Listening to President Biden’s inaugural speech, not many have noticed an important fact, that in that speech he made scant reference to the foreign policy of the United States under his stewardship. Understandingly, Joseph Biden is fundamentally concerned with the urgent task of regenerating American democracy after a period of obscurantism and hostility toward the world at large, engendered by the Trump administration. According to the voices of the liberal order once promoted by the U.S., the rebuilding of institutions in America goes hand in hand with the restoration of strong ties with its allies and partners, starting with NATO – the epitome of American–European shared interests – and a host of regional organizations, in both the military and commercial realms. Before his election, Joe Biden addressed the need to restart a close relationship with other democracies facing an uncertain future, and specifically the threat of the rising authoritarianism in China.
In his inaugural speech, Biden said what everybody expected him to say: “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” The first official word about the new administration’s foreign policy came shortly after from the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke about the need to restore Congress’ traditional role as a partner in foreign policy making. He told the senators the obvious – that rising nationalism and receding democracy are making the world a more dangerous place. The intimation was that without American global leadership, rival nations will step in to fill the vacuum or there will be chaos.
If the words of the new president and his secretary of state sound reassuring, even those who are happy to hear them harbor plenty of doubts as to the future course of action by the new administration. One cannot call it skepticism but rather the residual effect of the Trump administration’s attitude that accused the European Union of treating the United States “worse than China” and declared NATO obsolete. In fact, the allies cannot ignore that a large part of the relationship depends on what kind of an ally the U.S. turns out to be as a nation that for some time still will continue to be polarized and distressed by its raw post–Trump politics. This feeling is expressed by those who warn that “Americans have a new president but not a new country.”The most astute foreign commentators do not hide what is in effect a healthy dose of skepticism about Biden’s foreign policy. According to a European poll, 6 in 10 Europeans believe that the U.S. political system is broken and that China will become more powerful over the next decade. As of now, there is no question that in spite of all its troubles the United States is still the dominant force in the world and no doubt that it intends to keep its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until the Taliban stop their violence and accept the American conditions for their withdrawal. Iran is a different conundrum. The Iranian leaders want two things: the renewal of the nuclear agreement that Trump terminated, and the removal of the sanctions. They have shown quite a bit of restraint in the face of American and Israeli provocations such as the assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani and chief scientist Fakhrizadeh. Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure clearly has not worked. On the other hand, others see it as a positive course of action that has deterred Iran from further destabilizing the Middle Eastern region. Biden has indicated that he intends to rebuild the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in response to Iran’s pledge to uphold its commitments. Clearly, there is breathing room for a new recourse to diplomacy that would lower the tensions in the region. The European signatories of the nuclear deal would have an added reason to trust the new American administration.Finally, there is the big question of what to do with China. Trump’s hard line toward China has shaped a confrontation that will not go away any time soon. President Biden is boxed in by a bevy of punitive measures introduced by Trump and his intemperate Secretary of State Pompeo. Something will have to give on both sides to avoid a mutually damaging cold war. President Biden knows one thing, that Americans support an assertive course of action toward China. This stance does not have to deepen the confrontation. Much will depend however on President Xi’s assessment of the new American administration. He will test it quite soon. In an intervention at the World Economic Forum, the Chinese leader sent a cryptic message to President Biden warning against “arrogant isolationism.” Biden has made clear that democratic values and human rights will be incorporated in revamped strategies of containment for both China and Russia. In practice, he will maintain pressure on both. In the case of Russia, President Biden intends to face Putin’s bellicose actions. As for China, it is apparent that the new administration will build on something that Trump had started, the expansion of U.S. – Indian relations. And finally, Biden needs to reach a clear understanding with the Europeans about the containment of China. This too is a complicated task that cannot wait.