United States

U.S. foreign policy under Joe Biden will not be greatly different from that of the past

Print edition : January 15, 2021

A Tv showing the live broadcast of the U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, in Seoul, South Korea, on October 23, 2020. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Under Joe Biden the foreign policy goal of U.S. primacy will remain. To this end the U.S. will continue to undermine the ties China and Russia have established with countries such as Iran and Venezuela.

A few days before the presidential election in the United States in 2020, Joe Biden reflected on the tragedies of the Donald Trump administration. “Tragically, the one place Donald Trump has made ‘America First’,” Biden said, “is his failed response to the coronavirus: we’re 4 per cent of the world’s population yet have had 20 per cent of the deaths.” This is a clear statement that avoids Trump’s racist attempt to blame China for the deaths in the U.S.; the blame must rest where it belongs, which is in a failed public health system, an overly profit-based medical and pharmaceutical industry, and an incompetent executive branch. Biden stated a clear difference between what the Trump administration had done and what his administration would do.

But, as he expanded on his observations, it became clear that the gap between Biden and Trump is not as coherent as it seems. The problem with Trump, he suggested, was that he embraced “the world’s autocrats” and poked “his finger in the eye of our democratic allies”. It was because of this, Biden said, that “respect for American leadership is in free fall”. In other words, the problem for the U.S. is not its foreign policy, but only how the Trump administration had shifted the strategy to enact the policy. In March, Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs that he too wanted to assert U.S. power on the world so that it would maintain its position as the sole superpower. He did not use Trump’s—and before him Ronald Reagan’s phrase—“America First”, but he did talk about how this “is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two World Wars and brought down the Iron Curtain”. The goal of U.S. primacy remains; Biden will not inaugurate any new form of multilateralism. He will merely try to rebuild the “Atlantic alliance”—the North American countries of Canada and the U.S. with the European countries—to pursue U.S. primacy against anyone who stands in the way of U.S. objectives.

Also read: How Trumpism will continue after Trump

Belligerence against China

Trump’s trade war and belligerence against China was not authored by Trump but inherited from the Barack Obama administration. This pressure on China is not a political matter alone, but is rooted in large sections of the U.S. elite who have come to understand that China’s scientific and technological advances threaten U.S. monopoly advantages. At an event hosted by the conservative Hoover Institute, Eric Schmidt (the former head of Google and the head of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence) said the U.S. was “a year or two ahead of China” when it came to artificial intelligence; “we’re not a decade ahead”. “We’re in a contest,” he said, “and part of the reasons I think that China may win is that they have five times as many people. They’re very focussed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education.” The fear that China might “win” defines U.S. policy regarding China.

The liberal Brookings Institute, from where Biden will draw many people for his administration, released a report recently called The United States, China, and the Contest for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (July 2020). The idea that the countries are in a “contest” is entirely the view from Washington; there is no such rhetoric coming from Beijing. The author of this report notes that China could “win” because it has heavily invested in research and development, it has industrial policies that support the growth of China’s tech sector, it has “manufacturing prowess and centrality to global supply chains”, and China will likely be setting “the global technology standards”. As an example, in July, China’s National People’s Congress approved a plan for $1.4 trillion to be spent to build fifth generation wireless networks; this is far more than any other country or any corporation has pledged for the advances in telecommunications. China started the year with 2,00,000 5G towers but will end the year with 5,00,000 such towers towards its ultimate goal of erecting five million 5G towers.

Also read: US' China obsession

Biden’s Secretary of State will be his National Security Adviser Antony Blinken. In September, Blinken said that “China poses a growing challenge, arguably the biggest challenge we face from another nation state: economically, technologically, militarily, even diplomatically.” It is important to note the sequence of the problems—economic and technological challenges far above the military and diplomatic challenges. Unlike Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Blinken admits that this relationship will have “adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones”; it is this last form, the cooperative, that differentiates Pompeo from Blinken, although the only examples here (climate change, non-proliferation, global health) do not come to the main issue that will divide the U.S. from China, namely China’s technological advance.

What is the strategy to deal with China’s technological advance? Blinken said the U.S. had to assemble a “league of democracies,” basically the old European allies and Japan—the G7 and NATO—that will stand against China. He has a small supplement to the old idea of “league of democracies” (which is floated out each time a Democratic Party administration takes office in Washington); Blinken wants to create a league of “techno-democracies” and position them against “techno-autocracies, like China”. The U.S., he said, had to “do a much better job in leading, coordinating, working with the other techno-democracies to make sure that we carry the day and not China”.

Also read: US and China's hybrid war

There is no recognition that China has advanced technologically, and its advances cannot be reversed short of a war. Rather than recognise that China is a technological power which should be allowed to compete in the world market, the U.S. wants to use its political and military power to demand that China surrender its technological advances. This will be as much Biden’s policy as it was Trump’s policy, with the only difference that Biden and his team will seek to suborn the Europeans to fully back the policy and not rely so much on the Quad (the U. S. with Australia, India and Japan). The rhetoric of warmongering might be less direct, but it will be the same kind of imposed warlike atmosphere against China.

Sanctions against Venezuela

One of the great outrages of our time is the use of unilateral and criminal sanctions by the U.S. against Venezuela and 30 other countries. This use of sanctions long predates Trump. The sanctions policy against Venezuela was ramped up by Obama, and then taken to an extreme level by Trump. Some of Biden’s advisers told Bloomberg anonymously that the new President would welcome a dialogue with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro but only if Maduro held new elections; such a precondition is unacceptable in Venezuela, where they say that new elections would be against Venezuela’s Constitution and would constitute interference in their political process.

The Bloomberg story is not illustrative of the broad policy that Biden will follow when it comes to Venezuela. In March 2019, Jake Sullivan—the National Security Adviser-designate—spoke to Walter Russell Mead of the Hudson Institute about a range of issues. When Mead asked him about Venezuela, Sullivan gave an honest but chilling answer. Sullivan agreed with Mead that “a military solution driven by the U.S. is too big a risk to entertain”.

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

The U.S., Sullivan said, should therefore “be focussed on all of the non-military tools we can bring to bear”. In other words, he said that the U.S. must deepen the hybrid war of Obama and Trump. What does this mean in practice? It meant, Sullivan said, “doubling down on the sanctions pieces and continuing to build the international coalition around this”. This comment comes after the Trump administration’s failed attempt to conduct two coups in 2019, and after the United Nations had on several occasions pointed out that the sanctions policy was cruel and illegal. The “progressive idealism” of Sullivan and Blinken are unmoved by the considerations of human suffering.

What was more important to indicate for Sullivan was how to use the situation of Venezuela to undermine the power of China and Russia. The U.S. must, he said, “focus on breaking off China, Cuba and Russia from Venezuela through whatever means we have available to us because those, effectively, are the lifelines”. The Biden administration will put its energy into undermining the ties that have been established by China and Russia with countries such as Iran and Venezuela. There will, therefore, be no change in the broad regime change policy of Washington against these countries. Only the mood will be different, the smiles broader, the sneers hidden for the back rooms.