By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
Joe Biden is no stranger to massive foreign policy challenges. In 2009, the in-tray for him and Barack Obama was widely acknowledged as the most daunting of any White House team in the postwar era, ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to tackling climate change.
Another parallel with 12 years ago is that, today, the US and wider world also simultaneously face separate, first-order crises. The first Obama administration sought to tackle the worst international financial turmoil since the 1930s, while the incoming Biden team is facing the coronavirus crisis, the first pandemic in a century, with the destabilizing geopolitical and economic impact it is unleashing internationally.
So the scale of combined dangers facing the new US president is comparably large and complex with that of 12 years ago, but there is one big difference. While Obama was elected in 2009 as a one-term senator, in terms of foreign affairs Biden is perhaps the most experienced and knowledgeable president-elect in modern US history.
Of course, experience does not equal success, but it should allow Biden to hit the ground running, which could be critical; a number of burning issues require immediate attention, beyond the pandemic which will already consume much of his time in 2021.
First, with Russia relations remaining in the deep freeze, Biden must quickly choose how best to respond to the apparently massive cyber hack of US federal agencies, evidently of Moscow’s making. So far, there is only drift and denial from Donald Trump, who has a history of downplaying previous Russian interventions.
Other challenges include Iran, which has restarted work on its nuclear site at Fordo. North Korea, amid Trump’s flip-flopping between threats and courting of Kim Jong-un, now has long-range missile capabilities on top of being a nuclear power — a combination that could easily become a major crisis during Biden’s presidency.
Further geopolitical fault lines include the deep chill in US-China relations, post-pandemic; continuing instability in Afghanistan and Libya; and the bleak prospects facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, long standing allies across the world require reassurance about US leadership after the Trump era, while the nuclear non-proliferation system is in trouble and urgent action is needed to bolster international efforts on climate change.
Collectively, this is a massive, troubling agenda. And it underlines why the post-1989 vision forecast by some of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has seemingly been replaced by a significantly different reality in which authoritarian states such as Russia appear to many to be a growing force on the world stage and unstable countries, including North Korea, have acquired nuclear weapons.
There are some quick wins for Biden, such as re-joining the Paris climate change accord. But the thorniest issues have no easy, immediate answers.
Some critics of Trump see this international landscape of risks as entirely a result of the maverick leadership in Washington for the past four years. However, while the current president has made many mis-steps, this is too simplistic a conclusion.
The US is not an all-powerful hegemonic power, even if it remains the most powerful country in the world — certainly in a military sense, with ability to project and deploy overwhelming force. This has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout the post-Cold War period, in Somalia in 1993, Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and more recently in countries from Ukraine to North Korea.
To be sure, the US will remain for the foreseeable future the primary actor in many theaters across the world. And while its relative power may erode, it will seek to continue to set the international agenda in the political, economic and security spheres and succeed in doing so more often than any other state.
However, US success in helping manage the complexity of global affairs will increasingly depend upon cooperation of others, both competitors and allies, which is why international alliances are so important, despite Trump’s frequent disdain for them. This is why Biden will in 2021 swiftly seek to bring traditional allies back more firmly into the US fold, including Europe.
Perhaps the key uncertainty is his presidency is China, whose economic and military power is only likely to continue to grow. While increasing rivalry appears most likely, post-pandemic, there remains an outside possibility of a more fruitful partnership.
Such growing cooperation is possible if the two powers can increasingly find ways to resolve harder power disagreements, including South China Sea territorial claims, while cooperating on soft issues such as climate change. The prize here could be deeper, collaborative strategic partnership, rather than escalating threats plus greater global instability, and a key question for Biden’s presidency is whether the political window of opportunity to pursue this agenda has already been extinguished.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics