With the disintegration of the USSR and the first Gulf War ushered an era of the New World Order. It’s what redefined the US role in international affairs. The ideological notion of global governance in identifying, understanding and addressing worldwide problems underwent drastic changes along with the shift in the balance of power in world politics. The US emerged as the sole superpower and the post-Cold War literature, throughout the 1990s, predicted the ultimate triumph of Western political and economic systems, championed by the US, and it appeared the End of History had reached. But 9/11 attacks, the rise of China, the re-emergence of Russian power, and the emergence of India, Brazil, and Europe as major regional powers, shifted again that balance.
Now, we are living in a multipolar world. Though the US remains predominant economically, militarily, technologically, culturally and diplomatically, its predominance is being challenged now. Under this new power structure, resolution of key international issues requires the action of the superpower in collaboration with other states. This distribution of power is poised to create a multipolar world order. President Biden has designed his foreign policy doctrine in view of the contemporary challenges and opportunities to materialize this part of his election manifesto.
The tumultuous and go-it-alone posture of Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, dealt a serious blow to the international standing of the United States. But, it has now been replaced with pragmatism and predictability of Joe Biden. As he entered the Oval Office, he laid out a comprehensive foreign policy agenda. He vowed to re-engage with the global community, revive US’ leadership role in international affairs, ending the country’s longest war in Afghanistan, better responding to increasingly assertive China, maintaining stable relations with Russia, reviving landmark JCPOA with Iran, and dealing immigration from Mexico more humanely. He also declared to repair existing alliances and forge new ones. So, the core principles of Biden’s worldview are the combination of balance-of-power realism and liberal internationalism with a renewed emphasis on democracy and human rights. Now that the Biden administration has completed its first year in office, it is important to highlight its good, the bad, and the ugly.
The re-engagement with the global community and rejoining of international organizations made a cornerstone of Biden’s election campaign. When in office, he moved quickly to signal a distinct deviation from the policies of his predecessor. For instance, Trump had abandoned Paris Climate Accord in 2017, Biden rejoined it on the first day in office, and also rejoined World Health Organization on the same day that Trump had withdrawn from in 2020. Trump ruptured US’s long-held transatlantic alliance by demanding that the NATO allies increase their contributions to overall military expenditure of the organization, and withdrawing some 10,000 troops from Germany. Biden immediately halted the withdrawal and attempted to assuage Europe by terming the American alliance as ‘the greatest asset’. He also vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder with key US allies and partners, once again.
Biden also sought the proactive role of the US at the United Nations and attempted to position the US as a leader in combating climate change and spearheading and coordinating the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At UN General Assembly, he envisioned “an era of relentless US diplomacy” that would “bolster international cooperation” at an inflection point in history. Biden’s proclivity to stick to a multilateral approach became ever more evident when he stated: “No nation could deal with all the crises of our time: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber security, mass migration and pandemic.”
However, Biden’s policies attracted a wide-ranging criticism as well.
The abrupt and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan without coordination with his European allies, a buy-in from NATO partners and resultant chaotic Kabul airlift, and rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan have undermined the transatlantic alliance. These actions also compromised Mr Biden’s aim of rebuilding America’s image as a steadfast global partner. The decision forced US allies to scramble to evacuate their large military and diplomatic presence. America’s reputation suffered a credibility crisis among its allies. Another setback came from the AUKUS deal whereby Washington stiffed Paris of $40 billion arms deal by scuttling its submarine sales to
Australia. Later, Biden himself admitted that his administration handled the matter clumsily and that could have been handled in a more nuanced manner. He has also faced criticism for not joining UNESCO without any cogent justification.
Succinctly, in the first year of his presidency, Biden has failed to restore the trust and commitment to the global community in the post-Trump era as the world in general and Europe, in particular, is increasingly finding it hard to build a sustainable working relationship with the United States. The Trump-caused political volatility continues to haunt US global prestige. However, Biden can be credited with repairing the ties with US’ Asian and European partners.
The Biden administration has made clear by its actions and rhetoric that China is the topmost foreign policy challenge for the United States. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, remarked in March last year: “China is the only country that has economic, military, diplomatic and technological powers to challenge stable and open international system.” In other words, the US is viewing China as a direct threat to the rules-based international liberal system that Washington has been championing for the last many decades. Biden, unlike Trump, has adopted a complex recipe of cooperation, competition and confrontation to contain China’s influence and maintain its relevance in the Indo-Pacific. He has accused China of both genocide and crimes against humanity for its treatment of Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. He criticized China over the usurpation
of political and civil rights in Hong Kong and condemned what Washington calls coercive and assertive actions in the region, particularly in the East and the South China seas. But tension over Taiwan remained highest throughout 2021. The brief moment of respite came when Biden held his first, albeit virtual, summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping in November, but the summit brought to the fore the well-entrenched differences. Global Times – the mouthpiece of the Chinese government – revealed that President Xi warned President Biden that the US was playing with fire in supporting the independence of Taiwan – the self-governed island that has remained at the heart of the Sino-US confrontation. Biden, at one stage, even appeared to deviate from the long-held policy of strategic ambiguity by saying that the US would come to defend Taipei in the event of a Chinese incursion.
Apart from these specific bilateral irritants, Mr Biden has also sought to rally European and Asian allies against Chinese influence and forged new defense pacts, pivoted US military might from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific, and kept on conducting the so-called Operation of Navigation Freedom in the South China Sea. The holding of the Democracy Summit to rally democracies against the growing influence of autocracies has also sown the seeds of a new cold war and both sides seem to be at daggers drawn at a time when the world is scrambling to address multiple transnational challenges. Biden’s policies towards China, more or less, mirror the Trump-era approach. This
bodes ill for international peace and prosperity because the trajectory of Sino-US ties is most consequential for global politics, diplomacy, environment, finance and trade. The world can ill-afford further ideologically-determined bloc politics at this critical juncture of time.
Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022 also widened the ideological gulf between Russia-China informal alliance and US-backed Western democracies. Putin-XI huddle in Beijing came up with the most assertive and detailed statement, encapsulating the worldviews of both China and Russia which are feeling cornered over the growing chorus of criticism over human rights and authoritarianism. Apart from announcing support for each other’s core national interests and security concerns, both sides noted “a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world and growing demands for new leadership” and they also criticized “unilateral approaches to resolve international issues and imposing one-size-fits-all democratic template to other countries.” The joint statement manifestly covered almost all aspects of Biden-pursued foreign policy objectives including the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia Pacific (in US diplomatic parlance, Indo-Pacific), weaponization of democracy and human rights, observation of cold-era policies, expansion in NATO, the trilateral AUKUS alliance, deployment of intermediate-range and shorter-range ground-based missiles in Asia-Pacific and Europe, and many other initiatives. By all accounts, the communiqué issued after their meeting has gone an extra mile in articulating the Russian and Chinese
resolve and determination to work together to build a new world order based on their interpretations of human rights and democracy. It has proved that both China and Russia are closing their ranks to get around possible US sanctions, contest US global leadership, and lay building blocks for future military alliance.
This is a watershed moment of the 21st century that has added uncertainty to an already complex and unsettled world. The Biden administration would have to invest a lot of material and intellectual energies to preserve the post-World War liberal world order.
Maintenance of stable and predictable relations with Russia was another pillar of Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Allegations of cyber-attacks and interference in the presidential election on the part of Russia plagued the bilateral ties. In his first visit to State Department, President Biden warned that the days of the US rolling over in the face of Russian aggression were over. Nonetheless, he attempted to restore some semblance of trust in arms control and quickly extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was signed in 2010, that caps the US and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. Save this aspect of Washington-Kremlin ties, the milieu remained tense and fraught with multiple irritants. Now, the moment of reckoning has arrived for Biden; can he honor the pledge of ‘America is Back’?
Russia invaded Ukraine in a bid to preempt Ukrainian membership in NATO. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disintegration of the USSR, the United States and its allies in Europe have followed a policy of open-door, which is giving NATO membership to former Soviet states. More than 10 former Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO and that has alerted Russia, particularly the prospect of granting membership to Georgia and Ukraine has rattled Moscow. Putin launched a full-fledged invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and backed Ukrainian separatist forces for attaining the exclusive strategic objective of preventing deployment of NATO troops and military hardware on its doors. The latest mobilization of Russian troops is the continuation of the decade-old Kremlin policy of maintaining an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Fully committed to avoiding the mistake of chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden responded to provocative and aggressive mobilization with the urgency of the cold war crisis, engaging in a relentless diplomatic drive to forge a united response from European countries, threatening the toughest possible sanction regimes in case Russia goes ahead with invasion, deploying more than 3000 troops in Eastern Europe to bolster the defense of eastern flank of NATO and, more importantly, his administration capitalized on this strategic opportunity to rejuvenate collective security architecture of post-Cold War era. Apart from Biden’s gaffe of minor incursion, this apt management of the Ukraine crisis and the resultant level of unity across the Atlantic have caught Putin off guard as he couldn’t have expected this level of united opposition despite his thinly-veiled threats of weaponization of energy supplies.
As far as the Middle East or West Asia is concerned, Biden adopted a policy that is, according to Foreign Policy magazine, ‘distinctively characterized by ruthless pragmatism’. Nonproliferation, counterterrorism, preservation of the US’ vital interests in the Middle East (free flow of oil, etc.) have featured predominantly on US foreign policy agenda for the last many decades. But Obama started de-emphasizing this region to free up resources to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific region. Trump continued this policy and Biden has also remained on the track of gradual disengagement. He announced the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Syria and decided not to create hurdles for President Assad of Syria. But recently-launched raids by US Special Forces in Syria that caused, reportedly, the elimination of Abu Abrahim Al-Qureshi, the successor of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, do indicate that despite wider de-emphasis, the Middle East would continue to attract the attention of US foreign policy-makers for the foreseeable future.
However, Mr Biden has deviated from his predecessor in many ways. The most significant departure came from JCPOA or US-Iran nuclear deal. Biden decided to re-enter the agreement and started negotiation for the revival of that. So much so that his administration has waived sanctions over Iran’s civil nuclear program that is a technical step considered necessary to return to the 2015 JCPOA. Now Iran is negotiating directly with France, China, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany and indirectly with America in Vienna, and talks have reached an advanced stage.
The long-drawn-out civil war in Yemen has proved to be another issue where Biden changed the course. He announced stopping US support forthwith for offensive operations and revoked the terrorist label from the Houthi rebels to provide unhindered humanitarian aid to the war-torn country and ward off the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But right after one year, Biden has announced that reinstating the designation was well under consideration in response to the missile and drone attacks against UAE on January 17. This is going to further exacerbate the sufferings of ordinary Yemenis who are caught in the crosshairs of intense geopolitical competition of antagonistic regional powers. Although Biden tightened the noose around Israel, albeit reluctantly, over the Pegasus spyware scam, his administration has continued with the decades-old policy of giving Israel a free hand.
In a nutshell, as the New York Times wrote, Mr Biden has something for everyone. He has attempted, wittingly or unwittingly, to calm the nerves of everyone, from balance-of-power realists to liberal internationalists and from isolationists to human rights and democracy activists. But when everyone gets something, no one gets everything. He has talked like his ex-boss Obama and acted in many instances like his predecessor Donald Trump.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.