A fleeting look at Foreign Policy of Biden Administration

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A fleeting look at

Foreign Policy of Biden Administration

Joseph Biden Jr. has faced a number of challenges ever since he entered the Oval Office as 46th President of the United States. He came to power with a woe to bring back stability and predictability in the direction and formulation of the US foreign policy so as to mitigate the consequences of an ultra-nationalist ‘America First’ policy of his predecessor Donald Trump. In this regard, he took many initiatives like rejoining Paris Climate Accord, extending New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) to keep it in force through February 4, 2026, and launching indirect negotiations with the Iranian government to re-enter Iran nuclear deal, etc. But, despite taking a bevy of such measures, which are a clear deviation from the populist Trumpian policies, the Biden administration has fallen back on various nostrums, sound bites and policies that may have worked well during the Cold War, but are destined to fail in the 21st-century political milieu. In the following paragraphs, salient features of initiatives that President Biden has taken would be discussed along with their repercussions on the international economy, peace and security.
If we talk about major achievements of the Biden administration or areas where he has performed comparatively well, the Transatlantic Alliance and the Russia-Ukraine war come into mind. Analysts are of the view that his handling of the Ukraine crisis has been prompt and coherent, as well as effective. In the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Biden immediately sought to reinvigorate Transatlantic Alliance and reiterate US commitment to collective security. To the surprise of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Biden managed to elicit a strong, collective response from European partners that included direct military and economic assistance to shore up the Ukrainian defense against Russian forces. In May 2022, he managed to mobilize bipartisan support in Congress and got a $40 billion assistance package for Ukraine and regional security. He allowed the re-opening of the US embassy in Kyiv and appointed a US ambassador there as well. So far, despite severe protests and threats on the part of Russia, the Biden administration has provided $9.8 billion worth of direct military support to Ukraine, including precision-guided missiles and other weapon systems that have played a role in frustrating the Russian designs of toppling Ukrainian government. At the time of writing this article, the US and its allies are seriously considering providing fighter jets to Ukraine. But it could draw them into direct involvement in the war and eventually into a confrontation with Russia. President Biden also welcomed the bid of Sweden and Finland for joining NATO and even indicated that he is willing to provide “security assurances” to mitigate potential Russian threats ahead of their accession to NATO. In short, Biden performed well on the Ukraine-Russia front and succeeded in enforcing a strict punitive sanction regime against Russia to punish Putin for his blatant transgression. Although divergent geopolitical ambitions, particularly the formulation of a collective approach to China, had irritated the US and NATO partners, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly catalyzed consensus and cohesion not seen since the end of the Cold War. So, it is Putin himself who strengthened NATO and helped America rebuild its image.
Since the launch of the Pivot to Asia or the Asia-Pacific policy of Barack Obama, successive US administrations have attempted to deprioritize the Middle East to free up resources for containing the rise of China. President Biden also followed the suit. Since his inauguration in January 2021, he has repeatedly made it clear through his rhetoric and actions that he is more concerned with China rather than counter-terrorism, Iran or the Israel-Palestine conflict. But this strategic retrenchment has allowed China and Russia to strengthen their footprints in the region and get influence with traditional US partners. In addition, Ukraine-Russia war has also increased the significance of Gulf countries and the business-as-usual approach may have cost the US dearly. Biden’s recent whirlwind visit to the Middle East was a response to these concerns as well as growing problems at home. In Israel, he issued Jerusalem Declaration thereby reiterating the US commitment to robust regional security architecture and expansion of the Circle of Peace to add more Arab and Muslim states to the list of Abraham Accords countries. From Israel, he flew directly to Saudi Arabia and coaxed the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to announce direct flights between Israel and KSA. That was termed the “first official step towards normalization with Saudi Arabia” by Israeli premier Yair Lapid. The diplomatic outreach to the Middle East indicates some important takeaways.
First, the United States is interested in regional security and economic objectives with an unwavering commitment to Israeli security. The series of multilateral and bilateral interactions in recent months are reflective of this fact. Before Biden visited the region, the US helped arrange a meeting of foreign ministers of Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, the UAE and Israel in March 2022. The meeting concluded with the launching of the Negev Forum which seeks regional security architecture to enhance security, integration, cooperation and prosperity. Later, the Biden administration also held a virtual summit of I2U2 (India, Israel, the UAE, and the USA) to discuss the goals of this “emerging quad”. Hence, the visit was the continuation of the Biden administration’s policies and was aimed at securing broader regional and security cooperation among Middle East countries.
Second, Saudi Arabia would continue to enjoy strategic cooperation with the United States despite differences and irritants. The US-KSA relations were strained particularly at the top leadership level owing to the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report by US agencies that de-facto ruler and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation has been the prime reason for the relationship backsliding. Though Saudis denied the allegation and held a rogue agent responsible for the killing, the relationship has remained ice-cold ever since the inauguration of Biden administration. In addition to the Biden-MBS estrangement, there is a growing perception in the region that the US is not accommodating the legitimate security concerns of Gulf countries – relentless Houthi drone and missile attacks on UAE’s and KSA’s oil facilities and other infrastructure – and is moving forward to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran-led proxy wars, growing sophistication and range of Iranian ballistic missile and threats to freedom of navigation in the vital passageway. Though Biden’s tour has not fully allayed the apprehensions of US partners, it has helped reassure them that “the United States is not walking away from the Middle East.” Biden’s statement that the US would not allow any foreign or regional power to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through Middle East passageways, read as the Persian Gulf, has hit a right chord. Hence, out of strategic compulsions – Iran, Israel, oil, among others – KSA and other Gulf countries would continue to occupy a prominent space and there will be plenty of areas – security, climate change, energy and economic development – where both sides can find the convergence of their respective interests.
