6th February 2021
US Foreign Policy – back to business as usual?
“America is back, diplomacy is back”; the words of Joe Biden in his first foreign policy address this week as US President. Biden was clearly using the phrase to draw a line under the past four years and distance himself from the Make America Great Again rhetoric of Donald Trump. Biden’s words are unlikely to be worn across baseball caps by his supporters but in its own, less belligerent way, Biden’s phrase is still a variation on the theme of making America great again. Making America great has, in one way or another, been the theme of US foreign policy for over a century.
As Biden made clear,
“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.”
Which is not to say that Biden will not do things differently to Trump. In some areas he will. The temporary ban on weapons sales to the Saudi Arabia led coalition which has been bombing schools, hospitals and communities in Yemen since 2015 looks like being firmed up. Biden did not cut the Saudis loose entirely though, promising to continue to help Saudi Arabia “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Biden has made no secret of his desire to take a more strident tone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though actual policy substance may not differ greatly. Biden was clear that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will conduct a review of the US global force posture to ensure that the US “military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities”, a warning signal to Russia and the growing military and economic power of China.
In the Middle East Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has restated Biden’s commitment to reconsider US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, agreed with Iran in 2015 before US violation in 2018 led to withdrawal.
US return to compliance with the JCPOA is by no means unconditional, with Biden wanting to make Iranian compliance in a number of “deeply problematic” foreign policy areas outside of the deal a requirement before the easing of US sanctions, tightened by Trump in 2018 after US withdrawal.
While Iran has welcomed the fact that Biden presents the opportunity to step back from the abyss the two countries were staring into following Trump’s action, they still want a return to the 2015 deal as agreed, without additional conditions. The Islamic Republic is not short of hardliners of its own, willing to continue a face off with the ‘Great Satan’, though more pragmatic voices recognise that the economy is on its knees and an increasingly rebellious population could threaten the foundations of the theocracy itself. An easing of sanctions is seen as an opportunity to at least buy time.
Biden and his Vice-President, Kamala Harris, have made no secret of their pro-Israeli position when it comes to the politics of the Middle East. While the love-in Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed with the Trump administration is unlikely to be sustained, Israel’s role as the eyes, ears and, where necessary, military proxy of the US in the Middle East is unlikely to be threatened.
Negotiation and diplomacy may be back on the agenda in the Middle East. However, with regard to the question of Palestine, Israeli withdrawal from the illegally occupied territories and insistence on compliance with international law, flouted by Israel for over half a century, may be a challenge too far for Biden.
The United States has form of its own in this area, which continues to undermine any claim it may have to a moral high ground on the issue of compliance with international law. As well as the illegal detentions which continue at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, the United States persists in its 60 year long illegal economic blockade of Cuba. The degree of détente introduced under Barack Obama, a first step towards the normalising of relations between the two countries, was quashed by Donald Trump.
In a final vindictive act, Trump added Cuba to the US list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ in the weeks before leaving office. Given the number of terrorist acts sanctioned by the United States against the people of Cuba over the years, to suggest that this was ironic would be mild understatement. Since 1959 over 3,000 Cubans have lost their lives to terrorist acts, most of which emanated from the United States. It is vital that Biden takes Cuba off the list, ends the blockade and begins the normalising of relations with Cuba, if any claim of a new page in US foreign policy being turned is to be taken seriously.
Famously regarded by the US as its ‘backyard’ the relationship of the superpower to its neighbours to the south in Latin America has historically been characterised by subterfuge and illegal intervention. From the coup d’etat in Chile, undermining the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, gun running in El Salvador, invading Grenada, the list goes on.
More recent examples include covert support for the coup in Bolivia and ongoing attempts to undermine the government of Venezuela. Such interventions must stop and Latin America must be free from US interference. Whether the corporations who have so much investment in maintaining low pay, poor working conditions and under privilege in Latin America will give Biden any latitude remains to be seen. History points in the opposite direction however.
The rhetorical flourish and embellishment of the daily tweets from Donald Trump may be gone. The sense of unpredictability about the position of the US in the international arena will go. The tone of the Biden administration will no doubt aim to be one of calm and stability. While that may be a relief in many respects, given the rollercoaster ride of the past four years, the message that US foreign policy is back to business as usual will, for many, not be as reassuring as Biden may like to think.