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Geopolitical hotspot: Joe Biden’s foreign policy

President Joe Biden swears in at the inauguration ceremony next to first lady, Jill Biden, Jan. 20, 2021 President Joe Biden swears in at the inauguration ceremony next to first lady, Jill Biden, Jan. 20, 2021
21 Jan
Tim Marshall looks forward at what the world can expect from Joe Biden

The Blob is back! Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

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The term was coined by President Obama’s top aide, Ben Rhodes, to describe Washington’s foreign policy elite, who were accused of a tendency to groupthink and of unquestioningly following the internationalist playbook introduced after the Second World War. The Blob ignored climate change, supported the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was overly focused on Europe. Rhodes helped Obama change much of that and Trump followed suit in ignoring the establishment and appointing outsiders. Of course, Trump also undermined the promotion of human rights, and with ‘America First’, allowed the USA’s global leadership to wither.

That’s now changing. President Joe Biden’s team couldn’t be more Blobbish. For example, the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was foreign policy consigliere during Biden’s eight years as vice president; Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is a former number two at the CIA; Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, was a senior aide to both Biden and Hillary Clinton; and the ambassador to the UN is an experienced diplomat, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. 

These appointments, and others, signal that Biden meant what he said on the campaign trial – that ‘America’s security, prosperity and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us. The Biden foreign-policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners’.

If he succeeds, he will be placing the USA back on the post-WWII strategic path. The USA didn’t help to rebuild the shattered economies of Western Europe out of sheer altruism – it wanted markets for its exports and to prevent Russia from dominating the continent to the extent that it would rival the USA as a global power. It did so by embracing the Europeans. Trump was the first post-war president to cold shoulder Europe and undermine NATO. Biden’s approach and tone will be markedly different, and that matters, but it’s no guarantee of success.

There are some quick wins, such as recommitting to the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, and extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. But the 78-year-old president’s in-tray is overflowing with urgent issues. At the same time, key offices such as the State Department are dealing with staff shortages after an exodus during the Trump years and Biden’s immediate attention is consumed with dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Relations with Russia are in deep freeze, New START notwithstanding, and Biden has described Russia as the USA’s biggest threat. Moscow is suspected of being behind the enormous hack into US government departments last year and if it was, the reckoning is yet to come. Tehran has restarted work on its nuclear programme, which complicates efforts to take the USA back into the Iran nuclear deal that Trump left in 2018. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and others are sceptical of the deal’s ability to constrain Iran from secretly building a nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, there’s still no substitute for the USA’s defence umbrella and all will try to remain close to the superpower, even as they watch it slowly disengage from the region over the next few decades. The long switch from fossil fuels and a pivot towards Asia signal the fact that the USA’s focus is turning elsewhere.

We can expect a ‘robust’ approach towards China, although perhaps not a repeat of Biden’s description of President Xi last year as a ‘thug’. The US political class is mostly hawkish on China and Washington will maintain a tough line on trade, intellectual property theft, cyber-warfare and keeping the sea lanes in the South China Sea open to all.

The new president would like to end the USA’s ‘Forever War’ and get out of Afghanistan, but the Taliban may not play ball in creating the conditions that would allow the remaining 2,500 US troops to pull out. North Korea could erupt as a crisis at any moment, given that it now appears to be a nuclear power and is among the most likely of the USA’s adversaries to test the resolve of the new administration. There’s so much more – the Middle East, Africa, the UK trade deal... the last of which is unlikely to be at the top of the in-tray. All will be approached in the spirit of re-invigorating the democratic world and boosting its resilience. It’s an enormous task in a world in which authoritarian states are on the front foot.

So, goodbye ‘America First’, welcome back ‘American Multilateralism’. And the Blob.

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Prisoners of Geography and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls

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