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Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

Aqib Sattar is a graduate in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad, and is currently a Research Associate in the Middle Eastern Affairs.

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United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia

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Hours after signing an executive order, on April 15, 2021, which imposed sanctions on Russia, US President Joe Biden stated that the door for diplomacy and engagement with Moscow was far from closed.  Said the US President:

‘Throughout our long history of competition, our two countries have been able to find ways to manage tensions and to keep them from escalating out of control.’

Days before the imposition of sanctions, Biden had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the conversation with Putin, Biden had indicated that he would be taking action against Russia for interference in the 2020 US Presidential election (a US intelligence report had pointed to Iranian and Russian meddling in the 2020 election), as well as cyber attacks against the US government. While emphatically stating that the US would firmly safeguard its interests and not refrain from strong retaliation in response to any provocative actions by Russia, Biden also proposed a summit with Putin in Europe.

Significantly during his conversation with Putin, Biden according to a White House release:

‘discussed a number of regional and global issues, including the intent of the United States and Russia to pursue a strategic stability dialogue on a range of arms control and emerging security issues, building on the extension of the New START Treaty.

Soon after the Biden administration had taken over it had been decided to extend the treaty which came into force on February 5, 2011 and would have ended February 5, 2021. The treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and deployed missiles and bombers to 700 for each country.

Sanctions imposed by Biden Administration

The sanctions imposed by the Biden Administration on April 15thinclude; expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats stationed in Washington DC, sanctions on six Russian technology companies which allegedly provided support to Russian hacking operations during US elections, barring US financial institutions from participating in the primary market for rouble and non-rouble-denominated sovereign bonds, from June 14, 2021 and individuals and entities associated with Moscow’s actions in Crimea.

Significantly, Biden’s predecessor Trump had defended Russia against allegations of interference in the US Presidential election of 2016.

Russia’s response to US sanctions

Russia responded to the imposition of US sanctions by expelling US diplomats, imposed sanctions on 8 US officials, and would put an end to the activities of US NGOs  in Russia, since they interfered in Russia’s politics. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the US that Moscow would be compelled to take strong measures against Washington, if the latter adopts a ‘confrontational course’.

US Sanctions measured

According to many observers, the sanctions imposed by the US on Russia were not particularly harsh and underscore the point, that the Biden Administration while seeking to sending out a strong message to Russia, also realizes that it can not permit the bilateral relationship to slide down any further for a myriad of reasons. First, US needs to cooperate with Russia on a number of global issues, such as jointly battling the covid 19 pandemic, confronting challenges posed by climate change, working together to resolve the Iran and North Korea issue.

Second, it needs to prevent Moscow from moving closer to Beijing. Last month after Biden’s strong attack on Putin, Foreign Ministers of Russia, Sergey Lavrov and China Wang Yi, had held a summit in China in March, days after Biden had attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin in an interview. The Russian Foreign Minister criticised US for its role in ‘underming the world order’ and both sides also proposed the need for reducing their dependence upon the US dollar.

An anonymous paper published by the Atlantic Council had emphasised on the need for a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Russia, and also to prevent Moscow from moving closer to Beijing. Said the paper titled the Longer Telegram:

‘..United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia whether it likes it or not.. Allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive US administrations’

Third, a number of US allies have strong ties with Moscow, and the US can not expect them to make clear choices (this is an important point made by a large number of US commentators)

In conclusion, Biden’s approach vis-à-vis Russia so far has been a blend of diplomacy and firm measures. His focus on dialogue and finding common ground on important bilateral security issues and global issues is significant. Washington while giving precedence to its own interests needs to adapt to the changing geopolitical situation especially the increasing proximity between Moscow and Beijing.

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Kerry’s China Visit: ‘A Weasel Paying a New Year Call to a Chicken’

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A section in the international press claims the US climate envoy John Kerry’s mid-week Shanghai visit was aimed at the White House “wooing Beijing” before the upcoming Earth Summit on April 22. But some foreign commentators while not disagreeing see Kerry’s task as arduous. Then there are those who no doubt believe the visit to be an essential part of Biden’s “climate diplomacy” and as a “bright spot” in tension-ridden China-US relations. Not unexpectedly, Beijing has mandated Xie Zhenhua, China’s “environment man” and Kerry’s old buddy, to go by the script and stick to protocols while hosting his US visitor.

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On April 13, the US State Department website claimed, the President’s special climate envoy John Kerry will be visiting Shanghai and Seoul from April 14 -17. The agenda for the visit was mentioned as to conduct consultations on global climate crisis. Seasoned diplomatic affairs commentators in Beijing sensed something odd in the sudden state department announcement. Li Guangman, a veteran IR analyst and widely respected “influencer” in the arena of foreign policy opined: “The fact that the news was released only after Kerry departed for Shanghai is an indication it was perhaps only a last-minute decision in Beijing to host Kerry. This also shows Beijing could have declined the visit too.”

