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Biden, China, and Competing Pivots: Who Controls the Future?

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Given how much time Trump spent during his four years in the White House pinning random policy positions to whatever the opposite was to Barack Obama’s policies, it is not revolutionary to think the initial entrance of Joe Biden into the President’s chair in January will be spent basically undoing those maneuvers. After all, Biden was Obama’s Vice-President for eight years and understandably might consider all of Trump’s anti-Obama positions as de facto anti-Biden ones as well. But this principle alone will not suffice to predict where Biden’s formal policies and positions might be or how they might evolve soon after taking over the Presidency. This is especially so in terms of defense and military affairs and foreign policy, where multiple layers and numerous moving parts make it impossible to simply ‘do the reverse’ of whatever President Trump had done.

While Trump’s maneuvers with the Pentagon post-election have been curious, it is doubtful they will be long-lived or deeply significant for formal American policy. The posting of Trump loyalists to important Pentagon positions seem more believable as an attempt by Trump to secure sympathetic voices and proponents after he exits Washington to ensure his personal security from legal initiatives and accusations. But as Biden has shown with his nomination of Gen. Lloyd Austin as pick for Secretary of Defense, there will be little remaining inside the Pentagon in terms of serious decision-making and policy development that can tie back to Trump once Biden-Harris take over.

The bigger issue elevates far beyond the mercurial personality of Trump as Biden comes into power. For example, greater Asia. In Asia’s case, the problem is not what Trump did during his four years in power and perhaps not even what Biden has said on the record in the past during his incredibly long political career in Washington. Rather, the true problem may be the tendency for Americans in general to always believe that global policy and major regional developments around the world must and should revolve around the ideas and preferences of the United States. This foreign policy myopia trend could be far more dangerous as the Biden administration takes over, largely because the combination of Trump’s previous policy  maneuvers and independent agreement developments happening on his watch across the greater Asia region might mean Biden is coming in to an extremely volatile situation for the US.

There is already quiet rumbling inside the Beltway in Washington that Biden would be interested in seeing the reinvigoration of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), the massive trade agreement engineered under Obama, never formally approved by Congress (for domestic political reasons more than anything else), and then pulled out from by Trump in 2017. There is one serious issue with this desire, understandable though it may be: in the aftermath of the Trump pullout, the remaining members of the TPP renegotiated and signed what would become known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. Perhaps even more importantly, right after the Presidential election this November, a massive new entrant to global trade and affairs came in the form of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. It is without question the largest trading bloc globally, covering 2.2 billion people and more than $26 trillion of economic output. It is a decidedly sad commentary on the state of American political intuition that while the future Biden administration tells American media it is still ‘undecided’ about its position on the TPP, the rest of the world has left the agreement far in its rear-view mirror and is unlikely to return to it just because the United States feels everyone should.

Given that RCEP aims to connect roughly 30% of the world’s people and potentially add hundreds of billions of dollars annually to world incomes, all without any real immediate participation or leadership from the United States, and might even be a brilliant strategy by China to completely offset whatever losses it was slated to have because of the ill-thought out trade war strategy of Trump, it seems highly unlikely and perhaps even unwise for the members of RCEP to even consider America as a potential future leader under the Biden administration. More likely, and smarter from an RCEP perspective, would be to encourage Biden to sign on to RCEP as is with little to no adaptation for American preferences or interests. This would be a sharp departure from how the US still prefers the global economy to be organized but this trend has been a long and slow time coming. Perhaps RCEP is the bringer of that day: where the US shifts from the leader role of the global economy to just an ‘important participant’ role. The problem for Biden is that if this role shift takes place under his watch it will undoubtedly be manipulated and capitalized upon by Republicans in the US. As more than any other global issue, trade is so deeply tied into domestic business interests and the economic well-being of everyday citizens.

RCEP is often incorrectly stated as being purely “China-led”, when in fact it is a tribute and testimony to ASEAN’s middle-power diplomacy. But make no mistake: while there may have never been an RCEP for America to deal with if it was blatantly pushing China forward as the undisputed leader, Biden would be mistaken to view RCEP as an agreement that handcuffs or ties down Chinese assertiveness, whether politically or economically. To the contrary, since Chinese leadership and authority has always been more comfortable expressing its power in strategically subtle ways behind-the-scenes (in stark contrast, for example, to countries like the United States or the Russian Federation), the current shared leadership structure of RCEP may very well be the end result of Chinese preference and not a consequence of ASEAN partners trying to ‘keep China in check.’ This latter position is what a Biden administration will likely try to pursue and project diplomatically and economically, while seeing if it can create a new leadership space for itself within RCEP. It would be a mistake for the members of RCEP to accept this initiative from Biden, but they should anticipate this strategy emerging in 2021.

