With Joe Biden set to be the next president of the United States, questions over how he will conduct his foreign policy have emerged, especially given the current problems the global community faces. Written by Arjun Raman, the following article examines Biden’s potential foreign policy agenda and defines some key vocabulary along the way.
Neoliberal – a political ideology embodied by free-market capitalism and social liberalism. Prominent U.S neoliberals include George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton.
Progressive – a political ideology that emphasizes social and economic reform – prominent progressives include Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Noam Chomsky.
Secretary of State – the head of the U.S Department of State – supervises the foreign service and immigration policy – advises the president on America’s foreign interests.
National Security Advisor – the President’s principal advisor on issues of national security – the NSA is not confirmed by the Senate but is a member of the National Security Council.
U.N Ambassador – the leader of the U.S delegation to the United Nations – they are the only cabinet-level ambassador and are charged with representing the U.S on the United Nations Security Council.
Internationalism – foreign policy advocating for greater economic and political cooperation between states and nations.
Interventionism – governmental interference in the domestic or foreign affairs of another nation.
Realism (international relations) – a belief that, as the international community is anarchic (i.e., international law is not real) and, thus, nations should do whatever furthers their interests on the international stage.
Liberalism (international relations) – an international relations theory rejecting the power politics of realism, and advocating for international cooperation, with nations taking only mutually beneficial actions.
Hegemony – the political dominance of one nation over others.
As President-elect Biden’s victory fast approached, everyone gathered around to predict his appointees to the United States Cabinet, the principal organ of the executive branch. Names of great national fame were thrown around, as pundits claimed he would choose Susan Rice—former President Barack Obama’s UN ambassador and National Security Advisor—for Secretary of State, Elizabeth Warren—the progressive Senator from Massachusetts—to lead the Treasury, and Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg—the young, upstart politician—to serve in a less powerful, if more known role.
Instead, we got something radically different: a return to normalcy. For his cabinet appointees, Biden deferred to the gatekeepers of the old neoliberal status quo that Obama once championed. He chose Linda Thomas-Greenfield (a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Clinton and Obama aide (and former forensics alum!) Jake Sullivan to serve as National Security Advisor, and, most notably, former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to lead the Department of State.
While this may have calmed our allies’ watchful gaze, it did not do much to deflate progressive Democrats’ fears that Biden will return to President Obama’s interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, while in office, Obama faced criticism over his perpetuation of the Iraq and Afghanistan War, his goals of expanding American hegemony abroad, and his willingness to always consider a military option. Accordingly, a central challenge Biden will face in his administration is balancing his commitment to the old political guard while appeasing certain demands of his party’s progressive faction.
So, today’s central question is not whether Biden has chosen competent leaders (we can be certain that he has), but rather, if his appointees signal a return to President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, and how that may redefine America’s place in the world. In this article, we’ll come to understand that President Biden’s foreign policy will be shaped by a return to Obama-era internationalism, especially when it comes to expanding American hegemony. That said, Biden will likely demilitarize America’s presence abroad, bringing an end to Obama-era interventionism. Furthermore, he will maintain mixed positions on China, attempting to cultivate a strong U.S-China trade relationship while opposing Chinese expansionism throughout the world—a task that may prove to be cumbersome.
What Biden Will Continue From the Obama-Era:
First, we must examine how Biden’s appointees signal a return to President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives. After all, every single one of Biden’s foreign policy appointees spent time in the Obama administration; they are esteemed career civil servants or diplomats advocating for the return of America onto the international stage.
These calls have become increasingly common ever since President Trump’s election. With a promise to put “America First”, President Trump spent his four years in power undermining America’s presence in key international organizations and agreements such as the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Doing so ceded great influence and control on the international stage to America’s rival, China. Biden’s foreign policy team’s first goal will be rejoining each of these, which should not be difficult as they helped create and enfranchise them.
Furthermore, President Trump authorized a withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, claiming that Iran was developing weapons of mass destruction (this claim remains unsubstantiated). Biden views the Iran Nuclear Deal as a key part of stabilizing the Middle East and, thus, will be keen to renegotiate and rejoin the agreement. However, rejoining the JCPOA may not be as easy as Biden had hoped: not only had the U.S, in January, assassinated the important Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, they had also humiliated Iran on the international stage, prompting many Iranian officials to become skeptic of America as a potential ally. Secretary of State designate Antony Blinken will have to convince Iran that the U.S is still a worthwhile ally, through actions like lifting sanctions and perhaps even refusing to back Israel’s claim to land in the West Bank.
What Biden Won’t Continue From the Obama-Era:
It appears, for now, that Obama-era internationalism is back in the White House. Despite this, President-elect Biden’s views towards demilitarization in the Middle East are the opposite of President Obama’s interventionism in Middle Eastern nations.
Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East is likely to be an awkward mixture of Obama and Trump’s foreign policy. While he may support Israel on the international stage, he is likely to remain skeptical of their annexation of the Palestinian West Bank, which many still see as unlawful.
While Israel celebrated the end of the JCPOA, partly due to their status as Iran’s chief rival in the Middle East, its potential return is likely to complicate the U.S-Israeli relationship.
President-elect Biden has also promised to continue President Trump’s withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan and Somalia. The Afghanistan War has been ongoing since 2001, and the nation still has an active U.S military presence of 2,500 troops (4,500 before Trump’s withdrawal in November). Withdrawal of America’s presence in Afghanistan could be viewed as premature, especially since the conflict between the Afghani government and the Taliban has not yet ended. As such, the move will likely be divisive within the Pentagon.
Furthermore, President-elect Biden’s decision to withdraw troops in Somalia could strengthen the presence of al-Shabaab, a large terrorism organization, in the nation’s capital, Mogadishu. Experts fear that without a U.S military presence, the fires of violent conflict could once again be stoked in the region. As such, this could also provoke contention within the Pentagon.
Though it appears as if President-elect Biden will prompt a return to Obama-era internationalism, it also appears he will mark an end to Obama-era interventionism, as he is likely to draw down the U.S military presence in the Middle East, continuing a trend from the Trump-era. At the same time, the US can expect to increase its military presence in Asia, which has grown into one of the most dynamic regions in the world.
It is here in Asia where President-elect Biden’s most contentious foreign policy issue remains: the U.S’s relationship with China. President Obama favored cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party, advocating for a strong U.S-China relationship that incentivized American regional investment and the creation of new international capital flows. Meanwhile, president Trump was the opposite, placing tariffs (taxes on imported goods) on China. However, in light of China’s atrocities concerning the Uighur Muslims, as well as their international expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, President-elect Biden cannot simply pick up where Obama left off, and is likely to balance elements of both Trump’s and Obama’s stances on China.
Indeed, this issue can be seen within the Biden administration already. Experts like Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan (mentioned earlier) are in favour of returning to a strong U.S-China relationship. Despite this, President-elect Biden has repeatedly stated he won’t immediately lift U.S sanctions and tariffs on China, making his foreign policy unclear. He must somehow oppose China’s efforts at international expansion, while cultivating a strong trading relationship with the nation: a diplomatic nightmare I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
In conclusion, reflecting upon Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States, as well as his esteemed civil servant appointees to the U.S cabinet’s foreign policy positions, we see that Biden will prompt a return to Obama-era internationalism while rebuking Obama-era interventionism. The president-elect’s withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan and Somalia have already ruffled diplomatic feathers throughout the world. Furthermore, his initiatives towards China remain unclear at best. That said, America can be ensured they have a pair of experienced hands at the wheel this time around.
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