It is commonly anticipated that any new American administration, whether a democratic or republican president, will embark on introducing a set of changes in the area of foreign policy. It is also common knowledge, at least for those who understand the nature of American establishments, that major institutional policies regarding US relations with the rest of the world will remain largely unchanged. However, with every installation of a new administration, the US must make a choice between playing a dominant role on the world stage with no coherent strategic plan or leading the world with a vision that’s based on pragmatic understanding and a full recognition of the need for multilateral approaches to the multitude of international issues facing the world’s governments.
On his inauguration, President-Elect Joe Biden will inherit a number of uniliteral foreign policies from soon to be former President Donald J. Trump, who campaigned with the slogans of “America First” and “Make America Great Again”. Trump endorsed and enacted a policy of isolation, as opposed to openness and collaboration, and he chose unilateralism over multilateralism. Among the most notable decisions in foreign policy made by Trump’s administration are the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement regarding climate change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA (famously known as the Iran nuclear deal or agreement), upending US financial obligations to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overturning financial economic support to the Palestinians and the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, just to cite a few examples. In addition, in recent days, it has become clear that the outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo plans to put Biden’s administration in a bind by listing Cuba as a state that supports terror and lifting contact restrictions with Taiwan.
In clear opposition to this history, Biden plans to issue several executive orders in the first day and over the first weeks of his presidency, such as a return to the Paris climate agreement and to reverse Trump’s travel ban that applies to some majority-Muslims countries, among many others. A number of other essential foreign policy initiatives are expected.
One of the most controversial, yet, strategically essential policy changes is the future trajectory of the relationship between China and the United States. Biden’s policy towards China translates into encouraging China to play by international rules in three arenas: international trade, the South China Sea and engagement with foreign corporations including US companies. Biden made his policy clear in the presidential election debates with Trump. As a pragmatic leader, Biden recognises the enormous economic competition between the two countries, and he will not fall into the trade war trap that was instigated by the previous administration. Biden will also restore the damaged relations with European allies and attempt to rebuild their trust in US leadership again. As a leader, Biden will abandon the go-alone strategy that Trump applied during the four years of his administration. The restoration of strategic relations with US friends and allies in Europe means strengthening the relationship with NATO, the most momentous military alliance in the history of the world (npr.org).
Equally important is the future of the relationship between Russia and the United States. However, this relationship is more complicated, having been eroded by allegations of Russian interference in US elections and the cyber-attack in 2020. The incoming US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described the latest Russian cyber-attacks on more than 200 governmental and private sector entities in the US as a “grave risk’” to US Federal institutions and a threat to national security.
Sullivan added that “the sheer extent of the access of the penetration means that not only is there the rampant opportunity for espionage, but there is also the opportunity to take destructive action if the threat actor chose to do so”. Russia, according to Sullivan, demonstrated that it is prepared to go further than espionage and to harm the power grids, interfere with American elections, and disrupt commercial entities and more (Source, GPS, CNN). Sullivan said that Joe Biden is determined to take decisive measures and plans to respond “at a time and place of his choosing” and will improve US capabilities to use human resources, including intelligence and diplomatic tools to detect, deter, respond and disrupt such intrusions (Source, GPS, CNN). Yet, Russia and the US will continue their collaboration in areas where the interests of the US are served. Some of these areas of mutual cooperation include nuclear non-prefiltration, Arms controls and the New START treaty.
Another complex area of foreign policy is the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and on this Biden’s perspective is still a bit cloudy. However, it is predicted that he will revive some of the strategic points that were highlighted by former president Barak Obama in Cairo, June 4. 2009, and reestablish a relationship that is based on mutual interest and respect, and on shared principles of justice and progress. It also expected that the US will expand the cooperation with the Muslim world in the areas of education, economy, health, science and technology, and to confront security challenges directly.
That being said, Biden will retain the US embassy in Jerusalem and his administration will sustain the Abraham Accord Peace Agreement, as well as the treaty between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco with Israel. According to a Los Angeles Times’s article by Tracy Wilkinson (Sept 1. 2020), “Biden’s advisers say he will not return the US Embassy to Tel Aviv, but it is likely he would reopen a US Consulate in East Jerusalem that would cater to a Palestinian de facto embassy in Washington.” It should be noted that Biden, like former presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama, supports the proposal of establishing a Palestinian state to live peacefully alongside Israel.
The new administration is aware of the US historical allies in MENA, namely, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These strategic relations have been tested over the long decades and proved solid and unshakable. In a congratulatory Tweet to Joe Biden, His Majesty King Abdullah Jordan said, “I look forward to working with you on further advancing the solid historic partnership between Jordan and the United States, in the interest of our shared objectives of peace, stability and prosperity.”
The US needs Jordan as a regional ally and the Biden administration will demonstrate that the US would never forget the role of Jordan and its people in keeping the peace and the balance of power in MENA. One must not pay much attention to the occasional rhetoric that may be voiced by some politicians every now and then.
The Arab Gulf region is important to US national interests and security, especially in the face of Iran’s threat and continuing meddling in the interior affairs of these countries. However, Biden’s administration believes in strategic diplomacy. Hence, it is expected to bring Iran to the negotiation table to discuss the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015, and to endorse new limitations on Iran’s recent nuclear advancement and ballistic missile programme, and to demand an end to the support of military aggression against Saudi Arabia and other countries, as well as the constant intervention in Iraqi affairs. It is, however, noteworthy that no new major policies on these items are predicted to occur during the first year of this incoming administration.
Jabbar Al Obaidi is professor of Media Studies and Communication Technologies, Bridgewater State University. Laura McAlinden is professor and Chair of Philosophy Department, Bridgewater State University.