Ranking The Five Proposed High School Policy Debate Topics for 2022-2023

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) recently released the slate of potential policy debate topics for the 2022-2023 season. They were developed in early August at the NFHS Policy Debate Topic Selection Meeting in Milwaukee. The NFHS describes the selection process as follows:

Forty-seven delegates from 19 states, the National Speech and Debate Association, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, the National Catholic Forensic League and the National Debate Coaches Association attended the NFHS Policy Debate Topic Selection Meeting August 6-8, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ten topic reports were presented by authors who, for the past 8+ months, researched each topic area.

State delegates and participants deliberated for three days to determine the final five topic areas: Global Climate Change, Global Geo-Political Crisis: Emerging Technologies, Global Health Security, Russia, and Treaties.

Serving on the 2021 Wording Committee were: Nicole Cornish, Texas (Chairperson); Dustin Rimmey, Kansas; Jennifer LeSieur, Oregon; Colton Gilbert, Arkansas; Sam Normington, Washington; Eric Oddo, Illinois; and Colleen Mooney, Pennsylvania.

Balloting for the 2022-23 national high school debate topic will take place in a two-fold process. During the months of September and October, coaches and students will have the opportunity to discuss the five selected problem areas. The first ballot will narrow the topics to two. A second ballot will be distributed to determine the final topic. Each state, the NSDA, the NAUDL, NCFL and the NDCA will conduct voting in November and December to determine the favored topic area. In January, the NFHS will announce the 2022-23 national high school debate topic and resolution. It will be posted on the NFHS website on the Speech, Debate, Theatre page and sent to state associations and affiliate members.

Identifying problem areas and crafting resolutions is extremely difficult. Because the policy debate topic is adopted nationally, it must meet the needs of diverse constituencies. Developing a topic that creates student interest and promotes high-quality debates for both “classic”-style circuits who rely on lay judges and national circuit-style circuits who rely on professional judges is nearly impossible.

Unsurprisingly, then, gripes abound every year when the slate of potential topics is announced. Many debaters and coaches go even farther, arguing that the entire topic selection process is broken beyond repair and must be immediately overhauled. While some reforms might indeed be beneficial, it is hard to believe that any topic selection system could ever achieve widespread (much less universal) support. There are hundreds of issues that merit selection as a national debate topic, but only one issue is selected for each season. Inevitably, this will disappoint more people than it pleases.

Given this challenge, I think the topic process actually tends to work remarkably well. I am grateful for the (mostly unpaid) labor that so many coaches provide throughout the process. Without their hard work producing well-researched topic papers and carefully crafted resolutional wordings, our topics would be significantly worse.

Below the fold, I will offer a few preliminary thoughts about each of the 2022-2023 proposed topics.

Notably, all of the options call for changes to U.S. foreign policy. This surprised me; I was under the impression that proposed topics for 2022-2023 would use an international agent of action, a decision Rich Edwards announced in 2019. I don’t know why this decision was rescinded. If you do, please share the explanation in the comments.

When evaluating proposed topics, I consider three primary factors:

1. Is the topic likely to be interesting to study?

Almost every topic that makes it through the vetting process will meet this standard, but some will have a greater chance than others of attracting student interest and sustaining it throughout the season. Student interest is not monolithic, of course; what is interesting and exciting for some students will be boring for others. Still, it is important to consider how a topic might affect participation and interest. Will students be excited when the new topic is announced? Will school administrators, teachers, and parents recognize the importance of the topic? Will the topic sustain the interest of students, coaches, and judges throughout the long season? These questions can’t be decisively answered, but they are (in my view) the most important ones to ask.

