Foreign Policy Under President Biden: A Return to the Status Quo?

By Pranoy Roy Choudhury | Monday 15th February 2021

After President Trump spent a long four years pursuing an isolationist “America First” foreign policy, President Biden will revert to interventionism. For Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, a world led by America is a world where everyone is better off. And what is Sullivan’s idea of a world led by America? To answer that, we only need to look at America’s role in the Middle East during the Obama years, which saw regime change in Libya and the rise of radical terrorist outfits groups like ISIS, facilitated by American support of other terrorist groups, like Al-Qaeda. These policy decisions were at the behest of Sullivan, who was Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While Sullivan is a familiar face, foreign policy won’t be the same as under Obama. The Biden Presidency is likely to drive a tougher strategic policy against China, a shift from Obama’s Asian Pivot strategy, and also against Russia. After Trump, relations between Beijing and Washington are severely strained, and are likely to continue to be, with Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issuing a hostile warning that the Biden Administration would “consistently and aggressively enforce American trade laws anytime foreign cheating posed a threat to American jobs”. Biden’s actions towards China could be heavily compromised if taken into account with the alleged dealings his son, Hunter Biden, engaged in with a Chinese tycoon and for which Hunter Biden is under investigation. These allegations may yield baseless claims about foreign policy motives, but this is for federal investigators to show. 

The so-called “special relationship” with Britain will also be different under Biden. Obama and Cameron allegedly enjoyed a bromance, but we shouldn’t expect a similar relationship to emerge between Biden and Johnson. While Johnson led the UK’s campaign to leave the European Union, Biden vocally opposed it. Biden and his team were also unimpressed with the UK’s threat to break the Northern Ireland Protocol. With the terms of the divorce between the UK and EU finally finalised, the Biden Administration will also have to decide how to respond accordingly. For decades, American companies have been using the UK as the base of business operations in Europe. Brexit will make this more challenging. To continue to facilitate American business in Europe, Biden will have to respond with an alternative. 

Biden expects to revive Obama’s nuclear deal in the Middle East, but again, it won’t be business as usual. Biden has committed to lifting sanctions only after Iran agrees to comply with the terms set out in the deal, and so far, Iran has proven to be stubborn. The Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States also mean that a two-state solution, pursued by Obama, is unlikely, as all three nations have agreed to a treaty that has virtually no Palestinian support. Biden has backed the Accords. 

Avril Haines’ appointment as Director of Intelligence means that America is likely to execute its foreign policy in an increasingly remote and emotionally detached way. When Haines was a legal adviser for Obama’s National Security Council, she played a significant role in the Administration’s controversial drone strike programme. Haines is in the driving seat in her new position, and we should expect to see a greater portion of American warfare conducted without the need to put boots on the ground. 

It’s concerning to contemplate greater use of these technologies because they absolve states from the horrors of war, for they do not have enough skin in the game and can cause chaos and destruction at their discretion. The greater use of drones, coupled with an interventionist foreign policy, could be a matter of worry for states that stand at an ideological impasse with the United States. America will also no longer have the emotional backlash of a public who see their soldiers come home in body bags to act as a form of check and balance.

Approaches towards China, Britain, and the Middle East indicate a change in substance from the Obama years, but the appointment of Avril Haines as the Director of National Intelligence also indicates a worrying shift in style.

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