Biden has a somewhat complicated relationship, historically, with China. On the one hand, making several statements over time that have been portrayed as being relatively weak or complacent about a rising China in political and economic relevance. On the other hand, making comments that seem to indicate a willingness to ‘be tough’ on China. Domestically, at the present time, America is still stuck in a somewhat bipartisan consensus that China needs to be countered (though, to be fair, it is never really made quite clear what that actually means in real terms). What it usually ultimately translates to is the desire of the United States to maintain its place of global primacy and not be usurped at any level across any issue by China. While this is in general understandable from a foreign policy/national security perspective, it is also unrealistically presumptuous on the part of most Americans. Chinese global leadership is almost always universally decried as a dilemma or crisis needing to be resolved by assertive American strategy. Regardless of that nationalist position, this is a denial of what many others believe is the natural evolution of the global community, where Chinese leadership (in whatever way China wants to envision it, but undoubtedly it will NOT be similar to how America envisioned its own leadership over the last half century) will inevitably become ascendant and the US will need to understand how to work within this new framework and not expect to be able to dictate terms to everyone with impunity.

This is the reality Biden is walking into in January. He will want the ‘old ways’ to come back in style: an assumption of American leadership; an expectation of countering China to remain an important cog in the global economy, but an economy still ‘managed’ by America; encouraging greater regional economic cooperation and development, especially across greater Asia, but presuming China’s leadership within such agreements will always be ‘handled’ by the other Asian members. Biden will want to deal with China, work with China, partner with China, as long as it is on American terms and restricts just how prominent Chinese action will be. In short, Biden’s likely policy is going to be a fantasy not based on 21st century reality nor properly cognizant of the role China should envision for itself as the world moves deeper into the global technological age. Whereas Biden will want to return to his old understanding of the “Pivot to Asia,” China should start legitimately asking itself whether or not it even wants or needs a “Pivot to America” or should it pivot elsewhere and usher in a truly new age of global affairs?

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Biden: No More “Favourite Dictators”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

 Former US President Donald Trump shared a strong personal rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Trump made no bones about the fact, that he got along well with authoritarian leaders – especially in the Middle East. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump while looking for Egyptian President had even said, “Where’s my favourite dictator?”

Statements made by Biden before taking over as US President

On the other hand, Joe Biden before taking over as US President had repeatedly criticized Erdogan, MBS and Sisi for their poor human rights record, and had unequivocally stated that none of them would have a free pass in a Biden Presidency.  Biden had on numerous occasions flagged the dismal Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, especially MBS’ involvement in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and lashed out at Trump for soft pedaling on the issue because of his personal rapport with MBS. Similarly, in August 2020, Biden had dubbed Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’ and also expressed the view that the US needed to lend support to opposition parties in Turkey. Biden had also issued a warning to Sisi, saying that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’.”

How President Biden has approached relations with the three leaders

During the Biden Administration, ties with Saudi Arabia have witnessed a change. A report which clearly points to MBS’ role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released (Trump had refused to release this report). The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and defence agreements signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, during the Trump Administration have been put on hold. Yet, Biden while sanctioning Saudi officials in connection with the Khashoggi case, in addition to those sanctioned by the Trump administration, refused to impose sanctions on MBS owing to the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East (Saudi support is essential for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA) and the strong US-Saudi relationship. It would be pertinent to point out, that Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS has drawn strong criticism from many including members of his own party.

If one were to look at the case of Turkey in recent months, the Turkish President has himself toned down his Anti-West rhetoric and described his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the recent NATO Summit as fruitful. While commenting on the meeting with Biden, Erdogan stated that ‘ We believe there is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-US relations,’

The US President also said, that the meeting with Erdogan was positive and expressed hope that the bilateral relationship would improve in days to come.

While the meeting between Biden and Erdogan was positive, differences between both sides still persist over Turkey’s purchase of S400 missiles (the Trump administration had imposed sanctions in its final days and Turkey had also been removed from its F-35 fighter jet program)

Turkey’s strategic relevance

Turkey has stated that it is willing to play a role in security in Afghanistan, and guard Kabul airport, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Turkish President did say that Turkey would require diplomatic, logistic and financial support that the United States. The Biden administration’s outreach to Turkey indicates that in spite of differences over key issues, Istanbul’s potentially important role post the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is something, the US will not ignore. Erdogan on his part needs to have a reasonable relationship with US, given the fact that the Turkish economy has slowed down significantly.

If one were to look at the case of Egypt, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi role in the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, was acknowledged by the Biden Administration. While the US President during a telephonic conversation hailed Sisi for his ‘successful diplomacy’ in the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

‘We have had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly. And now, we are working closely together to build something positive’

It would be pertinent to point out, that during his telephonic conversation with Sisi, in May 2021, Biden did flag the need for a ‘constructive dialogue’ on human rights in Egypt

Conclusion

While it is easy to criticise Joe Biden, he has the onerous responsibility of striking a  balance between values, which he has repeatedly referred to even after taking over as President, with US interests. Given the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, Biden while refraining from taking steps, which may be counterproductive has flagged his concerns with regard to Human Rights, and sent out a strong message that bilateral relations will be dictated by substance and not mere personal chemistry or optics. At the end of the day it is important not to forget Miles’s law — ‘where you stand depends upon where you sit’.

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Americas

Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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