Analysis 01-19-2021


Biden’s Foreign Policy and his Team

It was easy to forget during all the drama surrounding the election that Biden had selected his foreign policy team in November.  And, like the election, the people selected engendered criticism.  The left wing of the Democratic Party complained that the foreign policy team was not diverse and had too few women and minorities.  More moderate Democrats, foreign policy experts and Republicans complained there were too many Obama people who were responsible for foreign policy failures of the Obama Administration.

These criticisms, however, reflect differing opinions on what direction the Biden Administration should take on foreign policy.  The campaign stump speech that merely criticized the Trump policy will not be enough.  Biden must make choices – some exceedingly difficult ones.

Many want a return to Obama policies.  They want bilateral cooperation with China on   number of issues like the environment, health, and economic issues.  They want to reinstitute the Iran nuclear deal and want a more active role in the Middle East.  They also want to induce change in totalitarian governments to bring about more democracy.

The second group sees a changed world view.  They see China as a threat and want a more aggressive approach to Beijing.  They see the Trump initiatives in the Middle East to lessen US involvement in the region and to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.  They also want negotiations on several international issues like taxes, cybersecurity, industrial policy, and technology.

One important factor is Biden and his previous experience on foreign policy issues as Vice President and senator.  As Obama’s Vice President, Biden frequently disagreed with Obama’s policies and approach.  He wanted a more aggressive support for the Ukraine, while Obama wanted to restrict the US support to non-lethal equipment.  He also wanted a more aggressive approach to China.

Although Biden has made it clear that he is more willing to work with allies than Trump, he may find some his policies will not please some allies as much a Trump’s policies.  The Australians and Japanese are worried about Biden’s potential to create closer relations with China despite China’s aggressive crackdown in Hong Kong and military pressures regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea, Nepal, and India.

Europe is also worried about its status.  Will Biden focus so much on China that he will leave European issues on the sideline?  How will the US/British “special relationship” fare since Biden opposed Brexit?

Biden has also indicated that he will not forget traditional NATO allies by overturning the Trump decision to move US military forces from Germany to Poland.

Foreign policy also intersects with politics and this offers Biden a chance to “reach across the aisle” and create a more bipartisan attitude in Washington.

If there is one area of concern in both the Biden and Republican camps, it is China.  The China of 2021 is far different from China of 2009, when Obama came in.  Today’s China has managed to irritate nearly every country from India to Japan by aggressively imposing its own territorial boundaries, despite international law.

While Obama promised to pivot towards Asia, he never did, and China policy was left to drift.  This is no longer possible.

Biden can create good will with a majority of Senate and House Republicans by showing seriousness in dealing with China.  It will also help improve relations with many nations in East Asia.

Countering China will also help relations with Great Britain, which is upset with China’s abrogation of the treaty that gave Hong Kong back to China.  The British Navy is also working with the US Navy in defending the rights of navigation in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

An aggressive China policy will also fit into current EU’s policy of cutting back on cooperation with China.

The aggressive China policy, however, will have a cost within his own party and administration.  Those who believe in bringing back the Obama policies will argue that cooperation is the key to limiting China’s aggressive moves and preventing a Cold War with China. Others will argue that domestic spending on a “Green” economy will help the US to become more competitive with China – a policy that will be favored by many in the Democratic Party.

Given that Xi Jinping’s China has become more aggressive and assertive in the last few years, Biden will have to retain some of Trump’s policies of confrontation.  How much confrontation Biden will show will depend much on who he is listening to in his administration?  A serious pull back, may indicate that the people who have Biden’s ear are those who advocate a return to the Obama policies.

One region that has changed dramatically in the last four years is the Middle East.  ISIS is no longer the threat it was.  The number of American military forces in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq has dropped dramatically.  There is also a “normalization” agreement between Israel and several Arab nations.

Here Biden is boxed in.  It would be politically risky to return forces into the region.  Nor does he want a return of the ISIS threat.  And he would not want anything to cause the Arab states deal with Israel to fall apart.  Chances are that his Secretary of Defense Austin will help by advising him on the transitioning Middle East – a subject he lectured on at the Brookings Institution several years ago.

The only areas of freedom for Biden will be Turkey and Iran.  In the case of Turkey, Biden would likely work in concert with the EU to isolate that nation and make its expansionist policies harder to carry out through economic sanctions.  This may include increased military support for Greece.

Iran poses a larger problem.  It has also become more assertive with its capture of a Korean tanker.

While Biden may want a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, the time has passed for an easy way for that.  Iran has enriched more uranium and will be loath to give it up.  The Iranians will also expect a dramatic reduction in economic sanctions – something that will be criticized by Republicans.

