Those who remember Joe Biden as a senator who preferred compromise to confrontation may have been surprised by his first hectic days as president. Biden offered a stiff finger to the leaders of China and Russia, kicked the stool from under cosy Trump-era relationships in the Gulf, fired a shot across Israel’s bows, and propelled the international climate crisis to centre stage. This is fighting talk.
The difficulty with Biden’s blizzard of executive orders is that they are postures, not policies, mainly intended to overturn or freeze the most damaging aspects of Donald Trump’s legacy. There is no sign yet of long-term answers to the complex global questions Biden identifies. This is less Truman Doctrine, more feelgood attitudinising. Declaring the “US is back” is easy. New ideas are harder.
The risk is that in seeking to reassert American influence and restore positions abandoned by his predecessor, Biden may make existing problems worse. Last week’s exchange with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, was instructive. Biden made a point of stressing “unwavering commitment to the defence of Japan … which includes the Senkaku islands”. The islands in the East China Sea are claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu.
Trump bequeathed multiple China flashpoints, over trade, the pandemic, Taiwan, and the accusation that Beijing is committing genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Yet Biden wilfully dramatised another. His words may be read by China as deliberate provocation, especially when set alongside secretary of state Antony Blinken’s simultaneous invoking of US “mutual defence” obligations in the contested South China Sea.
Vladimir Putin’s chat with Biden last week brought his easy ride on the Trump bandwagon to a screeching halt. Russia’s president was challenged over his persecution of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, the SolarWinds hack, Russian interference in the 2020 US election, the placing of cash bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, and Ukraine’s much-infringed sovereignty.
Biden kept a campaign promise to extend the New Start nuclear weapons treaty with Russia and committed to follow-up arms control talks. But he bluntly warned Putin that, from now on, the US would “act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies”. In other words, there will be no repeat of the naive Obama-Biden Russia “reset” – and no more White House collusion.
The Kremlin’s downbeat readout of their conversation ignored most of the issues brought up by Biden, which raises the question of how he plans to proceed. Will he press Germany to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline unless Navalny is released, as many have urged? Will he impose additional sanctions? And if he does, is he ready for covert, asymmetrical retaliation by Putin?
Biden’s swift decision to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE was his most dramatic shift away from Trumpworld. Candidate Biden fiercely criticised Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights abuses, and the disastrous war in Yemen. He vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are”.
Yet how far he is prepared to go in risking open rifts with major Middle East allies is unclear. The proposed $23bn sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE, for example, was Trump’s reward for its opening of diplomatic relations with Israel. Incentives were also offered to Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in return for sidestepping longstanding Arab League commitments to the Palestinians.
These ill-founded “Abraham Accords” are now potentially in jeopardy, which could pit Biden against Israel’s Trumpish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – and some US Jewish and congressional opinion. The arms freeze will alarm those in Israel whose main concern is Iran. They had welcomed the prospect of well-equipped Arab allies ready and able to help contain Tehran. Biden will face significant pushback from this new Israel-Gulf axis.
What happens next depends to a degree on whether he can pull Iran away from the cliff edge to which it was driven by Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions. Biden, who has appointed Robert Malley as Iran envoy, hopes to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. But he first wants Tehran to return to full compliance. Iran wants sanctions lifted first. In both countries, and in Israel and the Gulf, there is strong opposition to any rapprochement, on any terms. As Blinken indicated last week, it’s a long, slow road ahead.
Palestinian hopes of a fresh start with the US, including talks on a two-state solution, also pivot on progress with Iran. Biden says he wants to revive the peace process but for that, he needs a willing Israeli partner, while Israel needs an end to Iranian military pressure via Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. His restoration of US aid and diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian Authority is a rebuke to Netanyahu, but largely symbolic. A plan is required. Right now, he doesn’t have one.
Much the same might be said of Biden’s executive orders relating to the climate crisis. He’s made a promising start. But last week’s measures were as much about safeguarding American jobs as defeating what John Kerry, his climate envoy, rightly deems an “existential threat”. There’s currently too much focus on re-establishing US climate leadership at April’s Earth Day summit and not enough on practical international cooperation.
It’s still early days. The unanswered question common to all these foreign policy challenges is, will Biden deliver? Faced by such intractable problems, and under intense Covid pressure at home, he may revert to old congressional habits of compromise and delay. A flurry of dramatic, ad hoc announcements is no substitute for sustained determination to pursue well-considered, effective strategies.
Biden has changed the tone. Can he change the substance?