Artillery Row

It’s Trump’s world, and Biden only governs in it

Paul du Quenoy says there is much greater continuity in Biden’s foreign policy than the current narrative suggests

After all the inflammatory rhetoric and drama of the past weeks, on 20 January it finally became an irreversible fact that Donald Trump lost the US presidential election. The mainstream media reacted like the Death Star had finally exploded, with evil consigned to the dark side (or at least to Palm Beach), while the forces of light extend, as one sycophantic journalist painfully put it, like Joe Biden’s benevolent arms in an empathetic embrace of the long-suffering American people.

Biden’s stale inauguration – a masked and distanced affair awkwardly held under the watchful eyes of a 27,000-man garrison within a vast forbidden zone of official Washington, DC – hardly heralded the enthusiasm that greeted Bill Clinton (hope) and Barack Obama (change), both of whom attended Biden’s installation with tired and morose visages. But much of America bathed in the prospect of “unity” and “healing” under a new administration that it hopes will dismantle the Trumpian aberration we were all instructed to loath.

American exceptionalism, and the less-than-woke foreign policy hands who still believe in it, is in

As the hard work of government resumed, however, the continuities are more pronounced than the changes. Nowhere is this truer than in US foreign policy. Biden promised as much in Foreign Affairs in the spring of 2020, when it was still far from clear that he would be the nominee of a party that seemed firmly anchored to its progressive wing, which to its considerable ire has now been almost totally frozen out of both the Cabinet and the Democratic Congressional leadership. Biden’s promise was nothing less than to “once more have America lead the world.” “This is not a moment for fear,” the candidate continued with near-Reaganite resolve, “this is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.” The soft Obamaian vision of a more sensitive America adjusting to a reduced role as primus inter pares in an inevitably multipolar world was out. American exceptionalism, and the less-than-woke foreign policy hands who still believe in it, is in.

With extraordinary rapidity, and with the heat of the campaign and Trump’s tumultuous final days a fading memory, media outlets and public figures who had demanded Trump’s resignation or removal from office suddenly opined that many of his accomplishments neither will nor should be reversed. Behind all the campaign sniping, the centrepiece of American strategy – containing China – turns out to enjoy broad bipartisan support.

Trump enhanced the Asian “pivot” installed by the Obama administration with impressive, if underreported, military support to Asian countries on China’s periphery, and aggressively challenged Beijing on trade, the spread of Covid-19 and the appalling treatment of its Uighur population. On his last day in office, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Uighur issue a “genocide.” In their Senate confirmation hearings the next day, Biden’s choice for top diplomat Antony Blinken and designated Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed these positions and unambiguously identified China as the leading threat to American interests. Austin was then confirmed by a nearly unanimous 93-2 bipartisan vote, while Blinken is equally expected to be confirmed by a wide margin with Republican support.

Trump’s economic sanctions on Moscow and the Kremlin leadership were the toughest to date

Despite all the “Russiagate” claptrap, the fact remains that Trump’s economic sanctions on Moscow and the Kremlin leadership were the toughest to date, while his advance force deployments in Eastern Europe and supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine considerably exceeded weaker Obama-era initiatives. Austin correctly identified Russia as a “declining threat,” but Biden’s new foreign policy team shows no interest in lessening or reversing Trump’s measures, or in any naïve Clintonian “reset” of relations. Blinken confirmed that lethal weapons will continue to flow to Ukraine and raised the concrete possibility of Georgia’s membership in NATO, which Russia angrily opposes, and which became increasingly likely as Trump continued in office. A pre-inauguration Russian cyberattack and the dramatic arrest of the dissident Alexei Navalny after a failed assassination attempt have already reinforced the place of human rights and technology concerns on the agenda.

Biden has signalled a willingness to renew the “New Start” US-Russian arms control agreement, a ten-year accord due to expire in February, but the agreement itself already contained a five-year extension option, and negotiations conducted under Trump in 2020 had in principle agreed to implement that extension. Despite dire predictions from jilted Atlanticist Cassandras, NATO weathered dissension over Trump’s sometimes heavy-handed pressure on underpaying member states to meet their neglected financial commitments, and it is improbable that Biden will now let them off the hook.