2. Does the topic require the affirmative to deviate significantly from the status quo?

In my experience, the best topics go “against the grain” of current policies. When resolutions require affirmatives to reverse course, uniqueness for advantages and disadvantages is clearer and more sustainable. Resolutions that instead require affirmatives to support, strengthen, or expand policies that are already being adopted or implemented tend to create frustrating debates; affirmatives use “topic uniqueness” to marginalize core negative disadvantages, and negatives respond by shifting to “trickier” counterplan-based strategies that reduce clash and overall topic education. Given two topics with relatively similar student interest potential, I tend to prefer the one that deviates more clearly from the direction of current policy.

3. Does the topic include a reasonably limited set of affirmative cases likely to produce high-quality debates?

In general, “smaller” topics are better. As the number of potential affirmative cases expands, incentives for negative teams to research and prepare case-specific strategies decline. But “smaller” can mean different things. Sometimes, the raw number of affirmative cases is the issue; some topics simply include too many potential cases. Other times, the issue is more qualitative than quantitative; even if a topic limits the affirmative to a reasonable number of cases, the division of affirmative and negative ground can still be a problem. Is the affirmative’s ground “too good” or “too bad”? Is the negative’s ground consistent and predictable? Or does the topic include several “sub-topics” that each require the negative to prepare a distinct set of arguments? The best topics narrow the affirmative to a small set of high-quality cases that all link to the same high-quality core negative argument(s). This is easier said than done; topics rarely achieve this optimal balance.

How well do the proposed 2022-2023 topics meet these criteria? Let’s investigate.

Problem Area 1: Global Climate Change

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its support of multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes.

Topic Paper Author: Brett Bricker

Climate change is a pressing global crisis that has the potential to dramatically change life on earth. Many of these risks, such as desertification in the Middle East and Africa and disparate health outcomes in urban America, can be seen today. Unfortunately, our students are already dealing with the consequences of these issues. A 2019 poll found that the prospect of devastating climate change is causing fear, anxiety and anger among a “solid majority” of American teenagers. The same Post-KFF poll found that Black and Hispanic teens expressed the strongest sense of urgency, because “they are more likely to live in vulnerable areas and less likely to be able to insulate themselves” from the drawbacks of the changing environment. There are a variety of people and groups with proposed solutions, ranging from de-growth of the industrial economy to more tech growth with energy efficient solutions. Some believe regulatory fixes similar to the Clean Air Act can solve the problem, while others think we may need to geo-engineer the earth itself. Although each solution is similar in that it attempts to address the problem of climate change, each comes with its own unique benefits and drawbacks.

This topic provides a fair division of affirmative and negative ground. On the affirmative, teams can use international regimes as a basis for affirmatives. Affs will require a command and control and top down approach to climate regulation. Negatives will have a variety of economic and political based disadvantages. Negative ground also includes unilateral counterplans and counterplans that focus on private sector solutions. Finally, there are a ton of relevant kritik arguments ranging from identity based arguments to arguments about neoliberalism.

Despite the importance of the climate change debate, fewer than half of K-12 teachers discuss the topic with their students When it is discussed, it is most frequently taught in science classrooms, which, although important, misses the social, economic and political elements of the topic. This reality is reflected in national polling, which found that “the number of teenagers who say they are being taught in school how to mitigate climate change appears to be on the decline.” Thus, a debate topic focused on the contributing factors, harms and solutions to climate change has the potential to address a significant pedagogical gap in our nation’s educational system.

This resolution is interesting because it deviates significantly from the proposed wordings in the topic paper. The topic’s author was proposing a domestic topic about cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other (domestic) emissions policies. But because this set of proposed topics needed to be about foreign policy (because of the topic rotation system), the wording committee crafted an international version of the resolution.

Climate change policy is certainly interesting and important; it seems like a subject that students will be interested in debating.

However, this resolution might not deviate enough from current U.S. policies. With the Biden administration recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement and generally pursuing more aggressive international climate change policies than the Trump administration, “topic uniqueness” will likely be frustrating.

