Biden’s burden

Published January 10, 2021
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

WITH Joe Biden soon to be sworn in as the 46th US president, the world waits with anticipation for his steadying hands to restore stability and a sense of purpose to US foreign policy, mauled by his predecessor Donald Trump.

But the truth is that the US had lost its foreign policy bearings long before Trump. Washington’s obsession with America’s global leadership role had led to endless wars and the militarisation of foreign policy, causing resentment abroad and grievances at home. And Trump saw an opportunity in attacking it. He specifically targeted relations with China, globalisation, and the rising influence of globalist elites who gave primacy to their personal and corporate interests over US — especially its working class — interests.

But instead of fixing foreign policy he acted as a wrecking ball, undermining the policy and public support for it. Trump has lost, but his ideas will live on. He will continue to sow discontent, and disrupt and destabilise an already dysfunctional Washington.

Much needs to be changed. Biden will have to contend not only with an insurgent Trump, but also with the declining US political system, a divided country and a Covid-hit economy, as well as the rising progressive wing within his own party seeking radical changes on many domestic issues. Biden’s priorities will therefore be domestic. Foreign policy will have to serve domestic needs first and foremost, especially to save American jobs and businesses and to heal the nation.

The US had lost its bearings long before Trump.

The geopolitics of an all-embracing military, economic, technological and ideological competition with China may have to wait, at least for now. Instead, Biden may focus on maintaining America’s primacy less by keeping China down than by ensuring the US remains ahead, especially technologically. Geo-economics, too, will have to be reset to look after the interests of the American working and middle classes more than of the globalist elite. And finally, geopolitics and geo-economics will need to be balanced, as the US needs not only to compete with China but also to cooperate with it for economic recovery.

Cooperation with China will also be critical to any successful efforts on transnational issues like pandemics and climate change, a big issue for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Biden has already said his administration would “invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy and innovation and create 10 million good-paying, middle-class, union jobs”.

About the rest of US foreign policy, ties with Western Europe and Japan will be refurbished and strong relationship with Israel, India and the Gulf countries will continue. But Biden will be tough on Russia, which is both a foreign policy challenge and a toxic domestic issue. As Biden will have limited capital in Congress, politics will be a hurdle for his remaining agenda. There will thus be no rush to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

And about relations with Pakistan? Here, appearances might be deceptive. The Biden administration will not be a continuation of Obama’s, of which Pakistan has such bad memories. The future of US-Pakistan relations will not follow the playbook of the last 19 years, as so much has changed. With America’s war receding into history, the differences of perception and policy on Afghanistan between the US and Pakistan have narrowed.

But the gap between the Taliban and Kabul’s positions remains wide, and cannot be bridged by negotiations alone. The conflict will thus continue with another name. And Washington will have to address it with means other than its own war. Pakistan’s help will be vital.

Afghanistan is also related to the terrorism issue. Unresolved conflict will keep the transnational terrorist networks like ISIS and Al Qaeda alive, especially along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And the Taliban’s ascendency will fuel extremism and militancy in Pakistan. This is a dangerous confluence, threatening Pakistan’s own stability and that of India, undermining Washington’s China policy. America’s need for Pakistan’s help would thus go well beyond Afghanistan. At stake is US security, and its strategic interests in South Asia.

Biden may not pair Pakistan with China as the target of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy to exert dual American and Indian pressure as this will put Pakistan firmly in the Chinese camp and thus lost to Beijing’s strategic purposes. But if Pakistan wants friendly relations with the US, it will have to be responsive to shared US-Pakistan interests.

The aid relationship will still not return to its former days as that was always need-based and related to the two Afghan wars; Cold War and War on Terror conditions that no longer exist. But the relationship might become normal, with Pakistan neither allied nor alienated. And that should be good enough. The alternative could be worse.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2021

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