On Monday, 23 November, US President-elect Joe Biden, speaking from Wilmington, Delaware, announced his national security appointments, including the next US secretary of state.
Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, was chosen as the successor of Mike Pompeo, the present secretary of state. The post of national security adviser went to Jake Sullivan.
Avril Haines was tapped as director of national intelligence, the first woman to hold the position. The president-elect chose a Latino — also a first — to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Elevating the position of the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations in New York to a cabinet-level post in the Biden administration, the president-elect picked up a veteran American diplomat, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to fill this important post. On the other hand, former US secretary of state in the second Obama administration, John Kerry, was appointed as a climate envoy.
Biden had called leading European officials on the same Monday and reassured them of American commitment to traditional alliances and multilateral diplomacy — a commitment that is a far cry from the kind of diplomacy that the Trump administration adopted in the period from 2017-2020, if we could call its policies on the international scene, and particularly towards traditional American allies after World War II, “diplomacy”.
All the appointees to these important posts in the next US administration had worked in the Obama administration, the first and the second, from 2009 till 20 January 2017. They are known for their commitment to multilateralism, free trade policies and an active US role in the world. Some experts and commentators said, after these announcements, that the Biden administration is a third Obama administration.
In introducing his national security team, Biden said that the appointments reflect “the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it”. He added that the United States is “once again [sits] at the head of the table” and is ready to “confront our adversaries and not reject our allies. Ready to stand for our values.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated for the post of the US permanent representative to the UN, stressed the above by saying, “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.”
Dennis Ross, the former chief negotiator of the US in Middle East peace talks, has commented that this is a national security team of “professionalism and competence”.
Antony Blinken promised that a Biden administration would place an emphasis on “leadership, cooperation and democracy”. The nominee for the post of secretary of state, was a former speech writer for former US President Bill Clinton and national security adviser to Biden as vice-president and a deputy national security adviser to Obama.
From an Arab and a Middle Eastern perspective, Blinken knows well the Arab world and the Middle East, and will hit the ground running in dealing with Middle Eastern and Arab questions, crises and officials. Known for his personal and ideological attachment to American political values and American leadership, he is expected to stress human rights issues and the question of democracy in dealing with the region. A few days ago, he called out a leading Arab country for human rights abuses.
In a recent Intelligence Matters podcast, Blinken said the United States had to rebuild alliances to tackle the “democratic recession” enabled by President Trump, something that let “autocracies from Russia to China… exploit our difficulties”.
He has been clear about the importance of promoting democracy and human rights in American foreign policy, and a former Obama official has expressed his belief that Blinken would be “visibly tougher on Russia and more receptive to the idea of ideological competition with China, ranking up a few notches the democracy and human rights dimension of foreign policy”.
Last January, Blinken talked to the Hudson Institute, a leading American think tank, and dealt with American leadership and the promotion of democracy around the world. He said: “At the very moment… democracies most need leadership and I would argue leadership from the United States… Unfortunately, we have a president (Trump) who, by embracing autocrats and dismissing democrats, seems, to many, to suit it up for the other side.”
Blinken added: “It is a long way of saying that if we renew our democracy at home, if we revitalise our alliances with democracies in the first instance around the world, that creates a foundation for us to act, I believe, more effectively with lots of challenges.”
I personally believe that the elements of the foreign policy of the future Biden administration are to be found in the quotes above. Needless to say, the world has changed from the Obama years in office. The United States itself has changed in the last four years under the incumbent president, for whom around 74 million Americans voted in the 2020 elections.
In elaborating and executing its foreign policy, the Biden administration will take, probably, these changes into account in order to have a strong foreign policy based on a large domestic consensus. There is no need, speaking of the United States and the Middle East, to repeat the foreign policy of Obama’s second term vis-à-vis the upheavals that the region witnessed from 2011 onwards.
It would be a departure from past policies if the national security team that the president-elect chose would review what went wrong in American foreign policy in the Middle East in the last decade (the Obama and Trump administrations combined) and try new approaches to solve old and persistent challenges. However, the most challenging job would definitely be how to promote democracy and human rights questions without stirring unnecessary confrontations with allies and strategic partners of the United States.
The other challenge would be how to deal with the negative legacy of the Trump administration when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future of the Palestinian question; in other words, sticking to the status quo or working with both the Palestinians and the Israelis to promote security and peace. Related questions, no less important, will be how to deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Iran.
What will be the strategic priorities of the Biden administration in the Middle East and the dynamic interrelations among them? I would argue that a more pro-active American policy towards the Palestinian question, a more neutral American position, would be helpful in promoting democracy and human rights issues in the Arab world.
The new national security team in Washington has raised hopes and high expectations of a break with the Trump years and “America First” dogma. Hopefully, the world would become safer for democracy, security and peace in the next four years. Something that will require blending realism with ideals in American foreign policy.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly