U.S. presidential election

The Biden administration will follow the same beaten track of traditional U.S. foreign policy

Print edition : December 04, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at press conference on November 9 in Wilmington, Delaware, after they received a briefing from their transition COVID-19 advisory board. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presents President Obama a copy of the Iran Nuclear Agreement legislation in Baltimore, on January 28, 2016. Obama signed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act on May 22, 2015. Re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran would not be that easy given the tremendous damage the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has wrought on the Iranian people. Photo: AP

Vice President Biden, Deputy National Security Adviser Anthony Blinken, NSA Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry watch President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki address the press at the White House on November 1, 2013. Biden claims that he now regrets his initial support for the 2003 Iraq invasion but his main foreign policy advisers are the same people responsible for the recent wars and humanitarian crisis. Photo: REUTERS

Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston, Texas, on September 22, 2019. Biden, like Trump, has promised all help to India “against threats on the border” it is currently facing. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of Trump’s West Asia peace plan in the White House on January 28, 2020. The Trump presidency fulfilled all of Netanyahu’s wishes. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Although Joe Biden may shed the harsher aspects of Donald Trump’s approach to the rest of the world, his administration will stick to the basic contours of traditional U.S. foreign policy.

The international community, barring a few notable exceptions, breathed a sigh of relief after the victory of Joseph Biden in the American presidential election in the first week of November. The outgoing President, Donald Trump, while threatening war against countries such as Iran and Venezuela, had managed to alienate many of the United States’ traditional allies. Trump had described the European Union (E.U.) as a “rival” and had openly encouraged the United Kingdom to exit from the grouping. He led the U.S. out of international treaties and agreements in his quixotic quest “to make America great again”.

Biden has already indicated that dumping Trump’s “America First” policy will be a priority of the new administration. He had said in town hall meetings during the election campaign that Trump’s “America First” policy had left the country isolated in the world. European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were openly critical of Trump’s style of governance. Trump’s closest allies were authoritarian right-wing leaders and the Gulf monarchs. The President-elect said that the U.S. would be rejoining the Paris climate agreement from which Trump had walked out. Trump had also exited from the Trans-Pacific Trade agreement and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Biden signalled that he would extend for another five years the only remaining nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Trump had scrapped the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and was threatening to do the same with the last remaining nuclear treaty between the two countries. The latest National Security and Defence documents released by the Trump administration have unequivocally defined Russia and China as “strategic enemies” of the U.S. The previous Barack Obama administration’s last national security document, which was released in 2015, had “welcomed the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China” and had promised to keep the door open to “greater collaboration with Russia in matters of common interest”.

Also read: Imperfect relief for Americans as Joe Biden wins the presidential election

Fraught relations with Russia

Washington’s relations with Moscow will, however, continue to remain fraught as the Democrats had spent the last four years crying hoarse over alleged Russian attempts to influence U.S. elections. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had alleged that Russia was trying to influence the 2020 election without providing any tangible evidence. Bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia had started going downhill during the Obama presidency culminating in diplomatic hostilities after the Washington-engineered regime change in Ukraine.

Democrats had accused Trump of having a soft corner for Russian President Vladimir Putin but during the Trump presidency bilateral relations deteriorated further. Trump claimed that no other U.S. President in recent history had been “tougher” with Moscow than he was. Trump had authorised the shipment of lethal weapons to Ukraine, stationed more U.S. troops in Poland and imposed sanctions on the major Russian oil company, Rosneft, and a $10-billion pipeline project that will transport Russian gas directly to Germany. The U.S.’ nuclear-armed B-52 bombers have been making frequent forays perilously close to the Russian border

Member-countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are relieved that they will not be put under undue pressure by Washington on policy matters and funding issues with the end of the Trump administration. Trump had openly questioned the rationale for the continued existence of the grouping and had even described the military alliance as “obsolete”. The Democrats continue to be strong supporters of the NATO alliance which was forged to fight the socialist bloc of countries led by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War.

Also read: NATO: Losing relevance

The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued an appeal in the second week of November requesting the U.S. to return to the organisation. The Trump administration had taken the unprecedented step of withdrawing from the WHO when the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating vast swathes of humanity, with the U.S. registering the highest COVID-19 mortality rates. Biden said tackling the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic was the biggest challenge before his administration. He said the U.S. would re-join the WHO, which it helped create and has traditionally funded generously.

The Trump administration had also walked out of UNESCO and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), accusing both the organisations of “political bias”. The Biden administration is expected to reverse these decisions, too. Biden has also promised to undo the “Muslim immigration ban” and stop funding the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Biden is also expected to reverse the “global gag rule” that the Trump administration had brought back. Under its provisions, U.S. financial aid is denied to most international projects relating to family planning, given the Republican Party’s stated opposition to the practice of abortion.

