January 20, 2021
With inauguration safely behind, President Biden would now start addressing America’s polarization, Covid-19, and a wrecked foreign policy. He has a far heavier agenda than many of his predecessors.
Among his major tasks in the international arena would be restoring confidence in the Washington’s foreign policy steadiness and charting a reasonable course in relations with China and Russia. Washington’s traditional Western allies, disillusioned with the Trump presidency, would give Mr. Biden more than a warm welcome while anxiously watching domestic developments in the US. Because according to a CNN poll, 47% of Republicans still say the party should continue to treat Trump as the leader of the party. And remains to be seen whether going ahead with a second impeachment, though more than justified, was a politically wise decision.
Regrettably, from the very beginning of his presidency Mr. Trump denigrated his predecessor, past administrations, and tried to upend their policies. He and his sanctions lieutenant Mr. Pompeo displayed little respect for multilateralism and left Biden administration a US foreign policy in disarray. Mike Pompeo’s campaign to lay mines on Mr. Biden’s foreign policy path up to inauguration day was morally unacceptable.
In an interview in early April 2015, President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs could serve American interests vis-à-vis countries like Burma, Cuba, and Iran far better than endless sanctions and isolation.
Thus, on April 14, 2015, the Obama administration removed Cuba from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List. On July 1, the same year, President Obama announced that the two countries were reopening their embassies after more than 50 years. On March 21, 2016, he made a historic visit to Cuba, the first by a US president in nearly ninety years. Once in office President Trump started reversing that policy. On January 11, 2021, just nine days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Mr. Pompeo designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, reversing Obama administration’s 2015 decision.
On July 14, 2015, the JCPOA was signed and hailed as a major diplomatic achievement. On May 8, 2018, the Trump administration officially withdrew from the agreement. On September 19, 2020 Secretary Pompeo announced that sanctions were being re-imposed on Iran pursuant to the snapback process under UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231. Moreover, Washington threatened those who would not follow the US example. The next day, Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement saying that the US has ceased to be a participant to the JCPOA following its withdrawal from the deal on May 8, 2018 and consequently its decision to re-impose sanctions was incapable of having legal effect. Indeed, the JCPOA is not a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US. It is a multilateral one between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. It has been approved by the UN Security Council and supported by the international community.
The “Paris Agreement Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” was signed on December 12, 2015. On November 4, 2019, the Trump administration notified the UN Secretary-General of its decision to withdraw from the Agreement to take effect on November 4, 2020.
On October 12, 2017, the US notified UNESCO of the decision to withdraw from the organization citing “concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO”. This was the second US withdrawal from the Organization.
Finally, on January 9, just eleven days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Secretary Pompeo lifted all restrictions to regulate American diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts. In a press statement he said the US government had these unilateral restrictions to appease Beijing, adding, “No more.”
So much for Trump administration’s respect for multilateralism, for pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be honored), the oldest principle of international law, and an administration’s obligation to leave its successor a reasonably clean slate.
Mr. Biden was the Vice President during Mr. Obama’s eight years in office. Understandably, his administration’s foreign policy would neither be a carbon copy of Mr. Obama’s nor something fundamentally different. Going back to the Paris Agreement may not be a difficult task but putting the JCPOA back on track and dealing with Iran’s regional outreach are likely to prove a challenge. The nomination of Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal, as the next deputy secretary of state is no surprise. Needless to say, what paved the way for Tehran’s growing regional outreach was the invasion of Iraq and the regime change project in Syria.
Looking at President Trump’s four years in office from the Middle East, one cannot but conclude that this has been a period of remarkable success for PM Netanyahu. All US allies let alone adversaries experienced problems with the Trump White House, he was the exception.
Formal diplomatic relation between Israel and Arab countries would facilitate Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama had said:
“… The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”
Succeeding Mr. Trump whose “cozy relations with strongmen” was a target of criticism, President Biden’s approach to the Middle East would not fall short of that.
Washington’s Syria and Libya policies are unlikely to change. Washington would continue to look at the latter as Europe’s problem.
In Afghanistan, the West finds itself at a critical juncture because in order to fulfil Mr. Trump’s election promise to bring US troops home, his administration has moved dangerously close to capitulation to the Taliban. But the current picture in Afghanistan is the result of years of failure for which the Trump White House cannot be held responsible.
North Korea’s nuclear program would be a tough problem also for the new administration. During the final debate of the election, Mr. Biden criticized President Trump for legitimizing Kim Jong-un with summit meetings and said he would meet with him under the condition that “he would agree that he would be drawing down his nuclear capacity.” At some point, however, Washington may have no other option than recognizing Pyongyang as a nuclear power and focus on preventing further proliferation.
As for Turkey, Ankara put all its eggs in Mr. Trump’s broken basket. Finally, domestic disarray in Washington gave Secretary Pompeo the opportunity to vent his pent-up frustration with Ankara, taking the roller-coaster relationship to new lows. At present, this relationship looks less like a “strategic” or “model” partnership as it was once exaggeratedly defined and more like a strained business relationship between two partners barely putting up with one another. What the two countries need is a reset but, unfortunately, an overarching problem of chemistry and a long list of intractable problems would not allow that. Yes, in international relations the word “reset” marks a new beginning, turning of the page between adversaries but it is also relevant in this particular context.