Is this topic relatively limited? I’m not sure. The phrase “multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes” is not defined in the topic paper. I would be concerned that affirmatives would capitalize on compelling “link not unique” arguments by choosing cases that implement smaller policies; this would make it hard for the negative to win a unique disadvantage. At the same time, the direction of current U.S. policy might make it challenging for the affirmative to craft unique advantages.

Additional topicality research is needed before making a final judgment about this topic, but I think other options are better (see below).

Problem Area 2: Global Geo-Political Crisis: Emerging Technologies

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity.

Topic Paper Authors: Pam McComas, Luke Brinker-Lev, Peter Crevoiserat, Michael Harris

Most Bond films open with 007 in the middle of some major crisis with the audience waiting for the opportunity of Q’s new technology to resolve the conflict. However, emerging technology like AI, biotechnology, and cybersecurity, can be easily created, intercepted, and used by the “enemy”. Clearly, the U.S. and its allies need to collaborate for the best solution. Possible case affirmatives would be creating a U.S.- NATO emerging technology investment fund; instituting a NATO treaty on autonomous weapons; increasing cooperation in biotechnology (e.g., on vaccine diplomacy, biofuels investment, or agricultural biotech cooperation); establishing a new U.S.-NATO infrastructure for thwarting and responding to cyber threats; banning offensive cyber operations; and forging U.S.-NATO partnerships with private technology companies to bolster the alliance’s leadership in emerging technologies. These emerging technologies are vulnerable to outside threats. The negative will have multiple strategies. These technologies create case specific disadvantages generating specific links and turns. Theoretical discussions of offensive and defensive cyber weapons, the effectiveness of deterrence, the role of the U.S. as a hegemon, and global politics will be popular. Economic repercussions and interdependence of the global economy will be key. Negatives can argue alternative methods of engagement by using public/private non-military partnerships. Various perspectives on philosophically driven arguments will be intrinsic. The voices of the disenfranchised will be argued. A diverse set of arguments creates a level playing field for all students by debating emerging technologies. This topic affords students from across the nation in rural and urban areas from coast to coast, with ample research and provides scaffolded skills’ development. The topic is broad, but the strength in it is the balance of affirmative and negative material. Debaters will gain experience in a well-rounded understanding of how emerging technologies are reshaping society, the advantages and disadvantages of different policy approaches, and how the issues surrounding emerging technologies will shape the global security agenda for decades to come. Students’ knowledge of how crisis and opportunity work, with a collaborative approach to the solution, are essential skills for life.

This is a very well-prepared topic paper; unlike the climate topic, this resolution’s wording is also consistent with the paper. In general, that gives me more confidence that the topic’s wording has been well-vetted.

How interesting is this topic? Debates about emerging technologies seem like they have the potential to attract student interest, but framing the resolution as a “foreign policy towards NATO” issue might make this a tougher sell. As topic areas go, this one feels “replacement level”: it’s interesting enough not to reject out of hand, but it probably can’t claim “boosting student interest” as a legitimate reason to select it.

Direction-wise, this topic would have been better during the Trump administration. As the topic paper notes, the Biden administration’s policies are likely to increase cooperation with NATO. Whether that cooperation will include robust policies about AI, biotech, and cybersecurity is less clear, but “topic uniqueness” will likely be a problem regardless.

This topic also seems quite large. As with the climate change topic, this will likely cause affirmative teams to choose small cases that they will couple with strong “link not unique” arguments against disadvantages. The negative’s best ground — address emerging tech issues in a different way (not through NATO) with a NATO Bad DA as the net-benefit — seems vulnerable to this approach.

Despite its flaws, this still seems like a relatively solid topic.

Problem Area 3: Global Health Security

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its international support for global health security against naturally occurring infectious disease.