Trump’s policies will also endure in the Middle East, where US-sponsored initiatives fostered the first peace deals between Israel and Arab countries in 26 years, all in the face of an embarrassed and outmoded US foreign policy establishment that long dismissed such goals as impossible without resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Predictably, the establishment largely ignored or downplayed the peace deals when – and almost certainly because – they were accomplished by Donald Trump. Biden shows no inclination to abandon these extraordinary achievements, however, and in the coming months they are likely to expand to include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. This emerging security nexus will also blunt Chinese inroads into the MENA region, thus supporting the US’s larger global strategy of containing China. On a symbolic level, Blinken has confirmed that the US embassy in Israel will remain in Jerusalem, where Trump moved it amid hysterical but worryingly inaccurate predictions that his decision would inflame Arab opinion and provoke conflict.

Biden is after stricter Iranian adherence to nuclear restraint, which is exactly what Trump wanted

Even if Biden wanted to dismantle the burgeoning new Arab-Israeli relationships, doing so would be virtually impossible. Most of the rising generation of Arab youth cares far more about dealing constructively with Israel, and even more about enjoying easier access to the West, than it does about a decisively lost national cause of which it has no living memory and ever less knowledge or concern. Ironically, devotion to that cause is far more pronounced in the decaying American academic environments that train Washington foreign policy professionals than it is on virtually any Arab street, where Washington foreign policy professionals are never seen and scarcely thought of. Faced with an expansionist Iran, acutely aware of what restive Shiite populations have recently done under the influence of Iranian money and propaganda in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, and badly in need of replacement revenue amid declining energy prices, Sunni Arab governments are all too happy to embrace a cost-free US-brokered regional accommodation that felicitously spares them a militant Shiite hegemony imposed by Tehran.

On the matter of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, which effectively subsidized the foundering Iranian economy in exchange for a temporary and rather uncertain freeze on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it is already clear that Biden will not mindlessly return to the status quo ante Trumpum. His representatives reportedly opened secret new negotiations with Iran prior to his inauguration, but Trump also favoured negotiations to replace the Obama-era deal, provided that they could be reasonably expected to result in a better deal. According to new administration officials, Biden is after stricter Iranian adherence to nuclear restraint, which is exactly what Trump wanted, and advocates a better deal crafted in consultation with Israel and other interested governments. A second Trump administration may have been more reluctant to renegotiate so soon, but in substance it is hard to imagine it acting much differently in the long run.

There are certainly symbolic changes, many of which were introduced in a much-celebrated stack of presidential executive orders signed on Biden’s first day in office, yet they rarely venture beyond matters of style. Biden reversed Trump’s ban on immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries, albeit within the context of a global pandemic that allows for little immigration from anywhere. Construction of the Mexican border wall will cease, but the 450 miles of it that Trump built will presumably remain. America will resume its membership in the World Health Organisation, which involves only relatively nominal expense and cedes no authority over US health policy.

The world Biden assures us America will continue to lead will still be more the making of Trump

Washington will also return to the Paris climate change accords, a non-binding international agreement that has no force of law. We will probably hear more about human rights and John Kerry’s ill-defined role as “climate czar” may factor environmental concerns into foreign policy. Biden has further promised that American diplomacy will operate more “professionally,” that is to say, without Trump’s bombast and reliance on personal channels in lieu of a State Department that was already feckless and demoralised before the former president entered office. None of this, however, will contradict or detract from the new administration’s professed commitment to an American-led world order cemented by a globalised containment of China.

It remains to be seen how durable these continuities will be. Washington is still teeming with what Senator Ted Cruz accurately called “polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” groupthinking, bowtie-wearing mandarins of both political parties who have believed in submerging a reduced America in a multipolar new world order for so long that they can contemplate no alternative to what they believe is a stable and virtuous end.

For ideological reasons, progressive Democrats left over from Obama’s presidency and the young, urban, politically correct professional constituencies they overwhelmingly represent, revile the very notions of American exceptionalism and world leadership, resent their near-total exclusion from power, and may yet find a path to ascendancy over an elderly president and his greying corporate acolytes. But for some time at least, the world Biden assures us America will continue to lead will still be more the making of the 45th US president than the 46th.

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