The new Democrat administration will no doubt declare a new era for foreign relations but what will it actually deliver?

Chris Nineham

Millions around the world will be celebrating the end of the Trump’s tenure and the inauguration of a new president. Despite his talk of ‘ending the era of endless wars’, Trump’s foreign policy brought destruction, misery and fear to many corners of the globe. Bombing in Syria and Iraq escalated on his watch and Trump tore up the nuclear agreement with Iran, taking the US close to war with the Iranian republic three times.

Bombing was intensified in Afghanistan too, and through the good offices of brother-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump tightened already close relations with the Saudi autocracy just at the time when it was leading the murderous war on Yemen. On top of the brinkmanship with Iran, ‘isolationist’ Trump came close to starting wars with North Korea and Venezuela.

He fostered extra friendly relations with one of the most brutal and violent Israeli administrations ever and has deliberately insulted the Palestinian people by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Building on Obama’s legacy, Trump launched a full scale new cold war with China. This involved diplomatic and commercial provocations, but also an accelerated military pivot to Asia. The US military posture has been reshaped worldwide. There have been two massive hikes in US military expenditure justified by the ‘Chinese threat’. First a $1.3 trillion investment in new ‘low yield’ nuclear warheads, the militarisation of the space race and much more. Second, a call for an additional $20.1 billion in a report from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

In the administration’s last days, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been pushing through a series of measures designed to box Biden into hawkish postures. He has designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, declared Iran-linked Yemeni Houthis a terrorist organisation, ended limits on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwan and claimed al-Qaeda had set up a “new home base” in Iran.

Biden’s Bluster

No wonder there is some of relief at the election of Joe Biden. Biden is likely to be less unpredictable and less unilateral than his trigger-happy predecessor. His team will be looking to work more closely with allies and is likely to be more open to diplomatic solutions in some areas. Biden has announced he wants to end US support for the war on Yemen and to try and reinstate the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran.

We should be clear however, that working with allies is not the same as seeking peace. In an article in Foreign Affairs last year Biden made this point himself when he explained the purpose of heading up a western alliance:

“It makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners.”

If the strategy will be modified, the goals will not change much. The result may be a good deal more foreign policy continuity than many hope. Even during the election campaign Biden kept restating that America’s commitment to Israel would be “ironclad” and he has recently been applauding the Trump/Kushner initiative to reconcile Arab countries with Israel.

Grassroots pressure over Yemen has made some impact, but as Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University of Yemeni origin has warned, “it’s important to remember this war started with the Obama/Biden administration, and wouldn’t have been possible without their extensive military support”.

It is uncertain too whether Biden will move to undo all of Pompeo’s last-minute provocations. Commentators are suggesting for example that Biden’s poor polling among Cuban Americans will discourage him from overturning the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Cold Warrior

Most worryingly, Biden has spent the last year doing his best to outdo Trump in hostility to China. In April, the Biden team released a digital ad attacking the president as too willing to accept Chinese government explanations about the virus. Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” the ad says, a message delivered over footage of what appear to be Chinese security forces.

Biden has been quick to take on China verbally wherever possible and his top foreign policy aide Tony Blinken is clear that Biden is prepared to make confrontational threats, including over Taiwan. Biden, he says, would “step up defences of Taiwan’s democracy by exposing Beijing’s efforts to interfere.”

These moves go way beyond electioneering. They reflect the fact that there is bi-partisan support in Washington for a much tougher attitude to China which is now not just almost an economic equal, but in danger of becoming a serious military competitor. Containing China’s global ambitions will be the main foreign policy imperative of the new government and it will continue to shape the whole of US foreign policy.

The new Democrat administration will no doubt declare a new era for foreign relations. But what it will actually do is offer a slightly different answer to the question of how to restore US influence and control around the world. If it is less unilateral than Trump this will not make it any less deadly or dangerous.

There is strong anti-war sentiment in the US, and it has already had a profound and complicated impact on elite politics. But it will need to be mobilised on a serious scale to reign in the warmakers in Washington. The campaign starts on 25 January with the global day of action against the war on Yemen. Make sure you are involved.

20 Jan 2021 by Chris Nineham

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