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Expected ‘de-Trumping’ of US foreign policy under a Biden presidency

Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

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The Trump years were marked by reckless policies and unilateral decisions. Ranging from the US’ exit from key multilateral pacts, to a series of isolationist and protectionist policies, the world stared at the prospect of an American retreat from global affairs. Now, with a new President-elect, what changes can the world expect in the US foreign policy realm.

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Ever since January 2017, when Donald Trump unexpectedly made his way into the White House, Washington has backed out from several key international treaties, agreements, and multilateral arrangements of vital importance to global peace, security, and sustainability.

Together with a series of isolationist and protectionist policies, the world stared at the dangerous prospect of an American retreat from global affairs under the Trump presidency, and the US’ image as a world superpower was severely damaged, but it’s not irreparable, as the White House waits a responsible President.

What changes can the world expect from the new President-elect, Joe Biden, when it comes to foreign policy, diplomacy, and multilateralism?

Biden comes with experience

Unlike a businessperson-turned-President Donald Trump, the new President-elect Joe Biden comes with a vast experience as a career politician and dealing with foreign policy issues, both in his capacity as Vice President in the Obama administration and as a long-time member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate. Biden also maintains close ties with a lot of international actors that still influence global affairs, which will effectively prove helpful in decision-making.

Renegotiating multilateral pacts

As Biden gets ready to assume the United States presidency on January 2021, he is expected to renegotiate many of the agreements which Donald Trump unilaterally pulled Washington from, effectively weakening America’s pre-eminent position as a world leader.

Among them include, the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the key arms control treaties with Russia like the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (IRNF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.

Here, I look at some of such agreements and multilateral arrangements that could possibly take a rebirth under Joe Biden.

Paris Climate Accord of 2015

As the world battles a climate crisis like never before, the Paris Accord was negotiated under the sidelines of the 2015 meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris during Obama’s tenure. With Trump disregarding the pact as poorly negotiated, Washington was forced to withdraw from it in June 2017.

Biden, during his poll-time campaigns has vowed that he would bring the United States back to the Accord on the very first day of assuming office as President. He reassured this commitment he made on the day the withdrawal took effect on 4 November 2020. So, a Biden presidency could be good for the planet and a sustainable future.

Iran Nuclear Deal or the JCPOA, 2015

JCPOA stands for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. It is a long-term deal made between a group of world powers known as the P5+1 – the US, the UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany – with the West Asian nation of Iran.

Under the pact, Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow periodic inspections as a quid pro quo for lifting of economic sanctions, thus preventing another nation going the nuclear way. Three countries positioning next to Iran – Pakistan, India and China – already possess them.

So, restricting Iran’s nuclear programme through the JCPOA was a huge diplomatic victory in 2015, when it was agreed on. But, Donald Trump pulled Washington, a key party to the deal, out of this strenuously negotiated deal under the Obama administration in May 2018.

Presumably, a much-needed tone-down in Washington’s approach towards Tehran that had dangerously escalated since the targeted killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, earlier this year, could also be on the cards.

INF and Open Skies Treaty

Both INF (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, 1987, and Open Skies Treaty, 1992 are Cold War-era agreements with Russia aimed at limiting arms proliferation including nuclear weapons.

Trump pulled Washington out from these pacts in August 2019 and May 2020 respectively, adding up to the insecurities of its allies, particularly in Europe. The former pact was signed by Ronald Reagan and the latter one by George H.W. Bush with their respective Soviet or Russian counterparts.

As a goodwill gesture to bring America’s NATO allies closer to Washington and to win back their trusts Biden might attempt to renegotiate these agreements. The 2011-effective New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is the only remaining treaty with Russia to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. This was recently agreed to extend one more year.

UNESCO and UNHRC

Donald Trump had no hesitation to openly express his disregard for the United Nations and its affiliated bodies. This was exemplified in his move to pull the US out of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2017 and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in 2018.

A Biden presidency will definitely reassure United States’ commitment to multilateralism and support for international organisations. He could begin by rejoining these two bodies. The same goes with reassuring US share of funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), which Trump has threatened to cut short, recently.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP was a huge 12-nation regional trade deal aimed to counter Beijing’s economic muscle involving the key Pacific littoral states, including the United States. But, Trump considered the TPP as unfair to American workers and the agreement was never officially adopted by US Congress, as well.

TPP was the first agreement from which the Trump administration withdraw in the very first month of assuming the office in January 2017. The remaining 11 nations have carried on without Washington and negotiated a new trade agreement called Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which incorporates most of the provisions of the erstwhile TPP and which entered into force in December 2018.

As a counterweight against Beijing’s growing economic clout across the globe, Biden might possibly attempt to strike an agreement with the CPTPP in the foreseeable future.

Reassuring NATO

The 30-memberNorth Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has been the cornerstone of US-led security architecture for Europe that has been in existence for almost seven decades now.

Donald Trump in the White House was perceived as the biggest nightmare for a potential break-up of this security system for the leaders in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, among similar fears from other European capitals.

Trump has been demanding more defence spending and payments from allies in Europe particularly from Germany where Trump recently cut the number of troops stationed for protection.