As regards on the purpose of Kerry visit, a section of the international press has been fed, i.e. the visit is “seen as a chance to set aside existing political tensions and focus on areas of potential climate collaboration.” Highlighting Kerry as the first high-level Biden administration official to fly into China – though not into the capital city Beijing, the US as well as Western media took particular notice of the visit’s timing, that is, just days ahead of Joe Biden’s virtual summit with world leaders on climate change on April 22. It was on expected lines that the foreign media did not fail to mention the failure of the first top officials-level dialogue in Alaska exactly a month ago in “yielding a breakthrough,” when speculating whether Kerry’s travel to China would be any different.     

In sharp contrast, Beijing’s foreign ministry mandarins did not seem particularly enthused by the visit. Without either referring to the upcoming virtual Earth Summit or attaching extraordinary attention to the first trip to China from the highest official in the Biden government since January 20, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment disclosed on Wednesday: “The U.S. president’s special climate envoy John Kerry will visit China from Wednesday to Saturday.” In a rather curt and short press release, the foreign ministry in Beijing said: “China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, will meet with his U.S. counterpart John Kerry in Shanghai this week and exchange views on a key United Nations climate conference or COP26 at Glasgow later this year.” 

Beijing Downplays Kerry’s Visit

Besides downplaying the high-profile maiden trip to China by Kerry as the US climate envoy, a lot is being read into Beijing keeping the US visitor strictly within “visiting one city, meeting one official” limits. China’s English language Caixin Daily has confirmed “after talks in China, Kerry will travel on to Seoul, South Korea. The US Embassy in Beijing said no media events are planned before Kerry heads to Seoul.” Remember, John Kerry has been flying around the world with twin purposes, namely: one, to urge various countries to commit themselves to fight against climate change in time for the Washington initiated Earth Summit beginning on Thursday; second, starting from the Earth Summit and before the UN conference on climate in November this year, reclaim America as a leader on climate action.

One of the key stated agendas of Kerry’s visit was to seek China’s endorsement to Biden’s ambitious plan to prod countries to step up their respective carbon emissions reduction goal in order to limit planetary warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius – a goal set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. Biden has invited nearly 40 world leaders to assemble for the Earth Summit, including China’s President Xi Jinping and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. To help Biden achieve climate change mission, Kerry has already visited several countries including UK, India, Bangladesh and United Arab Emirates. However, not only China, there are many other countries and individuals/institutions who do not trust the US to fulfill its own climate change commitments. A Bloomberg report last Friday has observed: “Before the U.S. can lead, however, it will first have to overcome the world’s mistrust. After all, the country has reneged on its climate promises before.”

A former Obama administration official, Pete Ogden currently serving as vice president for energy, climate and environment at the United Nations Foundation, was cited in the Bloomberg report mentioned above as saying: “They’ve [the White House] clearly been looking to try to encourage other countries to also increase their ambition, but I don’t think this is the date. I do not expect that everything will be on a glide path to 1.5 degrees after the [Earth] summit.” While Kerry and Biden most likely are going to fail in cajoling major emitter countries barring a few close US allies such as Canada, Japan and maybe South Africa as it [Washington] must first “overcome the world’s mistrust.” India and Brazil, notably, have already indicated the two countries strongly differ with the US-led developed countries’ offered solution at the coming Earth Summit.

China or Xi Jinping might skip the earth Summit

Kerry’s “mission Shanghai” may not have been as “fiery” as the Alaska talks, yet one is certain it must have been equally, if not less, testy visit. According to a Chinese article, both the timing and agenda of Kerry’s “mission Shanghai” are seen as problematic in Beijing for following few reasons. First, as pointed out above, Beijing no doubt views both Biden’s promised commitment to Paris Climate Accord and inviting world leaders to the Earth Summit as mere attempts to salvage the damaged US image on one hand, and to establish the United States as the leader in the global fight against global warming on the other. In other words, it is Biden’s political and not climate change agenda.

Second, just like on the eve of the Alaska talks the secretary of state Blinken made provocative statements in Tokyo and Seoul making Beijing unhappy. This time round too Washington initiated not one but two highly provocative moves to gauge the mood in Beijing: one, just as climate envoy Kerry was packing bags for Beijing, the Biden administration dispatched three former US officials with high credentials to Taiwan in an unmarked private jet last Wednesday; two, the US intelligence chief Avril Haines in a report released on last Wednesday has repeated the China threat to the US saying: “There is no other country that represents a more severe threat to our [the US] economic security, innovation and ideas than China, a threat which is deep, wide and persistent.” It is ridiculous to expect Beijing to promise “tangibles” to Kerry in this backdrop, observed a scholar in Beijing.

