by Christopher Gage
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of recent times is that President Trump broke a 39-year streak of U.S. presidents leading the nation into a new war. That is, my entire life and the best part of a decade in which the United States dragged itself into conflict.
At the turn of the year, President Trump green-lighted an air strike which killed Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qasem Soleimani. The deceased led Iranian military operations in the Middle East, bolstered Hezbollah in Lebanon, and agitated in Iraq as well as against rebels fighting Syria’s civil war.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge.”
That killing sparked among the expert class, and the commentariat, talk of war between the United States and Iran.
Nine months on, President Trump spoke from a White House balcony, declaring U.S.-brokered deals between Israel and a host of Gulf states, as “the dawn of a new Middle East.”
Owing to the lapse in new conflict, and for these “historic” accords, President Trump is nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
The first deal with the United Arab Emirates marked only the third time since 1948 that there has been a diplomatic relationship between Israel and a Gulf Arab country.
The president’s critics cannot offer him credit for his middle-eastern peace deals. Yet, the more sober-minded commentariat attest that Trump’s work is of “historic” proportions. And, if it had been performed by a figure of even lukewarm popularity among the global elite, that person would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Among the chimerical “certainties” of the expert class, the president’s critics are denied this one in full: that Trump’s belligerence will spark a world war. That class preferred things when a president’s “diplomatic” tone salved the brutal realities of Americans dying in foreign conflicts.
As the 39-year statistic suggests, war is the default American setting, a statistical near-certainty given previous administrations’ commitment to America as leader of the liberal international order.
The restoration of this order is the top priority of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
A Biden-Harris Administration would set about “repairing the damage wrought by President Trump” among America’s allies, returning to the “top of the table” of global affairs.
A President Biden would cement this return to Obama-era politics by hosting a global “summit for democracy,” the agenda of which, he says, centers on fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in nations home and abroad.
Akin to the secrecy shrouding its economic brain trust, the Biden-Harris foreign policy team avoids advertising their involvement.
The Biden-Harris campaign has built a network of 1,000 national security experts, working across twenty working groups, each with briefs spanning the globe.
This vast network filters its ideas through the working groups, before distilling them to a top team of Biden’s closest advisers, many of whom have deep roots within the Obama-Biden administration.
Biden brings with him trusted adviser and former deputy secretary of state, Anthony Blinken. He joins Ely Ratner, an East Asia expert, and Daniel Benaim, with middle-east expertise.
Jake Sullivan, a Biden loyalist, joins Avril Haines, Brian McKeon, and Julie Smith. This team will form the Biden-Harris administration’s national security brain trust.
Joe Biden’s position of being perhaps the most vocal cheerleader for Beijing, has waded of late into more Trumpian waters. His advisers are also keen to adopt a tougher tone towards China, railing against Beijing’s flouting of international rules and “unacceptable” belligerence in the South China Sea, towards Taiwan, and its increasing hostilities in Hong Kong.
The Biden-Harris campaign has adopted much of President Trump’s Chinese approach, with Biden now promising “tough action.”
In July last year, Biden decried China’s theft and breaking of trade and international norms, saying: “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the U.S. of our technology and intellectual property or forcing American companies to give it away in order to do business in China.”
Ely Ratner, one of Biden’s top foreign policy brains, co-authored a much-vaunted Foreign Affairs essay in 2018, underlining the failures of his employer’s eight years as vice president, and perhaps illuminating the approach of a Biden-Harris administration.
It read: “Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system.”
Ratner, writing with Kurt M. Campbell—another Obama White House veteran, continued: “The liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process. Building a stronger and more sustainable approach to, and relationship with, Beijing requires honesty about how many fundamental assumptions have turned out wrong.”
Biden has amped up his tough rhetoric toward China and hired brains in communion with this thinking. Yet, critics point out that the Obama Administration, where he served eight years as vice president, was one of supplication toward Beijing.
President Obama is quoted on numerous occasions offering what seems to have been the mantra of the Obama-Biden Administration: “The relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.”
That administration matched its soft words with even softer action. Not just welcoming the “rise of China” but ignoring China’s trade abuses and rupturing of international rules and norms.
A Biden-Harris Administration will try and keep China in check by forming a network with America’s allies and “pressuring” China to play by the rules on trade, intellectual property, and neuter China’s expansive ambitions concerning Taiwan.
Yet, critics suggest this approach is in behavioural terms the same as the Obama-Biden Administration’s one of accepted failure. As one of Biden’s most trusted advisers admitted in the essay mentioned, the Obama-Biden Administration was helpless in curtailing any of China’s abuses and norm-breaking. During Biden’s vice-presidential eight years, China grew as an economic and military power, this rise often applauded by the Obama-Biden Administration.
Critics attest that Obama-Biden “did next to nothing” when confronted with Beijing’s abuse of the World Trade Organization, its aggression in the South China Sea, or toward Taiwan.
The Biden-Harris platform now promises that Biden’s vice-presidential failures, ones accepted by his own brain trust, will earn redemption through the same approach.
The same milieu dislikes the current president’s “tone” with China. Yet, his actions although robust and certainly more so than the Obama-Biden Administration’s, never reach his rhetorical temperatures. The Obama-Biden era witnessed the opposite.
This disconnection between words and action informs the Biden-Harris approach toward Iran.
President Trump in 2018 withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear deal, a crowning achievement of the Obama-Biden Administration.
A President Joe Biden would reboot the Iran nuclear deal, recently saying he would offer Tehran a “credible path back to diplomacy.”
Mirroring his approach as vice president, Joe Biden’s platform states: “If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, President Biden would re-enter the agreement, using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
A Biden-Harris Administration, in essence, would repeat Joe Biden’s eight years in the White House.
On day one, a President Biden would re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change. His foreign policy team is committed to an “across the board restoration project” of an era in which President Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize for, critics attest—nothing.
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Christopher Gage is a British political journalist.
Photo “Joe Biden NATO” by Müller / MSC. CC BY 3.0 DE