Topic Paper Authors: Nathan Wodarz and Rachel Baumann

Pandemics are becoming more dangerous and more common. Two of the deadliest pandemics in history have taken place within the lifetimes of current students. In July 2021, the biotechnology company Metabiota warned that there is a one in four chance of seeing a pandemic worse than COVID-19 within the next ten years. It is clear that the world was not prepared for COVID-19. A global response is critical; however, it is not at all obvious what should be done. A key aspect of the topic will be the global North’s view that health strategies ought to focus on preventing diseases from spreading to the north, which further marginalizes the global South.

On the affirmative, teams can point to a wide range of problems with the world today: the introduction of novel zoonotic diseases crossing the animal/human boundaries, the international secrecy once a new disease is discovered, the lack of global coordination and access to effective medications for novel diseases, the uneven distribution of medical support and care between the global North and South and the tension between businesses and governments seeking profit for technology or vaccine creation. Possible affirmative cases include: adopting the “One Health” approach to Global Health Security, joining the international pandemic treaty, using USAID to build health infrastructure in nations with a high disease risk, expanding capacity for animal health activities, coordinating international response efforts, establishing international protocols for pandemic responses, coordinating public disease communication, or focusing on preventing and/or containing specific diseases.

Negative teams will be able to find topic-specific evidence for counterplans using other nations, international organizations, or non-governmental organizations as actors. Disadvantages will include arguments about countries targeted by the affirmative rejecting American assistance and other divisions between the global North and South, as well as antimicrobial resistance together with typical generics such as politics, economics, and spending. Critically-minded teams can run positions such as health securitization and medical populism as well as more traditional kritiks like biopower, neoliberalism, and cultural imperialism.

This is another exceptional topic paper with a resolution crafted to match its intent. I will admit up front that this is my favorite of the five.

In terms of student interest, this seems like an opportunity too great to ignore. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely shaped our individual and collective lives since March 2020. While I can understand why some people might want to “move on” and stop thinking so much about it, I can’t think of a more timely topic for students and coaches to research and debate.

What policy mistakes led to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19? What policies need to be adopted to make sure the world’s response to future pandemics is stronger? What role does the U.S. need to play in those efforts? And more generally, what international policies does the U.S. need to support to address the spread of infectious diseases writ large? These are fascinating questions, and I think they would spark immense student interest. This is also a topic that can attract support and interest from administrators, teachers, parents, and surrounding communities.

As with the previous topics, however, overall topic uniqueness might be a problem. The Biden administration’s policies are generally in “the same direction” as the resolution, although the scope of its international support remains to be seen.

The resolution’s wording will help mitigate this uniqueness issue. While the topic is relatively large, the term “global health security” seems to offer a meaningful limit. The topic paper includes the following definition from the Kaiser Foundation:

Global Health Security: Activities supporting epidemic and pandemic preparedness and capabilities at the country and global levels in order to minimize vulnerability to acute public health events that can endanger the health of populations across geographical regions and international boundaries. This includes efforts to improve countries’ capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats.1

Global health security as defined here does not include U.S. support for research and development for infectious disease countermeasures (such as diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines), nor does it include support for acute epidemic response in other countries (such as funding for COVID-19 vaccine procurement and distribution or direct assistance for Ebola responses in other countries).” (Michaud, et al, May 21, 2021, Box 1).

As the topic paper’s authors note, this definition “actively identifies what the Affirmative plan would need to do, and it explicitly identifies what would not be considered actions that fall under the heading of global health security.” While there are many policy proposals for “improv[ing] countries’ capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats,” they mostly (if not entirely) link to the same set of negative arguments. Counterplans challenging whether U.S. action is necessary also seem likely to further limit the number of viable affirmative cases.

This is not a perfect topic, but I think it is the best option on the 2022-2023 proposed slate.

Problem Area 4: Russia

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its diplomatic engagement with the Russian Federation on one or more of the following: the Arctic, cybersecurity, human rights.