Third, though the US and regional countries share concerns over the possibility of Iran getting nuclear weapons, they disagree on how to achieve that goal. Throughout the tour, this concern remained a predominant agenda point. Both Jerusalem Declaration and US-Saudi Joint Statement gave particular emphasis on this, but in a glaringly different manner. In Tel Aviv, Biden vowed to use all elements of national power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and termed US’ commitment to Israel’s security bipartisan and sacrosanct. So much so that he also accepted that the US could use force as a last resort in case Iran got nuclear weapons. Contrary to this, in Riyadh, he adopted a conciliatory tone and underlined the centrality of diplomatic efforts to deny Iran any opportunity to develop a nuclear bomb. One reason for this different approach is that Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are attempting to restore some semblance of normalization in their relations with Iran. KSA, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt have extended an olive branch and invited Tehran for regional dialogue. Iran also has reciprocated positively and has showed interest in settling disputes through dialogue. So, as far as Iranian influence is concerned, the USA and Gulf countries do not see eye to eye despite sharing concerns over the growing ability of Iran to develop nukes.
On the Israel-Palestine front, Biden made it clear that the time is not ripe for the resumption of dialogue over the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, though he reiterated his support for the two-state solution. Before departing for the Middle East, he remarked that the normalization of Arab-Israel ties would be his topmost priority. Though he achieved some short-term goals like Israel’s overflight of Saudi airspace and the transfer of Red Sea islands from the Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi’s with the consent of Israel, he failed to add more countries to the Abraham Accords. These incremental steps fell short of full normalization as Saudi Arabia stated categorically that it would not establish ties with Israel until the establishment of a viable, contiguous and independent Palestine as per the Arab Peace Initiative Plan launched in 2002.
The trip was overall aimed at reassuring US allies that America was not ceding space to Russia, China or Iran and it was not abandoning the Middle East and that the US would continue to be the most impactful player in the region. In the coming decades, the strategic competition with China and Russia would keep the United States focused on the Middle East.
Now, we come to the next pillar of his foreign policy and that is his multilateral initiatives: I2U2, IPEF, and PGII.
The I2U2 is an initiative that was launched by President Biden in July 2022 to bolster cooperation and partnership among India, Israel, the UAE and the USA – 2Is are India and Israel, and 2Us refer to the USA and the UAE. This multilateral initiative has been launched to further cooperation in mutually identified areas of water, energy, transportation, space, health and food security. Most international relations experts believe that this initiative would help the US strengthen its hands to contain China’s clout in Asia and the Middle East, and reassure the ME countries about continuing US’ commitment to regional security and economic development. Through this initiative, two separate geostrategic regions have been integrated which can potentially provide an opportunity to rebuild US its international reputation which was damaged during the Trump era. India has so far emerged as the major beneficiary. It can bolster its trade with the UAE and further enhance its commercial ties with Israel. During the first inaugural meeting, the UAE announced investing $2 billion in the establishment of food parks in India with the latest smart technologies. The I2U2 initiative is being termed as an “emerging Quad” that can play a decisive role in coming years, if all sides work together to tackle looming threats of food and energy security. Let’s see how Biden administration would steer this multilateral approach and make sure that I2U2 would not fall short of achieving its stated objectives.
Trump’s decision of withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) created a void in the Indo-Pacific region and helped China increase its clout. Resultantly, TTP was replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP) and China applied for its membership. In addition, China also launched Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest-ever free trade agreement. But the US remained aloof. Anticipating that continuing indifference would cost US economic interests dearly, President Biden launched his flagship non-free trade, the non-traditional Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) on May 23, 2022. Initially, 13 members joined the initiative and the member countries agreed on four pillars: trade; supply chain; clean energy, de-carbonization, infrastructure; and tax and anti-corruption. The US officials touted the agreement as the 21st-century economic arrangement designed to tackle the mighty economic challenges. Analysts believe that the IPEF was launched to buttress US’ geopolitical and economic influence in the region mainly to contain China. But despite the hype created by the initiative, the progress toward formal, text-based negotiations has remained lukewarm. The details about each pillar have remained unknown or un-disclosed, and IPEF countries are finding it hard to participate in a binding agreement that cannot provide any lucrative tariff concession as does RCEP or CCTPP. The Biden administration held the first IPEF ministerial-level meeting in August 2022. The readout noted positive and constructive discussion and reaffirmed their collective goal to pursue a high-standard and inclusive economic forum. But the meeting fell short of achieving the objective of coaxing IPEF countries to formalize the agreement. The major impediments in the way of implementation of IPEF are many; some notable concerns are related to the absence of market access, enforcement, unrealistically high objectives and highly-politicized nature that has the potential to infuriate China. So far, IPEF has not seen much progress and there are growing concerns that it may meet the fate of earlier announced initiatives of Build Back Better World (B3W) and others.

The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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