifically defined as individuals fleeing war, and outside of the border of their original country. This means that claims about helping Internally-Displaced Persons (IDPs), as well as helping climate refugees are non-topical.

“National Interests” is, in my mind, the most fun part of this resolution, because it (potentially) ushers in a debate about realism versus idealism– whether the two systems are possible, and which is actually better for the world. Merriam webster defines “national interests” as “the interest of a nation as a whole held to be an independent entity separate from the interests of subordinate areas or groups and also of other nations or supranational groups.” This really brings up questions of what a national interest is; compounded with the word ‘prioritize,’ the negation can wield a lot of power with a good definition of national interests, and essentially turn the advocacy of the affirmative (if they show benefits to host nations). Likewise, the affirmative can try to constrain the negation to defending external interests, such as military expansion. This is well-grounded in international relations theory, as some posit that national interests (in the field of IR) must only be external. If the affirmative really wants to abuse this definition, they could conflate the idea of national greatness with national interests, and impact the defence of national interests with international divisions and the danger of nationalism.

Aff arguments and strategy

The affirmative must defend the active prioritization of humanitarian needs above national interests; that means that showing benefits to host nations is not grounds for an aff team. The way to avoid the ‘prioritization turn’ (which is discussed above and in greater detail in the negation strategy section), is to do one of two things: advocate a justification for prioritizing, or advocate a specific impact. On this topic, the justifications will be much easier to argue than the impacts (unless you are creative), and I will explain why shortly.

Simple justifications that come to mind for this topic are: moral obligation, legal obligation, corrective justice. First off, the moral obligation is one of the stronger arguments, because (in spite of the lack of the word ‘ought’) it allows debaters to take a deontological perspective, and argue that nations have an obligation to defend innocent lives no matter what the impact to national interests. This is especially potent here as opposed to other topics, because it doesn’t easily fall victim to the consequentialist turn, which is almost always a much more believable advocacy (‘one doesn’t have a moral obligation to try and save a life if doing so would kill 5 million more people’). This is because the negation would have to argue that consequences will be negative for refugees or nations, and this is false in most cases; this can be seen by looking at nations like Germany, where the new workforce is expected to seriously boost the economy. The prioritization turn does not apply to this kind of moral obligation, because the negation must provide negative consequences, and the affirmative can mitigate by showing that it is in a nation’s interests. Second, a legal obligation. the specific 1951 Convention dictates the necessary treatment of refugees, and all states party to the convention are legally obligated to comply (this has a couple of issues: a. many countries impacted by the crisis are not party to the convention, and b., international law really isn’t actual law, as there is no enforcement whatsoever). Third, and perhaps least important, corrective justice. Essentially, this claim is that, since many countries actively contributed to and escalated these wars, they have an obligation to correct their mistakes and take care of the individuals that have been harmed. To avoid arguing the tautology in the resolution– that all countries are responsible for crises– affirmative teams could try and argue that the United Nations, which has over 193 member states has failed to do anything to stop these crises, and so consequently all states are obligated, not only legally, but morally to correct their mistakes. Teams can also take a look at what has been done to aid refugees, what has been done to condemn belligerents, and claim that inaction despite violence has led to culpability from nations, and they should prioritize the humanitarian needs of refugees to act on this obligation.