Topic Paper Authors: Clint and Jennifer Adams

It has become increasingly clear that the Kremlin poses a challenge to the United States. Moscow seeks to overturn the post-Cold War order, which it believes disadvantages Russian interests. The state of relations between the United States and the Russian Federation is an increasingly pressing issue for the Biden administration foreign policy agenda. The 2020 election caused a major shift in U.S./Russian relations as the Biden administration will need to find a balance between a return to Cold War tensions versus active engagement with the Russian Federation. Declarations from Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, that he may soon step back from politics also adds to the timeliness of this topic. Cases dealing with the Arctic could focus on climate change, oil exploration, or military engagement. Cases dealing with cybersecurity could include election interference, hacking of government systems, or use of propaganda bots. Cases dealing with human rights could include diplomatic engagement on issues related to silencing democratic opposition in Russia or in the states of the former Soviet Socialist Republics or Russian treatment of minorities and LGBTQIA+ individuals.

There are strong negative links to the idea that a cooperative Russia and the U.S. would undermine economic trade relations. And a U.S./Russia plan could cause worsening relations with China, Iran, or other countries. Negative teams can also question the solvency of diplomatic engagement, given likely Russian opposition to Biden administration initiatives. Traditional generic arguments like politics, spending, and trade-off will expand the negative ground. Negative counterplans can argue that sanctions are preferable to diplomatic engagement or that relations with Russia can better be managed through consulting China, the UN or NATO, or that other international actors would do the job in a more efficient way. Critical ground can be found in hegemony, imperialism, neoliberalism, and militarism.

The debate community has not debated Russia for over 20 years. With the implications of a Russia that is positioning itself as a power in the world once again, it is time that U.S./Russian relations get discussed.

It seems like a Russia topic has been included in nearly every slate of proposed foreign policy topics since it was last debated in 1998-1999. It was the runner-up (by a narrow margin) in 2021-2022, and it is back on the proposed slate for 2022-2023.

Based on the reaction to the water resources protection topic’s selection, there seems to be a significant constituency of debaters and coaches who would look forward to debating about Russia. Whether the issue is similarly interesting to students without previous debate experience is less clear, but Russia has certainly loomed large in the U.S.’s public consciousness over the last few years.

Is this topic “unique?” While the Biden administration has engaged with Russia on a variety of topics, it has also pursued several (relatively) “hardline” policies. The topic paper argues that “recent talks between Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden were a good first step in establishing a baseline of relations for the near future, but it was not the be-all-end-all when it comes to interactions between two of the world’s superpowers.” This is a reasonable position, but affirmatives will likely be able to take advantage of persuasive “link not unique” arguments based on existing Biden administration policies.

In terms of limits, this topic is relatively large. From past experience, “diplomatic engagement” is a broad term that is likely to allow a wide variety of plan mechanisms. Listing the areas of the Arctic, cybersecurity, and human rights will help, but each of those categories is itself quite broad. The best negative ground is probably a hardline counterplan and appeasement-style disadvantage; instead of engaging Russia on cybersecurity policies, for example, the negative could propose sanctioning Russia unless and until they change their cybersecurity policies. Whether that strategy will be effective in practice against the full range of affirmative cases that the resolution allows is less clear.

Overall, the Russia topic is fine. I can understand why many people support it, but I think the Global Health Security topic (and the Treaties topic; see below) are better options.

Problem Area 5: Treaties

Resolved: The United States federal government should consent to be bound by the entirety of one or more of the following:
• Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
• Convention on Biological Diversity
• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
• United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Topic Paper Author: Lauren Ivey

