Relentless diplomacy? An early assessment of the Biden foreign policy

Overall, Biden’s foreign policy has been a mixed bag so far, keeping many aspects of the previous administration's diplomacy while changing the tone in a more positive direction.

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When Joe Biden was elected president last November there was great hope around the world that it meant that America’s foreign policy would be less erratic than it was under his predecessor. There were some positive signs early on, as the new administration recommitted to two Obama era agreements that the Trump administration pulled out of: the Paris Climate Accord and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal (although the latter has hit roadblocks created by both parties trying to renegotiate its terms).

The reaction of the corporate press to the recent withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan demonstrated a tendency to ignore even recent history. While the pull out became a debacle, this was pre-ordained by the amateurish foreign policy of the previous administration, who negotiated it, as well as the failure of Afghanistan’s army, built at great cost over multiple administrations, to continue functioning, let alone put up a fight.

We can give some credit to American neo-conservatives for their consistency in calling for endless war but those Republicans who supported Trump’s talks with the Taliban should not be able to go on cable news and complain about the current president following through on the withdrawal without being reminded of positions they held mere months before.

The images from the Kabul airport and breathless commentary that accompanied them seems to have hurt the president’s popularity, at least in the short term, but Biden made a point that seemed to show his administration would move on from the kind of interventionism the long war represented towards a more diplomatic posture during a speech at the U.N. on September 21stsaying, “We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan and as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy, of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting, people up around the world.” 

In comparison to Donald Trump’s self congratulatory and bombastic speeches before the same body, the Biden speech was music to many people’s ears, especially the emphasis on diplomacy and foreign aid, but the fact that the president didn’t use the occasion to saber rattle at China was viewed by many on the American right as a sign of weakness rather than tact.

Senator Tom Cotton expressed this view on Fox News soon after the speech, telling Laura Ingraham, “[Biden’s] apparently too scared to even mention China’s name in a speech addressed to the world’s leaders. What kind of signal does that send to them? What kind of signal does it send to the leaders of Beijing? I can tell you what they’re doing right now: They are laughing at Joe Biden.” 

It didn’t seem possible that President Biden would be as provocative in his dealings with the People’s Republic as the Trump administration, but a recent trilateral deal with Australia and the U.K. shows that, while the rhetoric from his administration at all levels is reassuring, there’s still a willingness to put Beijing on notice, especially in regards to its claims over the South China Sea.

Continuing the lazy tradition of pacts that group countries together using their initials, the AUKUS deal is yet another overlapping ‘security’ partnership that has at its core a $100 billion deal that may violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by providing Australia with nuclear submarines and the expertise to deploy them (although they will not be equipped with nuclear missiles). AUKUS also requires the three countries to cooperate in areas like maritime and cyber security.

The agreement is not only concerning to the People’s Republic of China but has caused worries for some of the 10 member countries in the already existing economic and security focused Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including Indonesia and Malaysia, who have argued that AUKUS may intensify an already troubling arms race in the region.

Besides the likelihood that the pact will damage Australia’s relations with the People’s Republic, its biggest trading partner, the repercussions were felt in faraway Europe as well. France, who already had a deal to provide Australia with conventional diesel subs, withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra temporarily when told the $65 billion contract would be cancelled by Scott Morrison’s Liberal government. 

It does seem like a mistake on the part of the AUKUS countries to alienate a traditional ally like France with its own interests in the region, but it shows growing fissures between Europe and the Anglosphere, especially post-Brexit Britain. One of the pillars of American foreign policy for decades has been the transatlantic alliance with the E.U., especially great powers Germany, France and the U.K. By angering France with the submarine deal and pressuring Germany in regards to its plans with the Russian Federation to build the Nord Stream pipeline and provide the country with natural gas, which the Biden administration recently pulled back on by ending Trump era sanctions, there is a risk that these two countries will begin to stake out more independent foreign policies.

There does seem to be some effort on the part of both the U.S. and U.K. to strengthen relationships with other English speaking countries that are already part of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance, which facilitates the sharing of intelligence, allowing each country to get around domestic laws in terms of surveillance by relying on partners to collect it.

Boris Johnson made his government’s opinion known during remarks by the three leaders in announcing the AUKUS deal, “We will have a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise. And perhaps most significantly, the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. will be joined even more closely together, reflecting the measure of trust between us, the depth of our friendship, and the enduring strength of our shared values of freedom and democracy.”

One weakness that has been clear for decades in terms of the English speaking world is in diplomacy, as posts are often given to political hacks and donors rather than trained diplomats.  Rival nations like the Russian Federation and China are often at an advantage in talks because their diplomats and foreign secretaries have deep knowledge of the issues and are usually better prepared for negotiations.

Another problem vexing the Biden administration is that dozens of ambassadorships have yet to be filled some 9 months into his administration.  Although this can’t be blamed on the president alone as the process of confirming those picked for these posts is deeply politicized, with Republican senators holding them up for purely partisan reasons.

One area where the Biden administration has continued the somewhat dangerous policy of his predecessor that also concerns China is Taiwan, where the People’s Republic has made a number of military overflights this week said to be a response to joint naval maneuvers by the United States and five allies around the island. The announcement of a virtualsummit between Biden and President Xi before the end of the year offers hope that tensions can be eased in the near term.

Overall, Biden’s foreign policy has been a mixed bag so far, keeping many aspects of the previous administration’s diplomacy while changing the tone in a more positive direction. Although it didn’t look like a success at the time, the end of the war in Afghanistan seems to have brought 20 years of reckless militarism to a close, although violence continues through drone strikes and more covert means. Hopefully diplomacy will win the day as the United States confronts rivals like China and the Russian Federation in the years ahead but the sheer amount of money to be made by powerful arms manufacturers only increases the risk that a mistake by any major power could provoke a potentially ruinous conflict.

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