Having introduced the Joe Biden-Kamala Devi Harris team, their domestic agenda and positions on some important issues in the previous weeks, this column discusses the new administration’s international outlook.
As a United States senator, member of the influential Foreign Relations Committee, (and twice its chairman), and as two-term vice-president, Biden brings enormous foreign policy experience. Visiting conflict hotspots and disaster zones, he is said to have met nearly 150 foreign leaders from almost five dozen countries. If the Republican controlled Senate allows him elbow room domestically, he may impact the world.
Mr Biden remains committed to multilateralism and international engagement. Seeing the welcoming response from abroad, the world seems keen to revert to the pre-Trump stability in the international system. And Biden stands for repairing relationships with US allies especially with Europe and particularly with NATO.
However, shifting back to the internationalist approach of the post-World War II era, during a pandemic that fuels nationalist sentiment after Trump’s ‘disruptive’ years, would be challenging. The world that he oversaw as vice-president is remarkably different, so some of his antidotes may be outdated.
Power vacuums created by a withdrawing America are filled by emerging powers like China. Democracies are subdued. The international economic order is under stress. Competition for the corona vaccine has created new rivalries. And Trump’s “America First” mantra has made ‘America alone’. In a campaign with negligible foreign policy debate, Mr Biden has not elaborated how his iteration of superpower competition would be different from his earlier career in government.
During the Cold War, Democrats were generally considered to appease Moscow. Not so with Mr Biden. He wants President Putin to pay an unspecific “price” for “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy”, weakening NATO and dividing the EU besides interference in the 2016 US elections, etc. However, Russia still has 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons and holds an array of deployable tactical nukes, even before President Trump left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF 1987).
Sensing Russia’s growing economic fragility, President-elect might seek a five-year extension for the New START Treaty (1994). He may encourage a split between Sino-Russian relations, given Putin’s discomfort with Russia’s growing dependence on China.
Mr Biden was an early adherent to China’s inevitable but ‘peaceful rise’. However, he is likely to rethink his China strategy. His advisers acknowledge that Biden as vice-president, underestimated President Xi Jinping — whom he now calls a “thug”. He seems wary of China’s deployment of 5G networks and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has chipped away at US influence worldwide.
He considers the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods, nullified by the US government subsidies to compensate American farmers and others who lose business with China. His aggressive pushback against China would not be without a cost to the US, given US dependence on imports from China.
So despite bipartisan consensus on China, Biden may lower the rhetoric and be more predictable towards China — now the largest global economy. He has vaguely called for an international coalition to deal with China along other democracies that China “can’t afford to ignore”. In his effort to enlist US allies against China, Pakistan would need to tread carefully.
In the Trump defeat, Israel, especially Bibi Netanyahu, seems to have lost a credible ally. Bibi took 12 hours to offer a perfunctory congratulations to Biden on Twitter, quickly adding effusive gratitude to President Trump. Though the future US-Israel ties are ‘rock solid’ to paraphrase Kamala Devi; any re-entering of the US in the Iran nuclear deal would cast a shadow.
Contrasting with Trump’s significant pro-Israel tilt, Biden has vowed to adopt a more balanced approach. In return for recognising Israel, the Biden administration might encourage Morocco, Oman or Saudi Arabia, for example, to ask for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. He might re-open the US consulate in Jerusalem (closed by Trump), a de facto US embassy for Palestinians; revive he Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington; restore US funding for Palestine and preserve the viability of a future Palestinian state.
However, Mr Biden’s decades-old pro-Israel/Zionist credentials are etched in Israeli official memory, like his meetings with Premier Golda Meir in the 1970s and Biden’s father telling him that one need not be a Jew to be a Zionist. He calls Iran a “destabilising” force that must never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Vice-president Biden was dismayed when the US cyber weapon, Stuxnet, targeting the Iranian nuclear programme was prematurely disclosed in 2010. He believed such covert programmes brought Iran to the negotiating table, resulting in the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA).
Biden pledges to rejoin the agreement in return for Iran’s full compliance. An agreement revival may significantly reduce tension in the region. However, convincing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to the 2015 production levels of fissile material without Iran exacting a higher price for Mr Trump’s unilateral withdrawal won’t be easy. Iran would like some key restrictions lifted. After the arms embargo expired in October, China and Russia may resume sales to Iran.
In the greater Middle East — the Saudi-UAE nexus is especially considered left out in the Biden-Kamala win as the nexus was too close to the Trump camp. Biden wanted a “reassessment” of US support for Saudi Arabia prompted by “endless” war in Yemen and murder of journalist Khashoggi, etc. He has wowed to stop arms sales to the kingdom and treat Riyadh like a “pariah”.
Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, might take time to replace his geniality with the Trump-Jared Kushner combine. This may also impact Pakistan as the UAE-Saudi interlocution was, at times, to our advantage. So the new administration besides towing a pragmatic line on the Iran issue might distance itself from deeper involvement with a Saudi-led Middle Eastern order, without remaining totally unconcerned. The enduring US establishment would not want a hands-off policy either, under the State Department-led institutional approach.
Biden opposed the 2007 surge in Iraq and proposed dividing Iraq into three self-governing regions. He has condemned Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, calling it a betrayal of the Kurds but remains skeptical about committing US troops back to Syria.
Biden is concerned about America keeping nuclear weapons in Turkey. He detests Turkey’s military incursions in Syrian Kurdish territory and supports domestic opposition to President Erdogan.
With this we now focus on South Asia and Pak-US relations next week.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2020.