Second, we get to talk about actual consequences of prioritization. Remember the analysis above: if the affirmative accidentally or intentionally shows that accepting refugees is in a nation’s national interest, that advocacy will turn because they are not prioritizing one over the other. The question that remains is, how can an affirmative claim impacts without discussing national benefits? This is where we turn back to our definition of a national interest: “the interest of a nation as a whole held to be an independent entity separate from the interests of […] supranational groups.” Since it is separate from the interests of supranational (i.e. international) groups, the impacts that the affirmative claim must be international in order to circumvent this turn (this is what makes impacts more difficult to argue than justifications). I will highlight two potential impacts here: the lives and human rights of refugees and increased global cooperation. First, the most obvious impact that each team should jump to is the lives of refugees; these are the people who are really suffering, and these are the people who need help the most. Consequently, claiming some sort of solvency for the lives of refugees is a strong strategy for affirmative teams. Some teams may run specific solvency mechanisms in order to flesh out this point: food aid, health aid, shelter, asylum, foreign aid to refugee camps, even helping internally-displaced persons (which, under the definition of a refugee, is non-topical). These can help an argument focused on refugees’ lives, but teams can also pair it with a moral obligation, and claim no solvency, but rather the obligation to prioritize. Second, increased global cooperation. This is one of the strongest claims on the affirmative, as prioritizing a supranational interest above a national interest is, by definition, idealistic. The affirmative can claim that, even if interests coincide, prioritizing strengthens international cooperation and coalition. Adversely, they can argue that not prioritizing results in increased nationalism and decreased conflict. This is already seen in Europe, with the new 17-point plan to deal with refugees resulting in increased border security. In addition, Hungary has recently made it clear that (while they claim it doesn’t have to do with refugees) they will not be entering the Eurozone. This argument is invulnerable to the prioritizing turn, because it actively disavows national interests.

Neg arguments and strategy

On this topic, the negation must defend not prioritizing the humanitarian needs of refugees above its national interests. The negation has a definitive advantage on this topic, because of the prioritization turn; if accepting refugees is in the national interests of a country, then humanitarian needs and national interests are one in the same, meaning that it is impossible to prioritize one over the other. This means that the resolution is false, since there is no prioritization, and the negation wins. A good amount of teams will try to argue that accepting refugees will benefit the host nation– the negation will win if they hold them to the burden of showing prioritization.

I will present three potential arguments: a government’s obligations to its own citizens, what happens after refugees are accepted, and the impossibility of prioritization. The first and perhaps most common argument is that accepting refugees will have negative consequences. In the context of the resolution, this has absolutely no implication on negating or affirming. Consequently, the negation must pair this with the claim that governments have an obligation to their own citizens first and foremost. This tells a very clear story about how the host country is neglecting its own duties, and the ensuing consequences upon refugees and citizens alike. The issue that I will present, is that the negation team that argues this offers absolutely no solvency for the crisis. This also may tempt teams to argue vaguely racist and xenophobic arguments, such as increases in terrorism, militarization of refugees, and overall security risk; not only are these generally false, they are extremely unethical, because they choose to characterize a vast, diverse, and subjugated group as simple enemies, which functionally perpetuates stereotypes. The second argument, is what happens after refugees are accepted. It will be assumed by many affirmative teams that accepting refugees immediately solves issues, yet this is empirically false. In most countries, refugees are constrained to camps with human rights abuses, sexual abuse, violence, and horrible conditions. In addition, many countries are rife with violent and political backlash which has taken countless lives and livelihoods. The negation can show solvency by comparing what happens when countries want refugees, versus when they arrive unwillingly, essentially defending national interests. Third, negation teams should question the actual possibility of prioritizing. Several IR theories argue that nations always act in their national interests; rational choice theory posits that ‘rational’ nations act in their own interests, while the Inherent Bad Faith Model argues that nations have…well, inherent bad faith– that they are each self-interested and implacably bad. Negation teams that question the possibility of prioritizing can claim the resolution false, and clash with any affirmative claims of obligation or duty.

Closing words

This resolution gives debaters countless opportunities to debate conflicting IR theories, interesting frameworks, and analyze a rapidly-developing and extremely impactful international crisis. This topic has an equal propensity to create long and tiresome topicality battles, rounds with little to no clash and quick case-turns, and frustratingly racist and xenophobic con arguments.

My final note for this topic, have integrity. Be careful of the rhetoric used in reference to real stories and real lives, always be respectful of judges, competitors, and the importance of properly citing evidence. Debaters have the opportunity to make this activity fantastic, or not– make the right choice.