The Foreign Policy Challenges Biden is Inheriting

Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare for TIME


A N A L Y S I S – U S  P O L I T I C S


Tahia Afra Jannati


On 20th January, President Joe Biden took charge of a country which was isolated from the rest of the world and openly hostile toward parts of it during the four years of a rogue President Trumpa United States that had also been deeply entangled in various dire domestic crises. Biden, who has been enjoying long-standing relationships with world leaders since his 8 years’ stint as the Vice President, has already begun to rejoin treaties and renew alliances previously abandoned by Trump.

The newly sworn-in president has picked a group of close advisers and former Obama administration officials to fill key roles in his cabinet, who will help guide his administration’s foreign policy and national security agenda, including Avril Haines, the first woman to be sworn in as the director of national intelligence. 

The era of foreign policy via Twitter

Donald Trump, throughout his presidency, did everything in his authority to revoke almost every policy the Obama Administration had built. He even swayed away from the traditional US foreign policies that have weathered every storm of power transition between the two political parties.

Instead, driven by his own agenda to Make America Great Again, Trump pulled out of agreements with allies and made crude comments about their leaders. The decision to withdraw from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the largest free trade agreement (FTA) more or less defined Trump’s foreign economic policy of satisfying his key backers. Trump’s open aversion towards NATO and EU, his withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement, and ban on travel from Muslim majority countries reflected a risky and unprecedented take on Foreign Policy. 

On the other hand, the president of Russia, a country with which America has had rocky relations at least since the second world war, enjoyed surprisingly warm treatment from the same man. And so did the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whom Trump was proud to call his true friend.

In short, the man made unexpected adversaries and unconventional friends. And all of this was done through social media platforms (Twitter and Facebook) which were used by Trump as his very own megaphone.

Biden’s foreign policy challenges

The new US President who has been in office for almost a month now, has walked into a really demanding and complicated situation domestically and internationally. He has to deal with a lot of repair work when he manages to shift his focus from home.

The China Factor: At the top of Biden’s list would be competing with an invincible China which has emerged from the pandemic stronger than ever. 

He will be facing the same challenges Trump faced and failed to resolve. The trade war of the past four years, Chinese misappropriation of American property, and Trump’s anti-China rhetoric influenced a sense of economic nationalism in the US and Biden wouldn’t dare to take that for granted.

His administration has stated that Trump’s China trade deal, struck in January 2020, is under review because of China’s failure in meeting the commitments it made in the deal. Bipartisan support for the tough stand against China and massive trade deficit between the two economic giants will lead Biden’s stance against China.

China has shown an aggressive attitude by expanding its military presence in the South China Sea, battling Indian troops in the Himalayas and often provoking Taiwanese armed forces. Biden’s liberal views will be tested on issues such as the Chinese oppression of the Uyghurs and the tumultuous situation with Hong Kong. 

A Revanchist Russia: After four years of unconventionally good relations with America’s greatest nuclear competitor, Biden will face the immediate challenges surrounding arms control and recent Russian aggression. During their first phone call conversation as counterparts, Biden raised his concern over Alexei Navalny’s arrest, Putin’s alleged use of chemical weapons to poison domestic opponents including Navalny, and Russia’s intervention in the US presidential elections.

Washington is expected to make a wider assessment of Russia’s alleged involvement in a massive cyber espionage campaign, and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan may engender contemplations about sanctions over Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Middle East and South-East Asia: Among the first issues Biden will have to deal with in the Middle East is, its many failing states, from Yemen and Libya to Syria, Iraq and Sudan and the instability, refugee and humanitarian crises, and state persecution that hovers over these fragile states.

The next challenge is the US military presences in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Trump has withdrawn thousands of troops from each country after nearly two decades of fighting. Although Afghan President Ghani has urged Biden to put pressure on the Taliban, Biden has indicated he would attempt to hold the militant group to its commitments under Trump’s deal and has signaled a slow but full withdrawal. It will be interesting to see if Biden will follow his predecessor and try to put an end to America’s longest war. 

Now it’s Biden’s turn to lead the peace processions as a solution to the decades long Israel-Palestinian conflict as well and he has already promised to financially back Palestinian Authority much to Netanyahu’s dismay. 

Another Mideast problem that also deteriorated during the Trump administration and will be causing much headache to the present administration is the rising tension between Arab nations and the non-Arab nations over the political and military domination of the region as Iran and Turkey are challenging two of America’s Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

Iran: After Trump attempted everything such as military might and sanctions to control Iran including exiting the international Iran nuclear deal and assassinating an admired general, American relations with Iran have never been worse. However, although Biden has hinted that he may rejoin the Iran deal, only time will tell if he can salvage the situation.

North Korea: Trump’s overconfidence in his diplomatic ability and continuous denial of the failure of his famous summit with Kim Jong-un provided the North Korean leader with enough time to build more nuclear weapons and perfect his ballistic missile and nuclear arsenal. Biden will face a North Korea which identifies the United States as the country’s primary foe and will have to seek better coordination with South Korea and Japan to contain it. 

Europe: The Biden administration wants to repair fractured US relations with the European Union. Rejoining the Paris Agreement, rescinding the decision to abandon WHO, and his deep public respect for NATO has already sent a clear message to his European counterparts. Biden realises that the US needs its European friends to strengthen its position against a fearless China. However, the growing polarisation in the US threatens the possibility of future stable relations. Most European leaders have welcomed Biden with open arms which has resulted in the anticipation of a new transatlantic era of large-scale collaboration.

 

During his first month in the office, Biden made it clear that he is here to stroke the bruised ego of the country’s longtime allies. For example, the first leader to get a call from Biden was the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and the UK PM Boris Johnson. How Biden handles Trump’s once famous camaraderie with the Indian PM Narendra Modi and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be another interesting thing to note. After four years of Trump’s often careless rhetoric to face every foreign provocation with fire and fury, Biden, a conciliatory extravert, will hopefully seek to restore the country’s decades-old alliances and bolster its military and economic might. 

 


Tahia finds solace in reading; she wholeheartedly believes she is similar to Jane Austen heroines. She wants to build a life worth living and has a list of countries she wants to visit. She is an optimist but an overthinker; ambitious but a procrastinator.

 

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