On foreign policy, ‘establishment’ Biden different yet similar to ‘renegade’ Trump

Where India comes under Joe Biden’s scrutiny is in relation to Kashmir and the Modi Government’s treatment of rights groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace 

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden

Outgoing United States President Donald Trump was a regular on front pages with his utterances, antics, and sheer unpredictability. His successor Joe Biden, on the contrary, is not likely to be a visible president and will more often operate through his administration.

The recent election, in many ways, was the victory of a US establishment figure over an out-of-control Republican renegade (having antagonised a large section of his own party). If at all a calming balm was needed after the tumultuous four-year term of the whimsical outgoing president Donald Trump, few can possibly be better suited than Biden.

Biden is aiming to staff the White House with career professionals with long years of experience in administration, compared to Trump under whom novices filled the team. For example, Biden has opted for Antony Blinken as secretary of state. He is considered a foreign policy specialist who has been associated with Biden for the last two decades. Compare that with Trump who first chose Rex Tillerson for that key position. He was earlier a CEO with oil giant ExxonMobil. Trump eventually fired him over “personal differences”.

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It was common during Trump’s tenure for top mandarins in the White House to leave without staying for too long with the result that it seemed that the powerful office of the President had a revolving door which wouldn’t stop – incumbent officials departing and new ones coming in.

Despite being hand-picked by Trump, officials were either fired or they quit. In the first 100 days, at least 12 top officials lost their jobs including Michael Flynn, the national security adviser. More recently, since he lost his re-election bid, Trump has fired a dozen officials from his team.

During his stint as president, Trump was on his own personal planet, manoeuvring the US on impulsive projects around the world like the unscripted attempt at friendship with North Korea, unilateral walk outs of the Paris Climate accord, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Iran nuclear deal. His successor, Biden, promises to be diametrically opposite.

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The incoming president indicated on day one of his office that he will walk back into the Paris Climate accord. He plans to return the US into the Iran deal and before that, rejoin the WHO. As for the attempted peace agreement and denuclearisation of North Korea, Biden has said he will negotiate in an expanded forum that will include China among others.

Fundamentally, the days of monitoring Twitter to get to know the mind of the US president are over. It will be a return to the more staid, established and traditional methods of being informed through regular briefings for the mainstream media on the plans of the Biden administration.

Interestingly, in foreign policy there are overarching issues that have a bipartisan consensus. Trump leveraged this in the case of Israel – giving into long-standing demands of the Jewish state by recognising Jerusalem as its capital and shifting the US consulate to the ancient city, under dispute for decades.

As for the Palestinians, Trump handed them the worst deal compared to any previous administration – by proposing a ludicrous peace agreement pompously described as the “Deal of the Century”. It literally proposed to hand over bits and scraps of territory to the Palestinians, who promptly rejected it. In retaliation, Trump cut off ties with the Palestinian Authority, and squeezed off funds to the beleaguered community under Israeli occupation for decades.

Biden may not be able to overturn Trump on the issue of recognition to Jerusalem and the location of the US consulate there, as the US establishment has no problems with it. However, he is expected to restore funding and resume relations with the Palestinian Authority. The “Deal of the Century” most likely goes into the bin.

The Trump-mediated ties between Israel and the Saudi Arabia-UAE-Bahrain axis in the Middle East too will not be disturbed by the incoming administration as the US deep state is for such an arrangement. The UAE and Bahrain have publicly announced normalisation of ties with Israel while Saudi is still playing coy. The recent visit of top Israeli officials to Riyadh is an indication that the two are getting closer even as Saudi “officially” maintains its distance from the Jewish state.

Where India comes under Biden’s scrutiny is in relation to Kashmir and the Modi Government’s treatment of rights groups like Amnesty International and eco-activists, Greenpeace. Historically, Democrats have criticised human rights violations, stood for liberal working conditions for labour, and supported NGOs active in these areas.

The BJP government’s suspension of constitutionally-guaranteed special status to Kashmir and the extended denial of Internet communication (now restored but still not to its full potential) in the Valley are issues that Biden and the Vice-President elect Kamala Harris are bound to frown upon. They have done so in other forums earlier but once in office, their views will carry more weight – something that will worry New Delhi.

Similarly, the Democrats have also tended to view India and Pakistan as part of a South Asia package. Though New Delhi for long has pressured Washington to de-hyphenate the two countries, it has not cut much ice with the Democrats. On the other hand, the Republicans have shown they are more amenable to doing it.

The result is that in a Democrat-led US administration, Pakistan will have a bigger voice and its concerns vis-a-vis India and Afghanistan are bound to be taken into account.

But, on the positive side for India, Biden has already indicated that the contentious H-1B visa (which allows foreigners to work in the US) will be relaxed and restrictions imposed by Trump will be lifted. Similarly, Trump’s removal of India from the preferential list of countries on trading (the GSP, or the General System of Preferences) is likely to be reversed. This will benefit India.

The US establishment, over the years, despite its trade relationship with China, has always maintained an arms length approach to ties with Beijing. On this issue, Trump or Biden won’t make much of a difference though the incoming president may not wear hostility, if any, on his sleeve. Trump either went overboard praising Chinese President Xi Jinping or peppered ridicule on him as one witnessed during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For India, on this front, it will be largely status quo with assured US support in its border tangle with Beijing. The Biden administration has indicated it will resist Beijing’s perceived belligerence in the Pacific and across the Himalayas with India. This should be a relief for New Delhi.

Post Script: Biden, for all the welcome he has received, has had his share of goof-ups. In 2002, as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he resolutely supported the US invasion of Iraq. Some reports say that he may have been advised to do so by his now-appointed Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Biden has since had a hard time living down that decision.


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