JOSEPH Biden is set to be sworn in as the new President of the United States on the 20th of January 2021. The whole world is waiting with bated breath for Biden to steady the rocking ship of US foreign policy with his steady and experienced hands on the steering wheel. Many ordinary citizens as well as foreign policy experts seem to miss out on the humongous constraints that a new President faces in redirecting his foreign policy; no matter how experienced he may be. The inconvenient truth seems to be that American foreign policy had lost its true bearing before even Trump appeared on the scene. Washington’s obsession with global domination had resulted in unnecessary and endless wars, which led to the militarization of American foreign policy, leading to resentment abroad and various grievances at home. When Trump became the President, he saw an opportunity in attacking and trying to reverse some of these foreign policy options, thus creating even more confusion.
Much needs to be changed and improved by Biden. He has to grapple with a crumbling political system, a polarized country and a Covid wrecked economy. Biden will also have to contend with the rising progressive wing of his party, who want radical changes concerning domestic issues. During Biden’s first term at least, foreign policy will have to take a back seat to domestic issues like saving jobs and businesses, to heal a fractured nation. Those aspects of foreign policy, which serve domestic American interests, will, however, be focused upon and pursued. The all encompassing competition with China may be put on hold for the time being. America, under Biden, will need to both compete and cooperate with China for economic recovery back home. Cooperation with China would be essential on transnational issues like pandemics and climate change, a very big issue for the progressive and liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Biden has already said that he will invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy and to create 10 million good paying jobs. In spite of having some kind of a modus vivendi with China, Biden will still be constrained to impede China’s ambitious economic and strategic goals.
As far as US foreign policy in general is concerned, relations with Japan and Western Europe would be mended and upgraded. Strong ties with Israel and India will most certainly continue. Biden is likely to be firm against Russia, which besides being a foreign policy issue, has important domestic implications also. As Biden has a reduced majority in the House of Representatives and a virtual tie in the Senate, he will most likely be gingerly in taking up controversial foreign policy issues. There may, thus be no rush in returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Relations between Biden’s America and Pakistan will certainly be cordial if not very warm in the beginning. Pak-US relations during the Biden presidency will not only be better than what they were under the Trump years, but hopefully also better than they were during the eight years of the Obama regime. With American wars coming to an end, the perception and policy on Afghanistan between Pakistan and the US has narrowed considerably, especially after Pakistan’s role in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
The gap between Afghan government’s position and the Taliban’s, still remains wide. America may have to try some out-of-the-box solution to address this widening gap. Pakistan’s help, as before, will be vital at this stage also. Unresolved Afghan conflict would also spur on the activities of trans-national terrorist groups like IS and Al-Qaeda especially along Pak-Afghan borders. Taliban’s ascendancy is most certainly to increase extremism in Pakistan. This scenario will not only threaten Pakistan’s own stability but also that of India, thus jeopardizing America’s China policy. America’s need for Pakistan’s help will thus go beyond Afghanistan, and will be utilized in securing American strategic interests in South Asia.
Biden may not bracket Pakistan with China as a target of joint US-India pressure in its Indo-Pacific strategy. The reason for this would be not to lose Pakistan completely to China. The US Pakistan aid relation, which was mostly military because of the two Afghan wars and Pakistan’s assistance in war on terror, will perhaps change for good, as these conditions have considerably changed. Pakistan can hope to have good normal relations with the US, with emphasis on cooperation in education, IT and clean energy. The advent of the Biden Administration in the US has raised hopes that the trend against multilateral cooperation will be gradually reversed. President-elect Biden has already given an indication of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, return to WHO, and perhaps, even a return to Iran nuclear deal, in due course of time. 2021 will thus certainly offer an opportunity to strengthen multilateralism after almost a decade, when multilateralism was in retreat in the face of hyper nationalism and right-wing populism.
—The writer, based in Islamabad, is a former Health Minister of KP.