But a Biden administration, according to most commentators and analysts, will stick to the basic contours of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. political and military establishment is yet to reconcile itself to the reality that the country is fast losing its dominant role in international affairs and that it is no longer “an exceptional nation”. Regional powers such as Iran have shown that they can survive despite the best efforts of the U.S. to undermine their sovereignty. Both Russia and China have been successful in recent years in changing the global balance of power. In the wars the U.S. has waged in the past 50 years, it has been successful in the Balkans and the first Gulf War. The ability of the American army to deploy in any part of the world at short notice is no guarantee of military success.

Also read: U.S. & Russia: Close encounters

Biden himself has been a supporter of the U.S.’ imperial policies. He was a supporter of the wars in the Balkans and in West Asia. Biden claims that he now regrets his initial support for the disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq but his main foreign policy advisers are the same people responsible for the recent wars and humanitarian disasters. The Obama administration was full of “liberal interventionists” such as Hillary Clinton, who were responsible for embroiling the U.S. in Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

Some commentators have said that Biden administration is, in fact, a reincarnation of the Obama administration. It was during the Obama period that drone warfare targeting civilians escalated along with the troop deployment in Afghanistan. Biden had counselled against the “troop surge” in Afghanistan. At the end of the Obama presidency, there were only 8,600 U.S. troop there. Trump has reduced the troop numbers in Afghanistan to the same level. Biden, most people believe, is unlikely to reverse course on Afghanistan and take on a resurgent Taliban once again. Afghan government officials hope that he will not be as accommodating towards the Taliban as the Trump administration was in its last year. The Taliban is continuing to target Afghan government forces and officials despite agreeing to a ceasefire.

Relations with India a priority

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the handful of world leaders who claimed to have established a special rapport with Trump. The Modi government was betting on another term for Trump. It is only the second time in 50 years that a serving U.S. President has failed to get a second term. Modi had held two huge rallies with Trump in attendance in the last couple of years, virtually endorsing him for the presidency. The Trump administration has been supportive of the Modi government’s divisive domestic policy, which in many aspects closely mimicked Trump’s own policies vis a vis the minorities. After Trump started frontally targeting China calling for military and trade alliances, he found an immediate ally in Modi’s India.

Also read: U.S. & India: Strengthening ties

However, it was under the Obama administration that India took the initial steps to forge a military alliance against China. Biden, like Trump, is promising all help to India “against threats on the border” it is currently facing. The President-elect has taken some credit for the landmark India-U.S. nuclear deal. Biden was an influential member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. The nuclear deal was instrumental in getting India enmeshed in the web of U.S.- led military alliances, the latest being the Quadrilateral military alliance, known as the Quad.

Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser, Anthony Blinken, speaking in August at an American think tank event, said that strengthening relations with India was going to be a priority of the next administration. Immigration issues affecting Indian citizens, which had cropped up during the Trump presidency, are expected to be sorted out at an early date. Trade issues are more complicated and may take longer to be resolved. Biden may continue with many of Trump’s protectionist policies as he seeks to rebuild the U.S. economy, shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On issues relating to human rights and civil liberties in India, the Biden administration may turn out to be more proactive. Kamala Harris, when she was running for the presidency, had expressed solidarity with Kashmiris, after India revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. She had tweeted: “...There is a need to intervene if the situation demands”. In a campaign event this year, she said that Mahatma Gandhi’s message of tolerance, pluralism and diversity continued to be very much relevant for the world.

Also read: India's Foreign Policy: From non-alignment to strategic partnership

Biden had criticised the Modi government’s measures on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Blinken had said that there were “real concerns” about some other developments in India. He was referring to the Kashmir issue and the new citizenship laws in particular. Biden said he would organise a conference of democracies in the first year of his presidency. The focus of the conference would be on “advancing human rights in their own countries and abroad”.

Biden critical of Russia, China

On the campaign trail, Biden was sharply critical of both Russia and China. He said Russia would have to “pay a price” for its alleged meddling in the U.S. election process despite the Robert Mueller investigations having failed to find any proof of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In an effort to disprove Trump’s charge that he would be “weak” on China, Biden adopted an aggressive stance towards China, even going to the extent of demonising the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and calling him “a thug”.

There is a consensus within the U.S. deep state that China is the new enemy which poses an imminent threat to the status of the U.S. as the sole super power. All efforts are on to thwart China’s “peaceful rise” to superpower status. The Trump administration accelerated this process following the devastating impact of the pandemic on the U.S. economy.

