How will Joe Biden's foreign policy team tackle key issues of the day?

The Jerusalem Post reached out to several experts and asked what they expect the foreign policy will look like.

President-elect Joe Biden introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. (photo credit: MARK MAKELA/GETTY IMAGES/TNS)
President-elect Joe Biden introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday.
WASHINGTON – US President-elect Joe Biden revealed his foreign policy team on Tuesday, ahead of his swearing-in ceremony on January 20. If confirmed as secretary of state, Antony Blinken will have a tight schedule from his first day in office, trying to tackle major challenges from China to Russia and from COVID-19 response to climate change.
“America is back” was the message that Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the would-be ambassador to the UN carried in her speech. “Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back,” she said. But how would Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Thomas-Greenfield and John Kerry translate it to policy?
While much speculation has focused on the new administration’s plans for renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinians, there are major issues looming on the horizon that will likely take priority for Biden and his team.
The Jerusalem Post reached out to several experts, some of whom served in previous administrations, and asked what they expect the foreign policy will look like.
One of the significant differences in foreign policy between US President Donald Trump and Biden – and maybe the biggest of all – is Iran policy.
Biden and much of his foreign policy team, including Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor, took an active role in negotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, after promising to do so from the beginning of his presidential bid. And while the current president said numerous times that the deal was “disastrous” for US national security, Biden and his team said during the 2020 presidential campaign that they would reenter the deal, under some conditions, such as extending the sunset clauses.
Suzanne Maloney is the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where her research focuses on Iran and Persian Gulf energy. She told the Post that Iran will be a major early priority for the Biden administration, if only as a means of signaling to the world that Washington is re-embracing multilateral diplomacy as a mechanism for addressing tough transnational challenges, whether that’s proliferation or climate change.
“Biden’s senior foreign policy team has more experience than any prior American administration in managing direct diplomacy with Tehran, and equally importantly, more successful experience than any US official since Warren Christopher’s role in the agreement that freed the US hostages in 1981,” she said. “They are exceptionally well positioned to set Washington on a path for renewed diplomacy, including direct negotiations with Tehran aimed at reinstating the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.”
Nonetheless, any new US approach to Iran will be complicated for all the traditional reasons, such as Iran’s domestic politics, as well as the wider transformation of the international environment as a result of Trump, the pandemic and other factors, said Maloney.
“The horizon for the first JCPOA sunset clauses looms larger today, meaning that the new administration has to find a way back to the table with Iran even as they set the stage for negotiations aimed at extending and expanding the provisions of the original deal. And they will be doing so while juggling urgent priorities around the pandemic response and the US-China relationship. Those are the issues – not Iran – that will be the defining foreign policy issues for the next four years.”
Asked how soon we could expect them to reach out to the Iranians to sit for negotiations, Maloney said that Sullivan and Blinken “are pragmatic, seasoned foreign policy practitioners.”
“A public goodwill gesture early on, such as a humanitarian package that provides Iran with greater access to food and medicine, can help establish quiet talks with Tehran aimed at a coordinated series of steps on JCPOA compliance,” she continued. “But they also appreciate that the deal itself is not the real objective here; success should be defined – at least in the first year – as returning to more routine diplomacy with Iran that can enable Washington, in close cooperation with our allies and our regional partners, to press for changes in the full scope of Iran’s problematic policies in the region and toward its own population.”
From 5G technology to agriculture, economy and national security, China is America’s No. 1 competitor. The two countries are locked in a trade war, and despite efforts to defuse the tensions, the COVID-19 pandemic just increased distrust between the sides.
Ryan Hass, fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies in the Brookings Institution, said that Biden and his national security team will pursue a competitive approach toward China. “I expect the incoming team will be purposeful, working to address specific problems and advance clear objectives.”
He said that he expects the Biden team’s approach to be informed by America’s allies and partners’ priorities and concerns on China. “It also will be grounded in a belief that what the United States does to reconstitute its sources of strength – its international prestige, its alliance network and its domestic dynamism – will go a long way toward determining how effectively it is able to contend with China.”
“There will not be naive attempts to impose change on China, either by attempting to insult the Chinese Communist Party into collapse or by launching unilateral tariffs in hopes that doing so will compel China to change to its economic model,” Hass explained. “The new team also will not give China a pass on actions that implicate American interests or values. Instead, I expect there will be serious efforts to deal forthrightly with differences while working to advance American interests and values amidst intensifying competition with China.”
US allies in NATO, as well as Russia’s neighbors, are waiting to see what kind of approach Biden would take toward the Kremlin.
Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Post that despite the announcement of his national security team, Biden will set the policy tempo toward Russia.