What should the role of the U.S. be abroad? What international commitments should the U.S. honor, why, and how? How does American exceptionalism guide U.S. policies? A treaties topic would have students engaging in these important questions of international relations. A treaties topic would allow students to differentiate research by interest because students can choose affirmative cases related to the personal interest students have; for example, a student interested in studying gender studies in college could read an affirmative to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, while still learning about treaties related to marine policy, the environment, and nuclear weapons on the negative. On the affirmative, ratification of one or more of the treaties in this topic is widely regarded as a prerequisite towards regaining its standing as a defender of international law. The idea of the affirmative ratifying entire treaties is key to a successful treaties topic because it provides a clear delineation of what arguments can be read on the affirmative and negative (i.e. affirmatives must ratify entire treaties, while negatives can choose to run a counterplan to ratify parts of treaties). There is a tremendous variety of advantage ground that affirmatives can claim, such as multilateralism, piracy, South China Sea conflict, or global warming. The way the topic is constructed, affirmatives can use a Congressional-Executive Agreement or the traditional treaty ratification procedure. This means there are multiple potential affirmatives with tremendous variety in advantages areas, which would allow students to cut new affirmatives late in the year. At the same time, the variety of advantage areas won’t make prep impossible because many of these advantages, including multilateralism or hegemony, apply to multiple treaties. Considering the affirmative has the advantage of unlimited prep a more limited topic is appropriate to allow students to engage in deeper understandings of the inner workings of the treaties. On the negative, counterplan options could include alternate actors and solvency mechanisms as well as reservations against particular provisions of the treaty. There is rich disadvantage ground in the areas of international relations, economic and political leadership, environmental impacts, and human rights. Critical positions arise from issues of American imperialism, exporting capitalist values, flaws in international law and securitization of the environment. Treaties is an innovative, exciting topic area that has never been explored by high school students. It’s time to change that.

This topic is a modified version of the 2002-2003 NDT/CEDA topic. The college topic used a different mechanism (“ratify or accede to, and implement” vs. “consent to be bound by the entirety”) and specified a different list of treaties (CTBT, Kyoto, Rome/ICC, ICCPR Second Optional Protocol, and SORT with Russia vs. CTBT, CBD, CEDAW, and LOST/UNCLOS). The college topic was generally well-liked; it finished second in the “best topic of the 2000s” vote.

As I mentioned above, it is difficult to craft a topic that simultaneously meets the needs of everyone who participates in U.S. high school policy debate. This topic is the most “national circuit-style” of the five options on this slate; that’s both good and bad.

The good: the topic is clearly limited to a small number of affirmative cases. While each has a distinct policy-based literature, all cases link to the same set of generic negative arguments about treaties and the treaty-making process. Overall topic uniqueness is also relatively less important for this topic than for others; negatives can prepare treaty-specific strategies that can’t be dismissed with generic link uniqueness arguments about other treaties.

The bad: it’s hard to make the case that this topic is particularly interesting for students that might be recruited to compete in policy debate. As with NATO, this seems like a “replacement level” topic; it’s not so boring or inaccessible that it would suppress student participation, but it probably can’t legitimately claim to boost student interest.

Content-wise, this topic might also overly encourage process-focused debates. As the topic paper notes, “‘consent to be bound’ is separate from ratify and would allow affirmatives to expand their choice of affirmatives; topical affs must use the 2/3 Senate ratification process or a Congressional-Executive Agreement… This would allow the negative the ground of process CPs, condition CPs, and alternate processes other than ratification or an executive agreement.” Teams might decide to specialize in process-based advantages, disadvantages, and counterplans in order to avoid the need to research the specific treaties.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — debates about the treaty approval process might be educational, and negatives won’t have to pursue these strategies given the limited size of the topic. However, this type of argument is not a good fit for “classic” debate styles. I would be interested to hear reactions to this topic from coaches who primarily teach students to debate in front of lay judges. Is it too limited/small? Too process-based? Too “specialized” to attract student interest?

I prefer the Global Health Security topic, but the Treaties topic is another strong option.

At this point, my first round topic ballot would be cast as follows:

  1. Global Health Security
  2. Treaties
  3. Russia
  4. Global Geo-Political Crisis: Emerging Technologies
  5. Climate Change

Do you disagree? Share your perspective in the comments. Ballots are not due until early October, so there’s still plenty of time for me to change my mind.