By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The first month of the Biden presidency is coming to an end this week. It is hard to say what specifics details are in the works for the remainder of Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office. But this past month has given us several ideas about the aims of the Biden administration in foreign affairs.
Biden Condemns Human Rights Abuses in Russia and China
At the top of the list are Russia and China. In a speech last week, during a visit to the State Department the President remarked: “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy… I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”
Biden Condemned China’s Human Rights Abuses and Disregard for the Rights of Intellectual Property
After condemning the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Biden also condemned China’s human rights abuses and Beijing’s continuing disregard for the rights of intellectual property: “We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance. But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”
What does that tell us? Not much. Biden is saying he will be very critical of the Russians and the Chinese, but will he enter into a trade war with China as Trump did? It’s hard to say. As far as his plans for Russia are concerned, Biden has yet to reveal them. Vladimir Putin, like everybody else, is waiting to see what direction the new administration will take.
Myanmar Coup a ‘Golden Opportunity’ for Biden to Apply Pressure on the Junta
Last week in Myanmar, the army orchestrated a coup d’état against the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, after she won an overwhelming victory in the November election. Myanmar’s military detained the country’s civilian leadership, including Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy political party. As I’ve previously noted, “The situation in Myanmar might be an opportunity for the Biden administration to flex its muscles before other upcoming international challenges, namely with China and Iran. President Biden has a golden opportunity to apply pressure on the junta and show that he will not hesitate to throw his weight around in the global arena.”
Indeed, the White House and the State Department have decided to sanction the leaders of the junta and several corporations connected to the military. As the situation in the region continues to develop we can watch for what next steps the U.S. will take.
There have been some interesting moves this past month in the Middle East that might be pointing toward renewed negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. There has been much speculation about what Biden will do when it comes to Iran. In the past two weeks there were several moves that sent a message that the White House wants to talk to Iran.
First there was the decision to order the aircraft carrier Nimitz back to the U.S. after almost a year in the Persian Gulf. We’ve also seen a series of decisions concerning the civil war in Yemen where proxy forces with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are fighting against Iran. The war has cost the lives of tens of thousands and created scores of humanitarian disasters in recent years.
The President gave a clear message that he does not want the U.S. involved in this war anymore. The signs to Iran are clear, the new white house is not using the stick and is offering a carrot. How much? To what end? We need to wait and see. Biden made it clear in a statement on Feb. 7 that the sanctions are not going anywhere. If there are talks behind the scenes, we might find out soon what the U.S. plans to do.
Many people want to see where things will go concerning Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could be that Biden has more important things to do, say, on the domestic front. Or he is hinting that the regional players will need to deal with a White House that is not so interested in the region. When White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki had a hard time this past Friday answering whether Israel and Saudi Arabia are important allies of the U.S., regional and international news outlets were quick to see it as a sign for the future.
Plans are still evolving for the new administration. We will find out soon enough where we are heading. One thing is for sure, the quick twitter diplomacy of the past four years is over.