Also read: A new bonhomie between Russia and China

Biden criticised Trump’s trade policy on China saying that it hurt U.S. farmers and industries. He had pledged to be tough on China on matters relating to human rights, trade, technology transfers and freedom of navigation issues relating to the South China Sea. He also accused Trump of not having done enough to shore up the anti-China alliance that the Obama administration had cobbled up. It was the Obama administration that had initiated the “military pivot” to the East and persuaded countries such as India to sign up to the anti-China alliance. Biden, in all probability, will continue with the “new cold war” triggered by the Trump administration earlier this year.

The FBI Director, Christopher Fray, claimed that Chinese “spying and hacking” posed “the greatest long-term” threat to U.S.’ information, intellectual property, economic vitality and, by extension, national security. The FBI Director traditionally has a 10-year term and it is likely that Biden will retain his services.

U.S.-IRAN Nuclear deal

Re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran would not be that easy given the tremendous damage the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” has wrought on the Iranian people. The reimposition of draconian sanctions coupled with the killing of the country’s top general and revolutionary icon, Qassim Soleimani, on the direct orders of Trump will make the task more difficult for the Biden administration. Biden did not condemn the extra-judicial killing of an Iranian official while on an official visit abroad. The Iranian government wants Trump to be tried as a “war criminal”.

Also read: U.S. & Iran: Wages of aggression

Biden had played an important role in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal is known. The President-elect has declared the Trump administration’s Iran policy as “a dangerous failure”. Biden has said that the U.S. is willing to re-join the accord “as a starting point for follow on negotiations” if Iran returns to compliance with it. The Iranian leadership has said it is willing to “re-engage” with the U.S. after it “first returns” to its commitments under the JCPOA and adheres to international law. Meanwhile, Trump is busy spending his last days in office imposing further sanctions on Iran and placing more hurdles in the way of the incoming administration.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking after the announcement of Biden’s election victory, said it did not matter who the President of America was. “Our policy towards the United States is clearly set and does not change with the movement of individuals. It does not matter to us who comes and goes,” Khamenei said in a speech on state television. The three west European signatories to the JCPOA, the U.K., France and Germany, will try to do their best to get the U.S. back into the JCPOA. Elliot Abrams, the U.S. Special Representative on Iran appointed by Trump, said recently that the Biden administration would not be able to remove the sanctions on Iran even if it wanted to. “The US now has a comprehensive list of sanctions that will stay awhile,” Abrams said.

All the same, relations between the two countries are expected to be relatively better with Washington and Tehran accommodating the interests of each other in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Countries like India may find it easier to do business with Iran under the Biden presidency as it would differ from its predecessor in some key areas. Trump’s foreign policy at many levels was a “transactional” one, even putting heavy pressure on the U.S.’ allies. Japan and South Korea were also stopped from accessing Iranian oil and forced to downgrade ties with Iran. After the draconian sanctions instituted by the Trump administration against Iran kicked in, China stepped into the vacuum and signed multi-billion-dollar contracts in the energy, infrastructure and telecom sectors.

Also read: U.S. & Iran: Deceptive calm in West Asia

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran will not go down well with Israel and its new allies in the Arab world, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries consider Iran “an existential threat” for different reasons—Israel because of Iran’s uncompromising stand on the Palestinian issue and its refusal to recognise the Jewish state. Iran’s steadfast support to Republican governments in the region and to popular movements such as the Hezbollah and Hamas have angered the Gulf monarchies. Iran’s role in Yemen and Syria were crucial in preventing proxy regimes from coming to power in Sana’a and Damascus, much to the chagrin of Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Israel and the Gulf monarchies will use all their lobbying power and influence to prevent the Biden administration from resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump had got the UAE and Bahrain to sign the so-called “Abraham accords” with Israel and normalise ties with the Jewish state in the run-up the presidential election. Trump had advertised it as a great diplomatic achievement, saying that he had achieved what previous administrations could not. The agreement, the first of its kind since the Oslo accords of 1994, came in for widespread criticism in the Arab and Muslim world, given the fact that Israel had backtracked on the commitments it had made under the Oslo accords. Palestinians continue to be subjugated and the two-state solution envisaged in the Oslo accords have become a mirage. Biden continues to swear by the “two-state solution”, albeit a watered down one. He has also described the “Abraham accords” as a “historical breakthrough” and urged other Arab countries to recognise Israel.

Back to Obama era policies in West Asia

The long-serving Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has some reasons to be worried about the return of a Democratic administration. Obama had tried to make Netanyahu implement a watered-down version of the two-state solution but was rebuffed. Netanyahu even openly supported the candidature of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, when he challenged Obama for the presidency in 2012. Obama and Netanyahu were barely on talking terms during the final years of the Obama presidency. Netanyahu had tried his best to abort the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. The Trump presidency fulfilled all of Netanyahu’s wishes, including the abrogation of the nuclear deal, shifting of U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and promoting the so-called “deal of the century” which would have legitimised Israeli control over most of Palestinian territory.

