With Joe Biden elected, the still growing American progressive movement will once again have a president they can at least try to pressure on global issues like climate change. Working in the left’s favor, like many of those of his generation who have served at the highest levels of his country’s government, the former vice president has shown a willingness to compromise and make deals with those opposing him over many years. Of course, this record has almost always benefited Republicans to his right more than the progressives in his own party.
On Tuesday, the former vice president named the bulk of his national security and diplomatic team. While disappointingly conventional in terms of their experience and presumed world views, picks like Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State will reassure the country’s allies that America is ready to re engage with the world. It’s also the most diverse such team in the country’s history.
Due to their government experience, many of these picks made ties to the defense industry when outside government, a revolving door that has had a detrimental influence on American foreign policy for decades.
William D. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, offered a partial solution to this problem in a recent interview with the Intercept, “Anyone with defense industry ties should be thoroughly questioned on those connections in confirmation hearings, and pledge to recuse themselves from issues relating to former employers or clients.”
This demand should be raised by progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders when these nominees are in confirmation hearings.
In the midst of an ongoing pandemic and the economic crisis it’s sparked, domestic policy will be at the forefront when Biden takes office on January 20th of next year, as it should be, but the change in leadership might create an opportunity for American progressives to gain more influence over their country’s broken and still mostly bipartisan foreign policy to avert other, more preventable, crises in the future.
One of the most troubling things about the ongoing health crisis is how an opportunity for real cooperation, not just with allies but also rival nations to defeat it and tackle widespread economic devastation wasn’t really considered, with most nations choosing to go it alone.
At present, it seems likely that some of the damage done to the United State’s standing in the world by the outgoing president can be reversed by a Biden administration soon after he takes office. A good place to start would be repudiating the outgoing president’s ‘legacy’ in the same way Trump overturned the accomplishments of his predecessor: reversing his executive orders, beginning with the racist Muslim ban that was expanded to include North Koreans and representatives of the Venezuelan government alongside those from six predominantly Muslim nations.
The two greatest foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration were probably the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, and signing on to the Paris Climate Accord. While the latter is non-binding and most signatories still aren’t living up to its conditions, it’s good news that Biden is on the record in planning to recommit to it. Further, in terms of climate change, the incoming president has already created a new position, climate envoy for national security, to be filled by one of the architects of the Accord, John Kerry, who will be able to rely on diplomatic relationships built during his time as secretary of state under Obama to raise the issue’s profile in international forums.
“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is. I’m proud to partner with the President-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the President’s Climate Envoy,” the former secretary of state wrote on Twitter.
Hopefully, reentry into the JCPOA won’t be hamstrung by Iran’s religious leadership or elections to be held there in June of 2021. At the same time, Biden and his subordinates shouldn’t become too ambitious in trying to rewrite a deal that was achieving its objectives to include other things like the country’s ballistic missile program, which could be revisited after contacts and hopefully some level of trust has been reestablished.
The former vice president will need all the support he can get from the left to do this, as any diplomacy with Iran will come under sustained attack not only by Republicans but by the right of the Democratic party and influential allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel who view the Islamic Republic as an enemy that can’t be negotiated with despite the JCPOA offering proof that this is nonsense.
Over the longer term, the American left might also find that a Biden administration can be pressured to revive other treaties that lowered the existential risk posed by the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in their own country and the Russian Federation. Even if this is the case and a Biden administration tries to revive the INF and New START treaties, Russia’s government, which is hardly blameless, may decide it isn’t worth it and that the U.S. can’t be relied upon as a long term partner in terms of even regional arms control.
There will almost certainly be a push in Biden’s own party to confront Russia, which received much of the blame for the outgoing president’s 2016 electoral college victory. While recognizing that Vladimir Putin is a dangerous nationalist opposed by the left in his own country and it’s also true that almost every country including the United States tries to influence the politics of other nations, ‘Russia’ is not a monolith, it’s a nation of over 145 million people and it’s important that not only the U.S. but its European allies use diplomacy to try and end the bleeding in Syria and uncertainty in Ukraine, where almost every party to these conflicts has repeatedly violated international law.
In terms of the country’s other big rival, it will be difficult for a Biden administration to do worse than the outgoing administration with the leaders of the People’s Republic of China. It should be possible to balance real criticism of that nation’s treatment of ethnic minorities within its borders while working with President Xi and other high level officials to repair some of the economic damage done by Trump’s ill advised trade war with the country, which has arguably been most ruinous for U.S. farmers who lost huge markets to other producers as a result.
Although Trump has thrown some rhetorical curve balls in regards to large scale American militarism, mainly on the campaign trail, the continuity established by George W. Bush has survived in the slightly more covert form favored by the administration that preceded him, with drone strikes one of the few things Obama did that the Trump administration was even more enthusiastic about.
By ending reporting of the civilian casualties that are a normal result of such strikes, which we have to assume were already being minimized, the outgoing administration ensured that the military and intelligence agencies involved will never be held accountable, even by history, for the innocent lives ruined and lost.
The incoming president may reverse this but the left’s ultimate goal should be to try agitate for governments to create rules for the use of drones throughout the world, a Frankenstein monster created by an unwise global war on a tactic. American policy makers should have realized lethal drones would become cheaper and thus more available to even poorer countries in time. We have already entered that world as we saw most recently in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan where this technology, mainly supplied by American allies, led to horrifying casualties in the former.
The last minute troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by the outgoing president may cheer some of his fans but will hardly end the ‘forever wars’ he so often claimed to oppose. In fact, far from ending wars, Trump brought the country dangerously close to it by approving the assassination of an Iranian general in a third country and threatening the leader of nuclear armed North Korea on Twitter. It’s no secret pacifist who brags about dropping the U.S. arsenal’s largest bomb in a remote part of Afghanistan without a thought for the ordinary citizens of that country living nearby.
Nonetheless, while there is little that they seem to agree with progressives on in terms of domestic policy, some Trump voters, especially veterans of these ruinous wars, might be convinced to use their voices alongside those of the left to pressure the incoming administration to bring American troops home and stop seeing most of the world as a battlefield requiring ever more money to be spent on arms while the country’s working people, regardless of their politics, struggle to put food on the table.
It really began with the invasion of Iraq, but U.S. and NATO support for the proxy wars in Yemen and Libya emboldened regional powers in the greater Middle East like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to ignore international law and launch their own wars of aggression. In the Mediterranean, France, in defense of Greece, a country eagerly arming itself with weapons from this EU partner all but ensuring future austerity to pay for it, is asserting itself against an increasingly aggressive Turkey, a NATO ally.
A Biden administration shouldn’t be able to sell this growing chaos as the result of the outgoing administration alone, it’s a consequence of almost 20 years of unwavering belief in American primacy and abandonment of the norms established by international law, many of them centuries old.
With more progressives than ever in the country’s federal government and growing movements from Sunrise to Code Pink organizing around the issues that matter, there may be an opportunity for the United States to really re-evaluate its foreign policy and place in the world.