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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

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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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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