Also read: Tension over the ‘peace deal’ between Israel and the UAE

Biden has been close to Israel and the domestic Zionist lobby. So is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. But most observers expect the Biden administration to revert to Obama-era policies in the region. For starters, the U.S. financial and humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Palestinians, which was stopped by the Trump administration, will be restored. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington will be allowed to function again. The creation of a much-diminished Palestinian state will also be back on the agenda.

Biden has said that he will not shift the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv or roll back the Trump administration’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Tel Aviv is the only capital recognised by the rest of the international community and the Golan is also internationally recognised as being part of Syrian territory. Election outcomes in the U.S. do not matter much for Israel. It has always managed to come out as a winner. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s main challenger in the Democratic primaries, had urged the new administration to use its leverage to get concessions for Palestinians. Biden has rejected the advice outright, going to the extent of terming it “as ludicrous and unacceptable”.

Relations with Saudi Arabia

The Saudi monarchy could also be a little nervous at the turn of events as it too was betting on a second term for Trump. The first foreign visit Trump made as President was to Saudi Arabia, the biggest purchaser of U.S. weaponry. Trump had no objection to Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis using U.S. weapons to pulverise Yemen, the poorest country in the region, back into the stone age. The U.S.- supported war in Yemen has led to the most serious humanitarian catastrophe the world is facing today. Now, with Biden at the helm, Saudi Arabia could be put on notice. In the past two years, Biden has made many critical comments about the kingdom, saying that it had “very little social redeeming value” and that the Saudis have murdered “children—and innocent people” in Yemen. The Biden administration will, in all probability, end its support for the war in Yemen, which has been going on for six years.

Also read: Saudi Arabia and the Crude wars

“Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or to buy oil.” Biden said in October. The Trump administration had looked the other way when substantive evidence pointed to the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, in the brutal murder of the dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Nuclear deal with North Korea

The Trump administration had invested a lot of time and energy in its attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea. Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, had met three times. Trump, however, was not ready to give any meaningful concessions to Pyongyang in return for nuclear disarmament. North Korea has gone on replenishing its nuclear and missile capabilities. The North does not think highly of Biden, whom it once described as a rabid dog “who must be beaten to death with a stick”. The Obama administration wanted to starve the North into submission. Biden has not yet fully articulated what his stance on the North will be. He has only said that he will keep on trying to make the North de-nuclearise and remain an “unwavering friend” of South Korea.

Also read: U.S. & North Korea: Elusive deal

Bullying policies in Latin America

Cuba and Venezuela, the two countries in the Latin American and the Caribbean region worst affected by the policies of the Trump administration, have expressed the hope that the Biden presidency will be amenable to the resumption of the dialogue process and a change in policy. Trump had re-introduced the harsh aspects of the economic blockade on Cuba after the previous administration had established full diplomatic relations with the socialist country. Trump had tried his best to effect regime change in Venezuela but failed. His inhumane policies towards these two countries were mainly motivated by his desire to win the Latino vote in Florida, where most of the sizable right-wing emigre population from Cuba and Venezuela stay. Cuban Americans constitute the biggest bloc of Latino voters in the state.

Trump achieved his goal in Florida but his presidency reminded Latin Americans of the bad old days of American gun boat diplomacy. The Trump administration even resuscitated the blatantly imperialist Monroe Doctrine of the early 19th century, which proclaimed that Latin America was the backyard of the U.S. and constituted its exclusive sphere of influence. The U.S. is worried about the growing Chinese footprint in the region. Biden’s advisers said that he would end “the bullying” policies of the Trump administration in Latin America and revert to the policies followed by the Obama administration. The harsher aspects of Trump’s policies may disappear but attempts at regime change in countries that have governments following independent foreign policies will continue.

Also read: Latin America: Suffocating democracy in the Andes

Biden said that he would promptly reverse Trump’s policies “that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights”. The Cuban government does not expect bilateral relations to be as warm as they were during the final years of the Obama administration. But some of the restrictions placed by the Trump administration in the run-up to the election, like the ban on money transfers and tourism, may be lifted sooner than later by the Biden administration.

The Trump presidency, despite its excesses, did not start a full-fledged war, though at one point earlier in the year war with Iran looked imminent. Biden has also said that he wants to end America’s “endless wars”. Both Trump and Biden on the campaign trail had promised to end the “forever wars” America has been engaged in for more than half a century. Three-quarters of Americans, according to opinion polls, favour the return of troops from Iraq, Syria and other places. At the same time, none of the presidential candidates talked about withdrawing the 200,000 troops stationed in more than 800 overseas bases.

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