“Since the end of the Cold War, US policy toward Russia has been a jumbled series of policy contradictions, and a Biden administration Russia policy will continue to reflect this, said Conley, who served from 2001 to 2005, as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
“On the one hand, one of the very first acts of a Biden administration will be to extend the New START arms control treaty, which expires on February 5, 2021,” she continued. “During the campaign vice president Biden clearly stated that he would extend the treaty for five years without conditions. This will be viewed by the Kremlin as a positive return to a bilateral arms control negotiation in which Moscow is treated as America’s equal.”
“In other words, the United States and Russia will return to their ‘continuity of crisis,’ but this time, the US government and Congress will be in sync about this policy, absent President Trump’s atypical and isolated perspective on Vladimir Putin’s ‘attributes’ as a leader,” she added.
Stephen J. Flanagan is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council Staff from April 2013 to September 2015.
He noted that Biden has made clear his commitment to revitalize transatlantic relations and support for NATO and the European Union.
“He has called for allies to continue to improve their conventional defense capabilities, new measures to counter cyber and hybrid threats, and additional force deployments in Central and Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression,” Flanagan added.
Asked if any sanctions on Russia are likely, Flanagan said that Biden has said that the sanctions the Obama administration first imposed against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine should be continued, but that the West must “impose meaningful costs” on Moscow, suggesting possible steps to sharpen their impact.
“He is likely to urge European governments to refrain from expanding economic and energy ties with Russia – including the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – absent a change in Kremlin policies,” he added.
Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He told the Post that although it was Biden himself who first called for a “reset” in relations with Russia, in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2009, he would not expect the Biden administration to pursue anything like a new “reset.”
“On the other hand, Biden’s commitment to arms control and strategic stability bodes well for extension of the New START agreement, and for reengagement in new nuclear arms control and nonproliferation efforts, which must include Russia,” he continued. “An effort to reinvigorate the transatlantic security, political and economic partnership is almost certain, starting with reengaging strongly with NATO and the EU, whose leaders have already reached out to congratulate Biden and Harris.”
Beyond the nuclear arms control and nonproliferation agenda, areas of overlapping US and Russian interest could include combating the pandemic, the Arctic, especially in light of climate change, space and cyber dialogue, and preventing unintended escalation despite occasional flare-ups such as the incident between Russian and US ships this week in the Sea of Japan, he noted.
Notably, Russian President Putin has said he will congratulate Biden only after the results are “official.” But Rojansky said you should not read too much into it.
“I would not necessarily expect the US-Russia relationship to be driven by any kind of personal rapport between Putin and Biden. Rather, it is more likely to be driven by events,” he said.
One of the big challenges will be the growing alignment between Russia and China, Rojansky believes, and “it could deepen if Biden’s tough campaign rhetoric toward China translates to continuing US-China conflict over trade, global governance and East Asian security.”
Perhaps the most intriguing appointment is the one of Kerry as special envoy for climate change, an appointment that would include a seat at the National Security Council.
But why does the climate “czar” need a seat at the NSC?
Joshua Busby, associate professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, wrote back in 2007 a report to the Council on Foreign Relations titled “Climate Change and National Security.”
“We have appreciated for more than a decade that climate change threatens national security, notably by posing a threat to key assets like military bases located in low-lying coastal zones and creating new demands for military missions at home and abroad,” he told the Post. “The security risks extend internationally as the impacts of climate change on other countries are potentially destabilizing. More broadly, runaway climate change poses an existential threat to human life and well-being on the planet.”
He said that Kerry’s selection as a presidential climate envoy represents the elevation of the climate issue to the top tier of policy concerns. “He will be part of President-elect Biden’s national security team with a seat at the National Security Council. This itself is something new,” he said.
He noted that Kerry has been following this issue for decades, participating in numerous climate negotiations. “Given his gravitas, extensive international network, and personal commitment, Kerry is perhaps uniquely qualified to live up to the high expectations set for him by the incoming president, which require mobilizing the international community to prevent climate change from making the planet uninhabitable.”
Busby added that Kerry, like the president-elect, understands that climate change is not simply an environmental issue, but represents both a critical national security threat and an opportunity for the United States and the world at large to build a new, low-carbon economy.
“Kerry and the entire Biden team also recognize that the United States cannot tackle this crisis alone and must enlist others, both by the power of its example at home but also through a clear-eyed, pragmatic understanding of the hard work of diplomacy,” he said.
The first step would be rejoining the Paris climate agreement, and Busby estimated that the United States may revive the Obama-era Nationally Determined Contribution, which was the US’s voluntary commitment to reduce its emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.