US president-elect Joe Biden has named his nominees for top national security and foreign policy posts this week and initial reactions are positive. Antony Blinken, his choice for US Secretary of State, is a long-time aide to Biden and a moderate diplomat with strong beliefs in trans-Atlantic alliance and in multilateralism. He has served in the Obama-Biden administration and is well liked by foreign diplomats. At 58 he is said to be an active and engaging character. Biden also named his long-time confidant, Jake Sullivan, as National Security Advisor and veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as the US ambassador to the UN. An African-American, she too is a believer in multilateralism.
Biden’s choices so far have been portrayed as a safe bet as they would have to get the confirmation of a Republican-led Senate. It would be difficult for the Senate not to approve his choices. The key choices indicate that we would be seeing a bit of Obama influence on the foreign policy path; one that is open to regional alliances, multilateralism and largely conscious decisions. There are a number of things that are likely to happen under this foreign policy team where the world and our region are concerned.
One of the first Executive Orders that President Biden will take after being sworn in on 20 January 2021, will be to rescind a number of Donald Trump’s controversial decisions. They include rejoining the Paris Climate Change Agreement, repealing the Muslim travel ban and cancelling some of Trump’s notorious environmental decisions. Blinken, on the other hand, will have to hit the ground running as the world battles a devastating pandemic in addition to an unprecedented US-China crisis.
Biden and his team will have to restore confidence in US foreign policy and Washington’s commitments to international law and UN resolutions. Under Trump’s approach relations between the US and its European allies had soured over trade and Nato. That will be Blinken’s top priority as he is a strong believer in the alliance across the Atlantic.
He will also seek to reduce tensions with China; a key trading partner and a major player in the South China Sea; an area that has seen confrontations between Washington and Beijing.
There will certainly be a recalibration of policy over North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Iraq, Venezuela and Turkey. For the latter the Biden team will present a tough challenge for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who under the Trump watch has enlarged Ankara’s regional and controversial role especially in war-torn Libya. Erdogan’s human rights record will come under scrutiny as well. How Erdogan, who is also facing possible EU sanctions over his tussle with Greece, will react to a less sympathetic team in Washington remains to be seen.
On Iran, the Biden administration might seek to re-engage the Iranians along with its key European, Russian and Chinese partners. Blinken will have to consult with Israel and Gulf countries, which have deep reservations about the nuclear agreement. While Trump’s tough anti-Tehran policy has weakened the Iranian regime financially, it has not stopped Iran from developing its arsenal, getting closer to China and Russia and maintaining its meddling in regional affairs. Between rejecting the agreement in its entirety and improving on it, there would have be a compromise.
Under Trump the US has done little to coordinate moves with Russia over Syria. In the coming days and weeks we will know more about what the inner thinking is about concerning the resolution of the Syrian crisis which has reached a gridlock. We know that President Obama had failed to step-in when the regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Also the Obama administration is faulted for its myopic strategy in Libya.
On Palestine the Biden administration is unlikely to put any real pressure on Israel. Palestinians should instead use the time to fulfil the elusive reconciliation without which they were left divided. They must now think outside the box as the new reality sinks in.
A Biden foreign policy will bring some normality to a polarised world, but there is so much Washington can do on its own. It certainly needs help and support from its traditional allies and that alone may go a long way in resetting global and regional politics.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.