One conclusion that US President Joe Biden will have taken from his first few weeks in office is that resetting US foreign policy after four years of former president Donald Trump will not be easy.
In a major speech at the State Department, Biden declared that “America is back… diplomacy is back,” even as he had tough things to say on China and Russia. He promised to stand up to the Chinese government’s attacks on human rights, to push the Russian government to release the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, and to impose “consequences” for the military coup in Myanmar.
He had nothing to say on Iran and Israel. This might be a sign of upcoming difficulties and the complexity of achieving diplomatic breakthroughs on tough challenges like Iran without disturbing close allies like Israel.
But Biden used all the familiar vocabulary to reassure US allies. He called for “defending freedom”, “upholding universal rights”, “respecting the rule of law” and “treating every person with dignity” emphasising that these principles constitute “our inexhaustible source of strength” and “America’s abiding advantage”.
He also underlined the importance of addressing “global challenges” ranging from “the Covid-19 pandemic to the climate crisis,” saying that these challenges will only “be solved by nations working together and in common.”
The tone and language of the speech made clear that Biden understands the damage done by Trump, who was never mentioned by name. “We’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally,” Biden said, because it is imperative “to earn back our leadership position” and to reclaim “our credibility and moral authority”.
Proclaiming a broad reset of US foreign policy, he declared that he would halt the withdrawal of US troops stationed in Germany, end support for Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in Yemen, and make support for democracy and human rights a cornerstone of US diplomacy.
The timing of Biden’s visit to the State Department so early in his term was deliberate as it is a nod to his interest in foreign policy and his years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Trump waited more than a year to visit the department, making his first appearance for the swearing-in of former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in 2018. He repeatedly assailed it as part of the “deep state” out to undermine his administration, and he unsuccessfully tried to slash its budget by up to 35 per cent.
Biden, by contrast, has chosen long-time confidant Antony Blinken as his secretary of state, aiming to reinvigorate an American diplomatic corps that had been demoralised under four years of Trump. Although his first nominations to senior positions have trended heavily toward political appointees, he has pledged to promote career staffers.
To that end, the Biden administration is set to name a long-time US diplomat to the Middle East, Tim Lenderking, as its special envoy in Yemen. The move comes as Biden is searching for a diplomatic end to the Saudi-led military campaign that has deepened humanitarian suffering in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.
Lenderking, a career foreign service member, has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Announcing the ending of support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen was Biden’s biggest policy announcement during his speech. But despite his endorsement of international institutions, he left two key human-rights bodies dangling to the dismay of advocates.
As Biden trumpeted the US government’s re-joining of the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation (WHO), he said nothing about re-engaging with the UN Human Rights Council, which Trump abandoned, or lifting Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC), an affront to the rule of law, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the US-based Human Rights Watch.
According to Roth, these were mistakes. “With the UN Security Council often stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Human Rights Council has frequently been the most important source of multilateral pressure on highly abusive governments. And the International Criminal Court, which just hours before Biden’s speech convicted a notorious commander of Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, represents an international commitment to fight impunity for mass atrocities,” he said.
“For the US government to join with its democratic partners in defending human rights, re-engaging with these two core human-rights institutions should be a central part of the plan,” he added.
Despite the welcome rhetoric, US allies in Europe know that resetting US foreign policy will take time and will be difficult because a lot has changed over the last four years.
Ending the civil war in Yemen is a common goal of the US and its European allies, for example, but there is no road map to try to achieve it.
More importantly, different countries move at different speeds and have different priorities. While the US, Italy, and Germany announced the cessation of military support for the Saudi Coalition in Yemen, the British government has not spoken yet despite pressure from MPs in the British parliament.
A UK government spokesperson told Al-Ahram Weekly that “decisions on arms sales are a matter for each respective government. The UK takes its arms export responsibilities seriously, and we will continue to assess all export licenses in accordance with strict licensing criteria.”
The spokesperson added that “the UK is deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and will continue to work with the US and other allies to find a peaceful resolution. We are actively supporting UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to reach a political solution and have pledged almost £1 billion of UK aid to the humanitarian response since the conflict began.”
Unlocking one problem in the Middle East could lead to a domino effect, and this may be the thinking behind Biden’s team making efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal.
Easing the tension with Tehran in the early days of the administration could play a significant role in the peace process in Syria and Yemen.
Iran and America could benefit if they follow the Persian proverb that “the wise man sits on the holes in his carpet.” But after four years of Trump, there are many holes in the Iranian carpet, including disagreements between reformists and conservatives about conditions for returning to the nuclear agreement and how to deal with western demands to widen it and expand its time range.
There is a difficult economic situation in Iran and a health emergency that needs immediate care. There are also a lot of holes in the American carpet, and the Biden administration’s efforts to end the wars in Yemen and Syria could need an Iranian helping hand.
As a result, the logjam between Tehran and Washington about who should take the first step towards returning to the nuclear deal represents a challenge, but it is one that can be overcome because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Biden have a lot to lose if they fail.
Britain, Germany, and France have told Iran that it “no longer has the right to set conditions because it has backed away from its obligations just like America has reneged on its obligations.”
Despite the eagerness in London, Berlin, and Paris, Tehran will not be given an easy ride in reviving the nuclear deal. British priorities remain preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, promoting stability and security in the region, securing the release of UK nationals, and keeping the diplomatic door open for discussions on a new and more comprehensive deal.
There is relief in Europe that the talks between Tehran and Washington have started. Britain, France, and Germany have all welcomed Biden’s commitment that if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, the US will re-enter the agreement, seeking to strengthen and extend it. In their view, this is an important opportunity to restart engagement and to realise the objectives of the nuclear deal.
The sooner the deal is restored, the better it will be, as there are deep concerns about Iran’s non-compliance with its nuclear commitments under the deal after Trump’s withdrawal from it in 2018.
Europe will be reasonably happy with what Biden has to say about resetting US foreign policy. But no one in Europe will be under the illusion that the task will be straightforward.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly