By Somar Wijayadasa*
The President of the United States of America, Joseph Biden, outlined his vision for America’s foreign policy agenda and reiterated the need for America to strengthen its global alliances after President Donald Trump disparaged those relationships during the last four years.
Biden chose to unveil his foreign policy at the Department of State.
Foreign policies, an integral part of any national strategy, command the highest priority of all nations. As new Presidents take over, whether, in the United States or Russia or China, we look forward to examining their foreign policy views.
Since World War II, several foreign policies of superpowers did not yield expected results even though all policies and concomitant interventions came with guarantees of peace, prosperity and democracy.
History shows us that the policies in the Far East led to the devastation of Vietnam, North Korea and Laos, the policy of containment of communism, and the 45-year Cold War Policy ended the East European bloc and dismantled the Soviet Union, and the policies of pre-emptive strikes and of regime change destroyed the lives of millions of people in the Middle East.
Trump came to power describing the US foreign policy “a complete and total disaster”. What he left behind is more than calamitous.
Trump’s foreign policy was based on opposition to multilateralism and international institutions; his assumption that the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States; the American allies should pay for US protection; confront foreign adversaries and eliminate them; stop China from stealing American jobs; take the US out of “bad deals” like the Paris climate accord and the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and make Mexico pay for a wall on the southern border – to name a few.
Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), withdrew from the Paris climate accord, abrogated the Iranian Nuclear Deal, reimposed restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba (all issues championed under the Barack Obama administration).
Also, the US either withdrew from or substantially cut the funding of several United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), ceased funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), blocked the appointment of judges to the World Trade Organization (WTO), withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and in the midst of the Covid-19 global crisis, Trump notified the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The US relations with its closest ally the European Union deteriorated to the point that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments “Europe can no longer rely on the US to protect us”, and “Europe must take its destiny in its own hands” speak for itself.
It is also on record that during his tenure, Trump let down the US State Department as 11 Assistant Secretary or Under Secretary posts were vacant or filled by acting officials.
A Senate report noted that the State Department was left feeling besieged, demoralized, battered, beaten, mistreated, and paralyzed.
The whole world knows how Trump’s four-year term ended – with mounting conflicts with allies and adversaries though Trump deserves credit for not waging new foreign wars.
It is in this backdrop that President Biden has a monumental task to rebuild America’s alliances around the world, enhance its long-standing good relations with the United Nations and its specialized agencies, and if possible, make peace with Russia and China.
President Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy
Saying that “America is back” Biden pledged to return to diplomacy.
Before delivering his speech, he made formal remarks to State Department employees, reminding them “As I said, in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances, engage with the world once again”.
American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, Biden said, “including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy”.
We’re going to re-engage the world Biden said, and take on the enormous challenges we face dealing with the pandemic, dealing with global warming and again, standing up for democracy and human rights around the world.
Biden proudly noted that on day one, he re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement, and also re-engaged with the World Health Organization.
Biden emphasized, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”.
During the election campaign, Biden said that he would be tougher on President Vladimir Putin than Trump, who refused to take on the Kremlin and frequently cast doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Referring to Russia, Biden said “I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners”.
Saying that the jailing of Alexei Navalny and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern to us and the international community, Biden said “Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution. He’s been targeted for exposing corruption. He should be released immediately and without condition”.
He expressed strong words for China as well — saying “we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our most serious competitor, China”.
Biden said, “We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance”.
But we are ready to work with Beijing, Biden said when it’s in America’s interest to do so. “We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost”.
With regard to frayed relations with America’s allies, Biden said: “Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends to begin reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abused”.
He reiterated that America’s alliances are its greatest asset, and “leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again”.
He also returned to a vision of the United States as an immigrant nation. Recognizing that there is a crisis of more than 80 million displaced people suffering around the world, Biden pledged to accept more refugees: he said he would increase the number to 125,000 a year after Trump whittled it down to 15,000.
Referring to the military takeover in Myanmar, Biden said: “The Burmese military should relinquish the power they have seized, release the advocates and activists and officials they have detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications, and refrain from violence”.
Biden promised to end the war in Yemen and ensure that humanitarian aid is reaching the Yemeni people who are suffering unendurable devastation.
To underscore our commitment, Biden said: “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales”.
Biden did not comment on some thorny issues — nuclear negotiations with Iran and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Russia and China have already vehemently protested Biden’s sharp comments.
Time is opportune, however, for the three superpowers — US, Russia and China — to stop demonizing each other, and set an example by peacefully working together to maintain mutually beneficial relations and resolve contentious global issues as those could only be resolved mutually.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1973), worked in UN organizations (IAEA & FAO from 1973-1985), was a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.