Monday, March 29, 2021
The global community is keenly watching how much President Joseph Biden is going to shift his country away from America First of Donald Trump. This February, he delivered his first foreign policy speech at the Department of State, and subsequently, at the Munich Security Conference. Scholars and commentators elaborate to foresee his foreign policy through interpreting the text word by word. Meanwhile, we have to compare his words and his deeds from comprehensive viewpoints.
Let me review his speeches first. In the speech at the State Department, Biden consistently defends the human rights of political oppositions and ethnic minorities in Russia, China, and the Middle East. Also, global well-being issues like the environment are vital. Meanwhile, regarding China, Biden balances moral high ground of American idealism and geoeconomics of realism. That is not the case with Russia, since she has been intervening public voting in Europe and America, notably for Brexit and Trump. According to a recently publicized report by the National Intelligence Council, Russia interfered in the presidential election to boost Trump in 2020 again, through hacking and personal contacts with his team. While China also considered such interference to defame Trump, she abandoned the idea in the end (“Putin targeted people close to Trump in bid to influence 2020 election, U.S. intelligence says”; Washington Post; March 17, 2020). Since the threat of election intervention has grown so serious that Britain has decided to overturn her long established nuclear strategy, and she is rebuilding the stockpile of warheads to retaliate asymmetrically against cyber attacks by the enemy (“Boris Johnson warns Tories off cold war with China”; Times; March 16, 2021 and here).
Subsequently, at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, Biden stressed that America was in full respect of Article V of NATO, thereby managing regional and global security issues mutually, including emerging challenges of China, Indo-Pacific navigations, and the corona outbreak. While Europeans welcome his willingness to overturn Trump’s isolationism, some of them like Germany and France, may pursue trans-Atlantic multilateralism via their own strategic autonomy, rather than via close partnership with the United States (“Opinion: Message from Munich: Resilience is the foundation of trans-Atlantic security”; Deutsche Welle; 19 February, 2021). Meanwhile, in Asia, as Professor Joseph Nye at Harvard University comments, Xi Jinping’s China has grown excessively assertive in regional security and trade, but the United States cannot sever ties with this country, due to interdependence in the economy and ecological issues. Therefore, he argues that the United States needs a staunch alliance with Japan more than ever (“Biden’s Asian Triangle”; Project Syndicate; February 4, 2021). That was typically illustrated in the two plus two meeting in Tokyo the other day.
According to Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the core of Biden’s foreign policy consists of rebuilding at home, working with allies, embracing diplomacy, participating in international institutions and advocating for democracy. However, domestic troubles that Trump has left, such as political polarization and racism that typically appeared in the January 6 riot, as well as failure in handling the corona crisis, are hindering Biden from success in his foreign policy (“Whither US Foreign Policy?”; Project Syndicate; February 9, 2021 and here). The most critical constraint to American engagement with the world is public perception at home, according to Robert Kagan at the Brookings Institution. Americans are reluctant to assume their burden as the superpower, because they underestimate the power of their country. This is typically seen in the fatigue of limited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan among the public. They yearn the days when the United States kept herself aloof from Old World political manipulation, and pursued her own economic prosperity. Yet, public awareness of world affairs rises keenly, when an international crisis breaks out. The Trump administration, that arose from such naïve anti-globalism, was a stress test for American internationalism, but people are realizing that 19th century isolationism is not helpful for the country. Kagan stresses that it is America’s vital interest to meet the noblesse oblige of the superpower, and voters should understand this (“A Superpower, Like It or Not: Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role”; Foreign Affairs; March/April 2021).
Despite those domestic and global constraints, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Biden “the greatest conciliator” as his old friend, in “BBC Breakfast” on November 9 last year. Throughout Biden’s long career in the Senate, his sense of balance was an asset. As the Vice President of the Obama administration, he settled the budget dispute in 2013 to avoid sequestration. In diplomacy as the president, a typical case of his balancing skill is seen in his handling of Saudi Arabia. He publicized a long-withheld U.S. intelligence report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on February 26, that attributes the murder of Jamal Kashoggi to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). While Biden has imposed the Kashoggi ban on 76 Saudis to deny entry visas to the United States, the Crown Prince was exempted from the ban, despite strong requests from human rights groups and his fellow Democrats such as Senator Ron Wyden. However, unlike the Trump administration, which had direct contacts with MBS regularly, the Biden administration keeps communications with him within professional necessity, that is, to treat him just as the defense minister rather than the de facto supreme leader, and does not to invite him for a bilateral meeting for the time being (“FAQ: What Biden did — and didn’t do — after U.S. report on Khashoggi’s killing by Saudi agents”; Washington Post; February 28, 2021).
In contrast with “pragmatic realism” of Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Biden foreign policy team gives high priority to human rights. Meanwhile, as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations calls Saudi Arabia a “frenemy”, simplistic sanctions would just embolden Iran in Middle East geopolitics. He mentions Biden’s way of balancing and reconciliation concisely. Besides condemning the murder of Kashoggi, Biden ended military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Furthermore, he argues that while Biden is making Saudi Crown Prince more controllable, he takes more resolute actions to Iranian aggressions in the region than Trump did in his term. In response to their missile, rocket, and drone attacks on US and allied facilities in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Iraq, since the inauguration, Biden launched critical airstrikes in Syria to destroy pro-Iranian militias, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyd al-Shuhada on February 25. Thereby, he sends a red line message to Iran that his administration is willing to talk with them, but the United States shall not tolerate any kind of their attacks on US interests (“Biden administration conducts strike on Iranian-linked fighters in Syria”; Washington post; February 26, 2021).
Meanwhile, Trump did not respond so steadfastly to Iran and Houthis’ attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq from 2019 to late 2020, despite his notorious and squalid verbal abuses on Twitter and withdrawal from the JCPOA. Actually, he left the job of containing Iran and her proxies to Saudi Arabia, as he declared in his 2016 election pledge (“Opinion: Biden actually has a strategy for the Middle East, not just a Twitter account”; Washington Post; February 27, 2021). The sense of balance that Biden shows in his Middle East policy is likely to be the key to his foreign policy, vis-à-vis China, and similarly, vis-à-vis Russia. Also, he would strike a sensitive balance of intertwined interests, in dealing with global allies and domestic stakeholders.