President Joe Biden presents ambitious plans for US Foreign Policy
President Joe Biden presents ambitious plans for US Foreign Policy
The speech that President Joe Biden delivered at the US State Department on 4 February 2021 presented ambitious plans for the renovation of US foreign policy.
Adapting to the magnitude of geopolitical developments
In light of the military adage that no battle plan survives the first clash of arms, the political transition in the US will not only require the Biden administration to adapt to the current world situation and ongoing (and ever-changing) geopolitical developments, but that every international relations actor that interacts with this administration will also need to adapt to the new reality constituted by President Biden’s vision of US foreign policy.
It is often said that despite political transitions, continuity remains an important constituent element of US foreign relations policy and practice. Since Biden had emphasised in his presidential election campaign the need to restore principled policymaking and action to US foreign policy, his administration could easily be seen by its foreign counterparts as simply seeking to renew the policies and outlook of the previous Democratic Party administration between 2009 and 2017.
However, the magnitude and dimensions of the geopolitical developments that President Biden’s State Department will have to deal with should not be underestimated, while the previous administration’s foreign policy record will add to the challenges the new administration faces. Trump’s legacy did not consist only of the demeaning of established US alliances, attacks on and attempts to undermine multilateral institutions and policies, and a transactional approach to dealing with foreign policy and foreign governments that at times appeared to contradict US national interests so as to better favour the Trump agenda. Partly as the effect of Trump’s foreign policies, but also as a result of the initiatives of non-US actors, the period 2017-2021 also saw an evolution of the global balance of power on many fronts. China’s regional and geo-economic rise has continued on its course despite the COVID-19 outbreak, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia has persisted in its confrontational approach to the West. Despite being placed under maximum pressure by US sanctions, Iran’s regime has not deviated from its regional and nuclear ambitions, and similar behaviour is to be observed in North Korea, despite the overhyped Trump-Kim summits. International organisations – be they global in scope like the UN and its agencies or more regional and of direct interest to the US such as NATO – have not accomplished much in terms of renewed and energised governance, policymaking agility or consistency in delivery. The global pandemic also appears to have achieved far more in reducing the extent of the globalised economy than any protectionist initiatives touted during recent years.
Only so much can be achieved
This all points to the fact that there is only so much that President Biden’s administration – whose head has suggested that his role will be limited to a single term of office – will achieve during his tenure, despite the usefulness of seeing foreign policy in terms of a “long game”. Both the pandemic and its economic and social effects will obviously constitute a major break in the implementation of influential US action across the globe. Equally, the global system and its various power centres may have become far less receptive to the exercise of US power of either the hard or soft kind.
In some areas the emergence of other power centres may lead to a welcome rebalancing of responsibilities, such as Europeans’ willingness to accept greater collective responsibility for and invest more resources in their own security and that of others. In other areas the alternative centres of power resulting from the rising ambitions of Beijing or Moscow’s lust for renewed clout could lead to their smaller neighbours’ adopting a more submissive stance vis-à-vis these increasingly dominant power centres. However, this rebalancing has not necessarily ensured the better functioning of international institutions or even of ad hoc intergovernmental forums like the G20.
Overcoming scepticism and mistrust
In European quarters there is scepticism and mistrust about what the US – even under Joe Biden – may achieve in the next four years, in no small measure due to the belief that the populist political experiment and influence are not over in the US, and may return in 2025. This feeling will nevertheless have to be overcome if a constructive engagement and partnership are to be reached. This will be no less an effort for pandemic-shaken European governments than the one needed if they are to take more responsibility for their own security, about which there has been a lot more rhetoric than breakthrough achievements in recent years.
In terms of a working foreign relations programme, US readiness to engage constructively with its traditional allies in Europe and Asia in particular will be welcome. However, many of these allies are still undecided regarding or slow to implement policy changes or to upgrade their efforts to act more decisively in terms of either their regional or global commitments. The concerned governments must not lose sight of both the qualitative and quantitative policy changes that are expected of them if they are to support President Biden’s foreign policy aims. Step-by-step, incremental and practical actions may be preferable to past unsubstantiated declarations of intent, but they will be needed to build a true and enduring momentum.
“We cannot do it alone”
In conclusion, the new foreign relations team in Washington is unlikely to underestimate the magnitude of the challenges facing the Biden administration in its future dealings with the complex global political scene, especially when such dealings will have to occur in light of the experience of the past four years. What remains to be seen is if the partners of the US can themselves undergo a policy transition, not merely in a political sense, but in a practical one in terms of what they are willing and able to deliver. This will be a necessary condition for the potential success of the efforts of the new team in Washington to mitigate the adverse effects of the evolving world balance of power and fulfil the new president’s declared foreign policy aims. Joe Biden’s statement that “We cannot do it alone” spoke volumes, and this recognition may be a significant turning point in the history of US foreign relations.
Watch President Biden’s remarks here: https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-introductory-remarks-for-president-biden/
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