Joe Biden’s foreign policy inbox only looks tougher as inauguration day approaches, even as the US still faces the pressing problem of record coronavirus deaths and infections.
The massive and ongoing attack by US federal agencies, attributed to Russia, has thus far elicited no response from Donald Trump, who has a long history of denying or minimizing Russian interventions.
Iran, reports say, has restarted work on its nuclear site in Fordo.
Then there is the tricky question of which direction relations with China will take after four years of increasing friction with Trump’s Washington.
On top of all that, add North Korea, which, despite Trump’s switch between threats and cowardly courtship, now has long-term missile capabilities as well as being a nuclear power – a major failure in terms of long-term US policy.
Some hangovers from the Trump era will be easier to fix, including rapid rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement. But the thorniest issues are likely to be circumscribed by the overwhelming pressure of internal considerations, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate and continue in a spirit of filibuster.
However, what is most urgent right now is how to respond to Russia if its agencies are confirmed to be behind the latest attack.
In the wake of the SolarWinds hack, Biden has signaled that he is considering a much more proactive response to the state-sponsored hack.
“We need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking major cyberattacks in the first place,” Biden said in a statement.
“Our adversaries must know that, as president, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber attacks on our nation.”
What is less clear is what that means in practical terms. A first step would be for the incoming administration to explicitly point the guilty finger.
“I imagine the incoming administration wants a menu of options and then they are going to choose,” said Sarah Mendelson, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a former US ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council.
“Is there a gradual assault? Is there a total assault? How much do you want to make out of the door? “
In some respects, the hack, if formally placed at the feet of the Kremlin, may offer an opportunity for Biden to not only draw a clear line with Trump’s dealings with Putin, but also carve out a stronger response than he did. Barack Obama after Russia. interference in the 2016 elections.
Iran is more complex.
While Tehran has indicated that it was willing to quickly reopen talks with the United States on the nuclear deal, it has also used Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal to once again strengthen its negotiating chips in terms of stocks of nuclear material and supposedly to undertake new work. .
Biden will also face the same lobbying from Israel and Republicans in Congress who oppose the original Iran nuclear deal, and who will remain determined to undermine any new version of the deal.
All of which raises the question of how Biden will conduct his foreign policy in the face of so many challenges.
Biden’s instincts for a well-run technocratic foreign policy are heavily geared toward long-standing democratic institutions and alliances. But as Thomas Wright, a senior member of the Project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution, he wrote in a paper in November, the current moment may call for a more aggressive approach, especially in China.
Biden has indicated that he is sometimes irritated by Obama’s more cautious approach.
Perhaps the most important question relates to this.
The isolationism and withdrawal from the world of the Trump years built on trends already evident under his predecessor, including Obama’s reluctance to get more entangled in the Middle East in Syria. In that sense, the domestic foreign policy consensus that Biden grew up with may no longer exist.
“[Biden] he obviously trusts many of Obama’s top officials and is proud of the administration’s track record. At the same time, he was annoyed by Obama’s caution and incrementalism; for example, Biden wanted to send lethal aid to Ukraine, when Obama did not, “Wright wrote.
“Biden has spoken more explicitly than Obama about competition with China and Russia, and is in favor of a foreign policy that works for him. [US] middle class.”
Once again, Wright sees an opportunity in China policy if Biden chooses a tougher approach than Obama, under which he served.
“Biden should use the competition with China as a bridge to the Senate Republicans. Their instinct may be obstructionist, particularly as Trump is pressuring them not to recognize Biden’s victory as legitimate, but many of them also know that the United States cannot afford four years of legislative stalemate if it wants to compete with China. “
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