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Biden Won: What’s next?

Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

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The moment many awaited with bated breath finally arrived, Vice President Joe Biden has been declared as the new elect 46th President of United States of America. Since November 3, the close margin of votes for the Democratic Party candidate and President Donald Trump in key swing states created an anxious atmosphere across the nation. With the final vote count emerging from Pennsylvania and confirming the state turning blue, it thwarted the Republican Party’s dream of four more years in the White House.

As Trump trailed behind in many states, he voiced his concerns and promised taking the issue to the Supreme Court. According to President Trump, there has been voter fraud and media conspiracy in many states that led to losing critical electoral votes. Consequently, his legal team has filed for lawsuits in states like Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona. But this is an uphill battle for his campaign staff. For starters, unlike the electoral crisis of 2000 when the recount issue was raised solely in the state of Florida, this election year’s recount matter involves multiple states. Trump’s legal team would not only have to fight these cases in various states individually, but also present concrete proof of voter fraud which the President claims. Even as some courts have accepted these strings of litigation from the Trump campaign, most legal experts are viewing these cases with skepticism. In Michigan and Georgia, Trump’s case was given a short hearing due to lack of evidence, even though the latter is heading for vote recount. The Trump campaign staff would not only have to envisage a multi-state legal battle plan, but also reserve funds from their donors to proceed. For President Trump to successfully win these various litigations, the election result has to be extremely close. But Joe Biden has electorally surpassed the President in almost all the critical swing states, therefore weakening his case and debatable chances for a second term. 

For Biden, the immediate task at hand is twofold: carefully selecting a qualified, diverse cabinet and preparing policy agendas that will be prioritized the moment he is sworn in as the President. The Biden administration is expected to be an eclectic mix of moderates, progressives and possibly even Republicans to present a united front. Building the cabinet would be Biden’s first challenge. The left side of the Democratic Party would expect one of the most progressive cabinet in the history of United States, whereas the corporate backers who invested money in the campaign would have a completely different economic agenda. Apart from people who have worked with Biden for years, one can expect to see new faces, especially of those people who have worked hard for this win in their respective states. According to reports, the President elect would rigorously assess the potential candidates in the coming months, sliming the possibility of such announcements any time soon.

In terms of policy, Covid 19 and social healthcare measures would be Biden administration’s immediate concern. Biden has promised to launch a Covid 19 task force comprising of scientists and medical experts to get grips with the pandemic escalating coast to coast. A wave of investments in protective gear & equipments, loans to various types of businesses, stern federal public health guidelines and consistent dialogue with state governments can be expected from the Biden government in the first few days of his presidency. The administration would also take steps to assist the medical, nursing and essential workers at the frontlines on various levels. Apart from Covid 19, the administration’s urgent attention would be on rebuilding the economy. Moving ahead his campaign’s economic vision of “Made in all of America”, the elect President would focus on revitalizing the domestic manufacturing while bringing public and private entities together. Fulfilling his campaign promise of increasing minimum wage to 15 dollars, creating 5 million new jobs, investing billions of dollars in renewing American manufacturing hubs, strengthening R&D for science & technology, supporting overtime pay for workers and so on would be addressed within the first few months.

Apart from Covid 19 and economy, focusing on systematic racial inequality in the society and climate change would be in President elect’s top concern list. For racial inequality the campaign promise of providing loans of hundred billion dollars at low interest rate to people of color, providing capital for startups by people of color from economically disadvantaged parts of the country and investing in black and minority colleges/universities would be pushed ahead. Similarly, the long term goal of producing zero carbon emissions by 2050 would be laid into action step by step by the administration. Apart from these plans, the Biden campaign has also expressed their plans for taxes, student loans, housing and healthcare infrastructure.

All these campaign promises are not only ambitious in nature but would also require highest form of political skill for pitching them in the Congress. Even though the President elect would try to push these ahead through multitude of Executive Orders, many promises involving finances would require Senate’s support. Due to Republican Party leading the Senate race, Sen. Mitch McConnell would likely to continue being the Senate Majority leader. It is highly plausible that the White House and the Congress would be at loggerheads due to this development, but there is still hope for the Democrats. Biden’s years of experience at Capitol Hill would be of great leverage for sealing deals with the Senate. During the Obama years, he played a critical role in bridging the gap between conservatives and liberals. Despite differing politically, Biden and McConnell have not only known each other for years but have also formed a respectable personal relationship. This relationship can prove to be a real asset for President Biden and his administration’s plans in heralding the country in a new post-Covid 19 era.

In terms of foreign policy, the Biden administration would attempt at “normalizing” American relations abroad. Firstly, the President will focus towards mending broken bridges in the multilateral settings like admitting America back in WHO, the Paris Agreement, UNHCR etc. He would be utilizing traditional diplomatic channels and his years of foreign policy experience/contacts in sending across a reaffirming message to these organizations. Biden administration’s second task at hand would be reassuring American allies especially in Europe and Asia. As the faith in American leadership has dwindled during the Trump years, Biden administration would upscale America’s charm offensive. Thirdly, on all matters associated to China, the Biden administration would most probably continue Trump’s policies, but with heightened diplomatic maneuvering. Trump’s lasting legacy is his China policy and hence, tensed Sino-America relationship would continue to prevail for the two countries in the coming years. Fourthly, Biden would be critical in shaping the future of America’s Indo-Pacific policy, especially the Quad arrangement. The decisions during his term would solidify Quad’s characteristics as a grouping and eventually America’s role in the Indo Pacific as China expands its influence in the region. And lastly, Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge would be Iran Nuclear deal. Finding ways to reconnect with the Iranian policymakers, winning their faith, finding means to strike a deal with Tehran and European allies while keeping the concerns raised by JCPOA critics at home would be a job of herculean propotion.

It is important to note that even though President Trump has lost the election, he has electorally surpassed expectations. Irrespective of a global pandemic that claimed thousands of American lives, social unrest due to deepening racial tensions, eroding faith in law & order, wildfires at an unprecedented scale, frequent shootouts and escalation in hate crimes, President Trump was able to garner vast support. This year his voting base not only included traditional white voters, but also saw an increase of voters from Hispanic communities, especially in the state of Texas and Florida. Traditionally, the Hispanic communities from the 1990s began shifting towards the Democratic Party, but this election the President was able to make headway in winning their crucial votes. Ultimately, the election map signals that the “Trump Ideology” would continue to attract millions of people in America even though the president has lost his second bid. In the books of political history, he will always be remembered as a political maverick who revolutionized the Republican Party, for better or worse. Trump’s post presidency years could see him legally defending against slew of lawsuits and attempting to be politically relevant. With time, the conservative force in the American politics would search for a leader who espouses similar ideas and gives voice to the other half of the population. But until then, Joe Biden will be the President of a divided country that is on the quest of soul search.

Aakriti Sethi is a doctoral candidate at US Studies Program (USSP), Center for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She has an Mphil degree in US Studies from the same and a postgraduate degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Previously, she worked at the US division of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Her area of interest includes US foreign policy, American domestic politics, Northeast Asia (primarily Japan, China and North Korea), Indo Pacific and India's foreign policy. Her work has been featured in various websites, journals and newsletters.

Americas

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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