Joe Biden is avoiding Obama’s foreign policy failures thanks to the lessons of Trump
From Russia to Iran, the early signs are that the new president will act where his predecessor vacillated
Joe Biden’s decision to impose sanctions against Russia over its appalling treatment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny shows that, far from being a rerun of the Obama administration, his presidency intends to adopt a more robust approach to tackling vital global issues.
Since taking office in January, there has been a widespread expectation, especially among his supporters, that Mr Biden would pursue the same non-confrontational approach that characterised former president Barack Obama’s eight-year spell in office. From kowtowing toChina’s communist rulers to backing down on his threat to launch military action against the Assad regime in Syria, Mr Obama’s presidency was defined by his reluctance to hold the world’s wrongdoers to account, with the result that rogue regimes such as China, Russia and Iran now constitute an active threat to Western interests.
As Mr Obama’s vice president, Mr Biden had a ringside seat to all the vacillation and hesitancy, so it was generally accepted that America’s 46th president would pursue a similar approach.
Yet even though he has only been in office for six weeks, Mr Biden is already sending out clear signals that his presidency will be very different, indeed that he has learnt some of the lessons of his direct predecessor, Donald Trump. He is making it clear that he is not afraid to take a stand in defence of democratic values.
Mr Biden is to be applauded for his decision to impose sanctions against key Russian officials implicated in last year’s assassination attempt on Mr Navalny, who narrowly survived after being poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent.
The decisive action by the Biden administration, coming days after it emerged that Mr Navalny has been imprisoned at one of Russia’s most notorious penal camps after being convicted on trumped-up fraud charges, is in stark contrast to the capitulation of the Obama era. Mr Obama’s disinclination to hold Moscow to account for its interference in eastern Ukraine, as well as its illegal annexation of Crimea, is arguably the reason why Vladimir Putin today believes that he can maintain his aggressive stance towards the West, as well as imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose his despotic rule.
Mr Biden’s willingness to confront the Kremlin so early in his presidency is also a welcome change from the Obama administration’s clumsy attempts to establish a dialogue with Mr Putin, which manifested itself in former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s ill-judged attempt to present her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, with a plastic reset button, a gesture that was supposed to symbolise a new era in US-Russian relations, but which ultimately fell on deaf ears.
Mr Biden’s approach, it appears, will be based on the more traditional American values of hard-nosed realpolitik. As an administration official remarked following the imposition of yesterday’s sanctions: “The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate. We believe that the United States and our partners must be clear and impose costs when Russia’s behaviour crosses boundaries that are respected by responsible nations.” Hear, hear to that.
China is another key issue where Mr Biden is promising to be more Trump-like in his readiness to hold Beijing to account. He has committed to build an alliance of like-minded nations that are prepared to uphold and defend the values of democratic rule in the face of Chinese aggression.
But the most difficult challenges – certainly in the short term – facing the Biden administration are likely to come from the Middle East, where Iran’s increasingly defiant conduct over its nuclear programme is likely to lead to yet another escalation in tensions with Washington.
In this context, Mr Biden’s decision to release the CIA’s classified report into the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi might appear counterproductive, given that it directly implicates Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing, an accusation Riyadh vehemently denies.
Mr Biden’s decision to make the CIA’s findings public was taken, for the most part, to appease the vociferous anti-Saudi faction within his own Democratic Party.
Indeed, Mr Biden denounced the kingdom as a “pariah state” during last year’s presidential contest, claiming the country had “no redeeming social value”.
Nevertheless, Mr Biden is equally aware that he needs Saudi support if he is to have any chance of containing Iranian aggression, which explains why he phoned King Salman prior to the report’s publication, and resisted calls to implement sanctions against the Crown Prince.
This is policymaking at its most pragmatic, and is an early indication that, when it comes to taking tough decisions, Mr Biden is very much his own man, a president who is determined to make his own, distinctive mark on key global affairs.
It is an approach that, if successful, will help to justify his oft-quoted mantra that “America is back”.