12.11.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Will Joe Biden Really ‘Re-set’ US Foreign Relations?


Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections has raised prospects of a major shift in the US foreign policy. The presidential debates showed that Biden and Trump have different approaches to almost all major foreign policy issues, including China, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan. While Donald Trump had his “America First” policy principal, Joe Biden does not have any such apparently grand and populist idea. Yet, it doesn’t mean he will not bring significant policy changes. At the same time, however, expecting a radical change in the US foreign policy, making the US ‘a responsible player’ once again, will be naïve. The idea of change, therefore, would be just a political spectacle with no real, substantive change taking place in many foreign policy theatres. The Democrat president-elect will make changes that suit his rule and continue Trump’s policies elsewhere.

A fundamental reason for this is that many of the policies that Trump followed were rooted in the decreasing US influence in the world and the related rise of other powers, particularly Russia and China, challenging US unilateralism in the world. This remains unchanged, which means that Joe Biden’s rise to the White House will have a limited impact only.

Russia-China and Joe Biden

As it stands, US-Russia and US-China competition was not a product of the Trump administration. Indeed, the policies the Trump administration were following were, in many ways, only a variant of the Obama administration. For instance, while the Trump administration came up with its China and Russia centric “Indio-Pacific” strategy, the Obama administration had its so-called “Asia Pivot”. “Asia Pivot”, like the “Indo-Pacific” strategy, was fundamentally anti-China and anti-Russia. Let’s not forger here that Joe Biden, being Obama’s vice-president, was one of the key architects of “Asia Pivot” policy, which shows that Joe Biden certainly subscribes to the American “deep-state’s” notions about China and Russia i.e., how their rise is a threat to the US and why they need to be tackled both economically and militarily.

While Joe Biden, unlike Trump, will not pursue a ‘trade-war’ with China or contemplate a ‘de-coupling’, there is little gainsaying that the undelaying construct of Biden’s policy will be his “Asia Pivot” 2.0 whereby the US will maintain its economic ties with China and pursue aggressive military and economic build ups in Asia, closer to China, to ‘contain’ its rise and military and economic expansion.

Iran-Israel and Joe Biden

As far as Iran and JCPOA is concerned, Joe Biden has already expressed his willingness to become a party to the agreement once again. While this may look promising, there are at least two significant bottlenecks that might erode prospects of a fundamental reversal to normalization.

First, Iran’s supreme leader has already said that US is untrustworthy regardless who is in the White House. For Iran, therefore, its concerns vis-à-vis the US go beyond the occupier of the Oval Office. Its concerns are deep-rooted in the American mindset vis-à-vis Iran and how this mindset has roots in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

If Joe Biden moves to make the US a part of JCPOA once again, this will surely upset Netanyahu and many other US allies in the Middle East. Will Joe Biden be willing to take this risk at a time when he is actually looking to reverse Trump’s policy of retrenchment to keep American entrenched in the Middle East?

While Joe Biden has criticized Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories and Israel-US relations may enter a period of uneasy adjustment, a soft approach to Iran will cost Biden the Middle East, leaving the region open to Russian and Chinese economic expansion. Both the Russians and Chinese will be happy to quickly satisfy the Middle Eastern powers’ growing appetite for modern weapons and advanced defense systems. Such a situation will do little to nothing to advance Joe Biden’s agenda of making the US the world’s supreme power.

But the US under Joe Biden will not be making a fundamental about turn. Biden also has a history of cordial relations with Mr. Netanyahu, and has even said he would not reverse  Trump’s transfer of the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Recently passed legislation, unless Biden can reverse, ensure US support for Israel.

End of war in Afghanistan and Joe Biden

The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Joe Biden has been openly supporting US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he apparently agrees with the Trump administration’s plans. However, what Biden has in his pocket is not just a military withdrawal, but also a long-term and covert intelligence presence in Afghanistan to tackle DAESH. Unlike Trump, Biden doesn’t consider it a “useless war.” He, therefore, aims to maintain a deep & a covert presence in Afghanistan.

While US military withdrawal might linger on due to no progress being made in in ‘Intra-Afghan talks’, the recent DAESH attack on Kabul University is going to allow Biden to even more forcefully implement his plans of a deep covert intelligence operations in Afghanistan. What it practically means is that the CIA-operatives and the CIA-operated Afghan militias will have a free-hand dealing with the Afghanistan-based DAESH and/or the Taliban (both banned in Russia) as well in the wake of no peace agreement a ceasefire.

The US, under the Biden administration, therefore, will not see major or radical policy changes. The idea of fundamental shift is only a political spectacle that Biden sold to his voters in the elections. In reality, however, change will be only be minimal, imperceptible and even drastic in some areas, exacerbating the ground situation in many respects and worsening the US standing in others.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.