By bridging stronger and resilient ties across the Atlantic, Biden has to reassure the American commitment towards collective security and defence against any external aggression faced by any ally, a link that has been severely damaged under the Trump presidency.

Resurrecting American humanitarian commitment

Unlike Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy, Biden is expected to uphold the US’ humanitarian commitment to conflicts as well, particularly where Washington is involved like Afghanistan or Syria.

Biden is also expected to restart dialogue with Palestine, very much unlike Trump’s heavily Israel-biased policies intended to appease his religiously-inclined supporters at home. Biden will try to bring all parties and actors involved to the negotiating table without turning a blind-eye on the concerns of any.

During his tenure, Trump has elevated Washington’s ties with Riyadh to an all-time high. Notably, the latter remained a silent onlooker of the US-led Abraham Accords to normalize diplomatic relationship between Israel and the Arab states of the region, without protesting it.

Biden is expected to rethink this relationship in lines with Washington’s old humanitarian commitment that was blatantly disregarded during the Trump years. In his campaign, Biden has pledged to reassess ties with the Arab kingdom and wants more accountability for the state-sanctioned killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian columnist of the Washington Post, two years back, often exemplified as state-sanctioned killing of dissidents. He could also end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.

China and Russia policies are here to stay

But, if there is one aspect that is expected to remain almost the same is the US policy towards Beijing, the single-most challenger to America’s dominance in the world as an economic and military power.

Even though Biden might attempt to build new bridges of dialogue, the basic underlying outlook towards China is poised to remain the same, which is, a threat to be contained.

With a resurgent Russia that took advantage of Trump’s follies, a series of time-tested confidence-building measures will continue. This can also be combined with an extension of the validity period of existing arms control treaties and a potential renegotiation of the INF and Open Skies treaties or else make new arrangements to serve its intended purpose.

New Hope

While dealing with three big challenges at home, namely, systemic racism pervading the whole of American society, a mismanaged Covid-19 pandemic, and rising unemployment rates, Biden is expected to bring in new hope, both for the people of the United States, and for the people around the globe who seek the ‘American dream’. Meanwhile, the ongoing fight against an outlived ‘Trumpism’, influencing minds has to be intensified, re-framing the past ‘America First’ policies in an open and inclusive way.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Americas

Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners

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“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.

Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.

Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.

Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.

Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?

There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.

Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.

The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.

Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.

South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.

South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.

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Americas

Political Violence and Elections: Should We Care?

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The next Sunday 6th of June, the Chamber of Deputies along with 15 out of the 32 governorships will be up for grabs in Mexico’s mid-term elections. These elections will be a crucial test for the popularity of the president and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). They currently hold majority in the Lower Chamber of the national Congress, and these elections could challenge this.

Recent national polls indicate that the ruling party, MORENA, is still the most popular political force in Mexico, and they are poised to win not only several governorships, but also several municipalities. They are also expected to maintain control of the Lower  Chamber, although with a loss of a few seats. In order to ensure MORENA keeps its current majority in the Congress, they have decided to pursue an electoral alliance with the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labout Party (PT). It is expected that with this move, they will be able to ensure the majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress.

There is, however, another aspect that is making the headlines in this current electoral process: The high levels of political and electoral violence, The current electoral process is the second most violent since 2000. The number of candidates that have been assassinated is close to 30% higher than the mid-term electoral process of 2015. More than 79 candidates have been killed so far all across the country.

Insecurity in Mexico has been an ongoing issue that has continued to deteriorate during the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO has continually criticised his predecessors and the valid problems of their approaches to insecurity in Mexico along with the War on Drugs policy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited. During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. He believed that to successfully tackle the worsening crisis of insecurity, the structural conditions that forced people to commit crimes had to be addressed first: Namely inequality, poverty, low salaries, lack of access to employment etc. To date, insecurity in Mexico continues to worsen, and this had become evident during the current electoral process.

This nonsensical approach to insecurity has resulted in the first three years of his government reaching over 100,000 murders, along with the nearly 225,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic.

What should be particularly worrying in this spiral of violence, is the prevalence of political and electoral violence during the current process. Political violence represents not only a direct attack on democratic institutions and democracy itself, but it also compromises the independence, autonomy, and integrity of those currently in power, and those competing for positions of power. It affects democracy also because political violence offers a way for candidates to gain power through violent means against opposition, and this also allows organised crime to infiltrate the state apparatus.

Political violence is a phenomenon that hurts all citizens and actors in a democracy. It represents a breeding ground for authoritarianism, and impunity at all levels of government. This limits the freedoms and rights of citizens and other actors as it extinguishes any sort of democratic coexistence between those currently holding political power and those aspiring to achieve it. Political violence also obstructs the development of democracy as it discredits anyone with critical views to those in power. This is worrying when we consider that 49% of those assassinated belong to opposition parties. This increase in political violence has also highlighted AMLO´s inability to curtail organised crime and related violence.

Assassination of candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Organised criminal groups have also infiltrated politics through financing of political campaigns. Most of electoral and political violence tends to happen an municipal levels, where it is easier for criminal groups to exert more pressure and influence in the hope of securing protection, and perpetuate impunity, or securing control over drug trafficking routes. This should be especially worrisome when there is close too government control in certain areas of the country, and there is a serious risk of state erosion at municipal level in several states.

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