Friday, May 07, 2021

What is Biden’s Foreign Policy Red Line?

In the previous post, I quoted a column by Max Boot, that presents insightful views about Biden’s red line against Iranian attacks on US interests in the Middle East (“Opinion: Biden actually has a strategy for the Middle East, not just a Twitter account”; Washington Post; February 27, 2021). President Joe Biden may be the greatest conciliator, but a compromise can be made through drawing a clear red line. Biden does not have the charisma of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but according to Professor Toshihiro Nakayama of Keio University, he is a president to do his job business as usual in a professional manner (“Unlike Obama and Trump … Why Did Biden Won the Most Votes in History?”; Shukan Bunshun; January 21, 2021).

In my view, Biden’s uncharismatic professionalism comes from his balance taking and red line drawing skills. Actually, both Obama and Trump were so amateur that they had failed to defend vital national interests from the enemy several times. Among them, both predecessors made terrible mistakes in Syria. In 2013, Obama failed to launch retaliatory air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks on civil war oppositions and civilians (“The problem with Obama’s account of the Syrian red-line incident”; Washington Post; October 5, 2016). Trump is in no position to blame his predecessor. In 2018, he withdrew troops from there, since he believed prematurely that the War on Terror was over. As a result, local Kurds were abdicated, despite years of alliance with the United States, which led to vehement criticism from the Pentagon (“Trump orders US troops out of Syria, declares victory over ISIS; senators slam action as mistake”; USA Today; December 19, 2018). Also, French President Emmanuel Macron remarked the famous phrase, "What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO” (“NATO alliance experiencing brain death, says Macron”; BBC News; 7 November, 2019). Since then, it has turned out that Trump was wrong, as security in Syria has not improved.

In view of diplomatic failures of Obama and Trump, how does Biden draw red lines to defend vital interests of the United States around the world? To begin with, I would like to mention Russia, because President Vladimir Putin crossed the line more outrageously than any other leaders in the world. As mentioned in the NIC report this March, Russia intervened the presidential election of the United States again in 2020 to boost the Republican candidate Donald Trump. Obviously, Russia has crossed the red line to attack the American homeland repeatedly. In other words, this is another 9-11 attacks. Even China hesitated to resort to such an aggression. According to the report, Putin collaborated with Trump’s election staff, along with launching cyber attacks.

Remember that the Kremlin has been intervening elections in Europe long before Brexit and Trump to delegitimize liberal democracy of the West. Far right politicians, such as Putin, Trump, and Nigel Farage of the UKIP, have utilized anger and racism among the white working class in Europe and America to achieve their political objectives. A Ukrainian journalist Anton Shekhovtsov says that Russian sponsorship of the Western far right is more deep rooted than Putin and his siloviki fellows, and it dates back to the Soviet era. Deplorably, people in Japan and other East Asia raise concerns with the rise of Asian hate in the West now, which is a natural consequence of Russian support of White Christian nationalists, while they were almost unaware of the threat of the Kremlin’s political manipulation in the Euro-Atlantic sphere.

In response to Russian aggression, Biden draws clear red line. Following the release of the NIC report, he tightened sanctions on Russia with strong support from allies (“Biden administration imposes significant economic sanctions on Russia over cyberspying, efforts to influence presidential election”; Washington Post; April 16, 2021). In addition, Biden pressured Putin to withdraw troops from the border area with Ukraine in close cooperation with NATO allies, and its success is impressive enough to discard Trump’s America First (“Russia to Withdraw Troops From Ukraine Border, Crimea”; Moscow Times; April 22, 2021). Remember, Obama failed to defend America’s red line when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. Trump was even worse. Not only did he admit the Russian annexation, he said the he trusted the intelligence of the Russian side rather than that of the American side, regarding the Kremlin’s interference in the presidential election that he won, at the Helsinki summit with Putin. That revealed Trump has no understanding of presidential duties. We have to bear in mind that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson denounces Russian interference in the Brexit vote, even though that enabled him to become the prime minister. He understands Britain’s red line.