Third, while officially the PRC government strongly objected to and challenged the Biden-Suga joint statement at the end of the two leaders’ first in-person meeting at the White House last Friday. Typically, reactions from China’s strategic and security affairs community have been far more bellicose and scathing on the mention of Taiwan in the US-Japan joint statement. The last such mention in their joint statement was made in 1969 during Nixon-Sato talks. Disdainfully rejecting any claims that the timing of Kerry’s visit overlapping with Biden-Suga jointly plotting against China as “mere coincidence,” a Chinese commentator seriously wondered if this was “how the US wants to improve relations” with China?

Finally, no doubt President Biden has been consistent during the presidential campaign last year and since he took office in January this year, that “effectively tackling climate change requires cooperation with China.” But in response to Blinken and Kerry persistently seeking China’s support and cooperation on global warming, a recent statement by the foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, should leave no one under any illusion why Beijing is not going to oblige Washington. “The cooperation between China and the US in certain areas such as climate change is not a flower in a greenhouse, and is bound to be closely related to all pervasive bilateral relationship,” (emphasis added) Zhao Lijian had stated.   

No wonder, Beijing has been questioning the Biden administration’s credentials, or in other words, the US “eligibility” in seeking China’s cooperation on the so-called “areas of convergence.” It seems Beijing has seen through Biden’s “climate diplomacy” trickery. Why else ancient Chinese idiom “a weasel paying a New Year call to a chicken” – someone with evil intentions – is being invoked by scholars to describe Kerry’s “mission Shanghai?”                 

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How COVID- 19 weakened American leadership

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Unlike Hollywood movies where Americans have the lead in saving the world, the crisis of the corona virus pandemic has shown the opposite. The first major test showed that the American health care system was inferior to the Russian one, created during the Cold War. And while the Kremlin has managed to provide real assistance to a number of European countries, certainly using it for propaganda purposes, Washington’s actions can be characterized as a sign of weakness.

In the race for a quality vaccine, Moscow has shown that it is ahead of its competitors, and despite the rigorous blockade, more and more European countries want the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which proved to be better than Pfizer and Modern. The United States and Britain have experienced a major slap in the field of science, but from their perspective even more on propaganda. Attempts by Western countries to maintain a monopoly on vaccines in Europe, despite the fact that citizens are dying in large numbers because of that policy, showed how far American diplomacy is ready in sacrificing people in the Western Hemisphere due to the conflict with Russia.

Unlike Western vaccines, which cause numerous complications, Sputnik vaccine was rated as far better, which resulted in large agreements between Russia and foreign countries regarding sales and joint production.At the same time, there are simply no reports about similar complications caused by the Russian vaccine, even though the European Commission and Brussels have been keeping a close eye on the effects of its use in European countries, including Serbia and Hungary, which have already taken the first deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine. What is the reason for the US demonstrating its weakness? How come that in the midst of the epidemic Washington was unable to find the resources to demonstrate its readiness to lend a helping hand to its European allies? Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the Americans simply freaked out.

The truth is, the US healthcare system is rather decentralized and unorganized. People with good health insurance have little to worry about. However, in a situation of a pandemic, the US medical facilities are pretty hard to manage, so one has to do it manually. Compounded by the general atmosphere of panic and the fact that the poorest strata of society, who have no health insurance and constitute the main risk zone (obesity due to malnutrition, advanced chronic diseases and other COVID-inducing conditions), the system simply collapsed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Trump administration tried to keep maximum resources at home.

Moreover, the businessman-turned-president, who had openly spoken about “exporting security,” never missed a chance to make it clear to his allies that US assistance is never free. As a result, he was replaced by Biden, a Democrat who advocates maximum support for all democratic forces. However, Democrats usually provide moral or military support, but they have proved equally unprepared to line up any serious assistance to the countries hit the hardest by the pandemic.Moreover, it was actually at the suggestion of the United States and the UK that the COVAX system, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable (but not free) access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries in need, stalled. It turned out (who might have guessed?) that both the US-developed Moderna and the British AstraZeneca vaccines are primarily needed by their own electorates, and only then by countries that need them, but are unable to produce their own vaccine.

Meanwhile, India with a population of over 1 billion,managed to fulfill its obligations, and Russia is ready to launch the production of vaccines in Europe. However, bending under Washington’s pressure, the European Union has banned the import of Russian, Indian and Chinese vaccines, without bothering to explain the reasons for this ban.A country, claiming world domination cannot lead in everything, of course.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the healthcare systems of many European countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, are way better that what they now have in the United States. That being said, the world leader still bears full responsibility for its allies and cannot leave them to their own devices, not only in the event of a military conflict, but also in the midst of a pandemic. However, this is exactly what it did…

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