While Trump’s defeat is welcome news, there’s no sign the US will move to a less belligerent foreign policy

Chris Nineham

It is a relief to millions of people in the US and around the world that Donald Trump lost the election.

It scotches the idea of an irreversible slide to the right in US politics.

It is a big boost to be able to wave goodbye to the most impulsive and reckless president in memory, a man who appeared to revel in dangerous brinkmanship. That he is stacking the Pentagon with extreme Republican loyalists even after his election defeat is a reminder of how dangerous Trump always was on the world stage.

The election result will weaken “Trumpian” right-wing regimes around the world.

It will also cause anxiety among the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two countries in the Middle East that Trump supported most fiercely as part of his attempt to confront Iran.

The result, however, is unlikely to lead to a less belligerent foreign policy.

The Democrats’ underperformance in the election and the strength of the right in the Republican Party is going to leave US domestic politics gridlocked.

As the Guardian reports, foreign policy is the area where there is most overlap between the Democrats and even right-wing Republicans. It is an area that Joe Biden is likely to focus on.

Biden will be more collegiate with allies. He will probably reverse Trump’s bad-tempered exit from the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate accords.

He may be less confrontational with Nato allies, though he will continue Trump’s push for more European contribution.

But this marks a different approach to the problem of strengthening US influence and power around the globe, not a shift in the paradigm.

Most of the foreign-policy elite believe that Trump’s disruptions have damaged US standing around the world and therefore weakened it.

Biden will be rebuilding the Western alliance in order to be able to push more effectively for US influence.

On the face of it, Biden’s Middle East policy looks more moderate than Trump’s.

He has stated that he would not be looking for military openings in the region and that he would end support for authoritarian Gulf-state regimes including Saudi Arabia and, importantly, stop support for the war in Yemen.

He is committed to restarting talks with Iran over nuclear weapons and to a tougher line with the Israelis about settlements. He has restarted the discussion about a two-state solution.

The small print of Biden’s programmes contains important qualifications.

“A small, finite, focused military presence in Iraq to defeat Islamic State” is proposed in Iraq.

An anti-terror unit would be kept in Syria. On Yemen and Saudi Arabia, too, there is every danger that Biden will be tamed by the Establishment and brought around to the mainstream US view that Saudi Arabia is an irreplaceable military and commercial ally to be kept sweet at all costs.

A decisive shift in the Iran policy is fraught with problems as well. Hardliners dominate in Iran, the country’s nuclear programme has developed since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and, most importantly, the US ruling class continues to see Iran as its main enemy in the Middle East.

All this will make new negotiations very difficult. There is a strong lobby in the Democratic Establishment arguing to make a change in Iran’s regional behaviour a condition for any future agreement, which is likely to be a deal-breaker.

Biden’s victory will clearly not be welcomed by the Israeli government. Trump’s brazen and enthusiastic backing of settlements and incursions into Gaza is likely to end.

This may be a restraining influence on Benjamin Netanyahu. It won’t, however, change the overall dynamic in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel will remain a crucial US ally in the region and, because any material US moves against it are implausible, it will be able to leverage its position pretty much as it likes.

It is worth remembering that the most deadly Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip took place in 2010 and 2014 when Barack Obama was president and Biden was at his side as a vice-president unusually heavily involved in foreign policy.

All of this needs to be understood in the context of the US’s wider goals. On the key question of the day, relations with China, Biden is a hawk.

In the pre-election period he ran attack ads claiming Trump was soft on Xi Jinping’s regime.

He aims to accelerate the military pivot to Asia, which was pioneered by Obama, and he takes a tough line on Taiwan, the most likely immediate flashpoint between the two countries.

The policy of trying to dampen down tensions in the Middle East was always about being able to confront China more effectively.

The reasons why China is the US’s number one priority are objective. In the last decade, China’s GDP calculated in terms of purchasing power outstripped that of the US.

In absolute terms the gap is narrowing fast. The result is that China has recently overtaken the US as the major supplier of goods to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.

To make matters worse, over the last decade it has massively expanded its military might.

China is now responsible for 15 per cent of world defence spending: still way behind the US but easily the second-biggest in the world. It now has more warships than the US.

This marks a step change in geopolitics. While it remains easily the biggest world power, the US is no longer unchallenged as it was at the start of this century.

This single fact is bound to dominate US foreign policy in the years to come. It will mean more defence spending, more anti-Chinese cold-war rhetoric, and it explains Biden’s concern to push harder and faster for US military preponderance in the Asia-Pacific.

But it will also increase tensions around the world. Whatever aspirations Biden may have to withdraw from some other theatres, the US is now committed to a struggle against growing Chinese influence that will have implications everywhere.

The anti-war movement therefore needs to be strengthened here and around the world. We are faced with two priorities.

The first is to counter the attempts to whip up anti-Chinese hysteria and the promotion of the new cold war.

The second is to mobilise international opinion to try to force the US to make good on the positive aspects of Biden’s programme.

It is extremely timely that we are involved in building an international network against the war on Yemen which already has the backing of 120 organisations globally.

The network is calling for action to end the catastrophic war on January 25.

Anti-war protests around the world five days after Biden’s inauguration are the best possible way to start the new presidency. Please get involved.

You can find more about the global day of action against war on Yemen here

16 Nov 2020 by Chris Nineham

Sign Up