When it comes to Iranian sanctions, Biden will have to work with Europe.  However, dealing with Europe is no longer as simple as working with the EU.

Today, the EU is the “Sick man of Europe.”  Southern EU nations do not like the EU’s fiscal policy.  Eastern EU nations do not like the EU’s social and political policies.  The English, who did not like the EU – period – have left it.  And the rest of the EU nations do not like how the Germans have managed to dominate the EU.  Consequently, Biden cannot return to Obama policies, even though he opposed Britain’s Brexit.  Instead, he and his team will need to formulate a new European policy that recognizes the fractures in the EU.

Another European problem is Russia, which will be tough since the Democrats complained Trump was too friendly with Russia and Putin.  If Biden gets too close with Russia, he can be accused of the same policy the Democrats loved to accuse Trump of.  Biden also has a National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who is opposed to working with Russia.

However, Russia must be addressed.  Working with Russia allows Russia to act as a counter to China in East Asian diplomacy.

Working with Russia also allows the US to push for trilateral negotiations on nuclear arms with China and Russia – something the old SALT deals did not address.  China’s growth as a nuclear power makes it mandatory to include them as an equal partner with Russia and the US in limiting the threat of nuclear weapons.

Finally, there is the NATO alliance.  Although Trump was accused of ignoring the alliance, Trump was focused on ensuring that NATO nations met their financial obligations.  Trump also recognized that Eastern NATO nations were more concerned about a newly aggressive Russia.  Consequently, Trump was focused more on moving US forces closer to Russia, even though that policy upset the Germans, who traditionally had most US forces dedicated to NATO.

Biden has pledged to return these forces to Germany.  However, we can expect the National Security Advisor to probably oppose that move.

Again, NATO policy cannot be a return to Obama policy.  A more aggressive Russia must be countered.  In addition, NATO nations are tired of being used in the Middle East as a subsidiary of the American Army, as they were during the Obama years.  Biden must move to craft a new NATO mission – one that moves away from nation building and moves towards stopping Russian expanded influence.

In the end, the Biden policy will be a mix.  Much of it will reflect his past positions on foreign policy in the Senate.  It will include some Obama policies as well as Trump positions.  The world has changed since Biden was Vice President and to ignore those changes would be foolish.  In the end, it will be more pragmatic than Obama’s and less nationalistic than Trump’s.

Biden’s Foreign Policy Team

Although there are many people who will have an input in foreign policy decisions, we will limit discussion to the three most important people, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of Defense.

Secretary of State.  Tony Blinken is slated to head the State Department.  He has been a member of the foreign policy community for nearly 30 years.

Both Biden and Blinken are happy that the Democrats control the Senate because the GOP could have asked many troubling questions about Libya during confirmation hearings.

Blinken took an aggressive, military approach to the Middle East, specifically Syria and Libya.  He also supported the arming of Syrian rebels, which, in turn usually fell into the hands of ISIS.  He also advised Biden to vote for the invasion of Iraq when Biden was a senator.

Blinken is also a supporter of Israel and helped Senator Biden fund the replacement of Israeli air defense missile used by Iron Dome system.

National Security Advisor.  Another hawk is Jake Sullivan, who was a Hillary Clinton confidant and Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor.  He advocated arming Syrian rebels and the Ukrainians.  He is also an opponent to working with Russia and could be a barrier to better relations with Russia.

He has been an advocate of “Smart Power” which is a blend of hard power (military) and soft power (diplomatic).  He can be pragmatic but may tend towards military solutions.  He worked with Iran in ending economic sanctions.

In Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” Hillary described him as, “not the most experienced diplomat as the State Department I could have chosen.”

However, Sullivan may have more problems in the Biden Administration.  Biden was opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan.  He also was worried about the radical Islamic elements in the Syrian rebel alliance.  Both moves were advanced by Sullivan.

Secretary of Defense.  Retired General Lloyd Austin is Biden’s choice for Secretary of Defense.  He was commanding officer of United States Forces – Iraq Operation New Dawn.  He has experience in the Middle East, served with the 82nd Airborne (America’s fast reaction force), and the 10th Division light infantry.  He managed the troop drawdown in Iraq and oversaw the military plan to counter ISIS; an operation that drew criticism of his direction of military operations in Syria.

Austin is a low visibility leader.  As a result, he is not expected to be as public a leader as some of his predecessors.

One area of concern has been as a member of the Raytheon Board of Directors, one of the world’s largest military contractors.  Many Raytheon products are bought by the Defense Department and there may be questions of bias in awarding military contracts.

However, Austin is an expert in military affairs.  He will be an asset in advising Biden on nation building (and its problems) and the uses and limitations of America’s fast reaction force.