Unlike Russia, China did not intervene in the election, but this country is the primary challenger to Pax Americana. China sets her own red lines in her neighboring waters unilaterally in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and around the Taiwan Strait, which is commonly called the Chinese Monroe Doctrine. Meanwhile, the United States is imposing red lines of global rules and norms, regarding freedom of Uyghur and Hong Kong. For China, the latter may sound US-led aggression on her homeland. Actually Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded Japan not join the US-UK-EU-Canadian coalition to defend human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong (“China tells Japan to stay out of Hong Kong, Xinjiang issues”; Straits Times; April 6, 2021). Also, China and America bicker over the hegemony of information technology.

In view of these contentions, the fact that China hesitated to interfere the 2020 election is quite remarkable, though Russia did it for Trump and Iran did it for Biden. Like Iran, China considered assisting Biden to weaken the populist hawk in the election. However, neither China nor Iran was so wishful as to believe that a Democrat president would be dovish. Some realists talk about Sino-American unrevealed ties behind the curtain, despite serious rivalries between both countries in public. When we talk about mutual interdependence between China and liberal democratic nations, we tend to focus on our vulnerabilities to this country, but everything is vice versa.

Therefore, let me review the China part of the NIC report. Though Beijing launched negative propagandas against Trump’s foreign policy and corona crisis management through the state media, that was business as usual, and those did not target the election. The point is that China feared the risk of interference, which could fatally damage her relations with the United States. Even if Trump won the election, China needed to improve the relationship. More importantly, there was no prospect of an emergence of a pro-Chinese administration, since America’s China policy was bipartisan. Xi Jinping learned a lesson from Putin’s interference in the election in 2016, that had turned Russo-American relations worse. Also, it is vital to bear in mind that China did not feel an acute threat of Trump’s unilateralism as Iran did. Beijing even thought Trump would be more convenient than Biden in some senses, in hope of isolating the United States from her allies. China is redrawing red lines of geopolitics and values, but still, this country does not dare to infringe on America’s ultimate red line.

Though Biden is rebuilding US foreign policy, his red line regarding Afghanistan is questionable. He may postpone the schedule of withdrawal from Trump’s initial plan, but that does not fix the problem, as the Taliban could retake Kabul sooner or later. In that case, every achievement that America made will be ruined. Isolationist voters, whether right or left, easily fall into cost and benefit thinking of Trump, and Biden needs to reorient such mindsets among the public to defend America’s national security red line. Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations comments that Afghan policy needs to be understood from long term views, notably, avoiding the local government's defeat at an acceptable cost, rather than a clear-cut victory against terrorists.

Furthermore, Tom Tougendhat, British MP and an army veteran of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, insists that enemies elsewhere will also be emboldened to see that the United States and NATO allies are unwilling to sustain even a small presence.

Their concerns are shared among American national security community as expressed in the report by the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) this March. The SIGAR report articulates that Afghanistan is far from self-reliant to maintain security with her own funding resources, and it raises critical risks associated with troop withdrawal. Since the US-Taliban agreement on February 29 last year, terrorist attacks on the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) have risen sharply. Despite this, the number of US troops and the amount of the budget to support the local security forces are restrained, today. Since the prospect of the peace negotiation is uncertain, a cut of civilian and military presence of the United States would deteriorate the security environment, which could jeopardize US-led reconstruction programs, such as anti-corruption measure, socio-economic development including public health, anti-narcotics operation, and women’s rights.

In view of such insecurity and problems of the troop pullout, the SIGAR report recommends that the United States and major aid donors upgrade oversight capability of the program through structural reform of the aid system and increased funding. But that does not resolve the fundamental problem of the power vacuum. It seems that Biden is making a dangerous compromise with the fatigue of the long war among domestic voters as Trump did. That makes America’s red line fragile, regarding Afghanistan. Democracy originates from the rule of taxpayers by themselves, but paradoxically, taxpayers are not necessarily responsible and well-aware of public affairs. Occasionally, they are liable to sacrifice national or global public interests for their own narrow benefit. With a long career in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is more professional to lead American diplomacy than Obama and Trump were, but still, his red line on Afghanistan needs to be reconsidered .