Biden Must Be More Than a 3rd Obama Term

Joe Biden is populating his foreign policy and national security teams with veterans from Barack Obama’s administration. The signal behind this: He wants to be a stable trans-Atlantic partner. However, celebrating this could be premature.

On Wednesday night, Donald Trump finally gave the green light to initiate the transition process. At the same time, he claimed once again that there was voter fraud and that he would continue to contest the results. You probably can’t expect more from Trump. It was the de facto acknowledgment of his election loss — while simultaneously maintaining his unsubstantiated voter fraud propaganda.

Nevertheless, it was an important step for Biden because only if his transition team is able to go into the departments and be briefed can the new president really be ready for action on Jan. 20, the first day of his term.

On Monday, Biden introduced an impressive foreign policy and national security team, all veterans of the Obama administration. The most important for Europe are the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, both strong in trans-Atlantic relations. “No one I know is better connected across the Atlantic!” rejoiced Wolfgang Ischinger for instance, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference about Blinken.

“We are back” is the message to allies. America wants to be a stable and reliable partner again. With this, the professionals and the foreign policy establishment, which Trump regarded with only scorn and disdain, return.

However, not everyone wanted to join in the rejoicing. Foreign policy expert Fred Kaplan wrote in the left-leaning “Slate” that the new team is so united in their vision of the world that there is danger of “groupthink.” That is definitely possible.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Was Not Particularly Successful

A bigger problem is that in the face of their past, Obama veterans may be inclined to regard the Obama years as something like the gold standard of American foreign policy, and that would be a serious error. Sure, in comparison to the erratic inconsistency of Trump’s foreign policy it isn’t difficult to paint what came before him in rosy tones.

However, Obama’s foreign policy was, in fact, not particularly successful, especially in his second term, and since then the world has also decisively changed. That’s why it won’t be enough for Biden, the former vice president under Obama, to strive only for a third Obama term in foreign policy. This is clearest on the issue of China. Obama made the most extensive attempt in U.S. history to integrate China, define common interests and turn Beijing into a responsible member of the international system created by the West.

However, it was already clear at the end of Obama’s term in office that the policy of the outstretched hand had failed. But instead of vigorously containing China’s aggressive expansion — in the South China Sea, for instance — the Obama administration remained largely passive.

In the past four years, China has now become even more repressive inwardly and even more aggressive outwardly. Furthermore, Beijing has started an anti-Western propaganda campaign all over the world and has clearly positioned itself in ideological opposition to the West. It was also right that Trump addressed China’s unfair trade practices much more aggressively than presidents before him.

Since then, even in Europe, a change in thinking has begun. European concerns about China’s rise and the accusations toward Beijing are very similar to those in America. Therefore, it is both necessary as well as desirable for both sides of the Atlantic to agree on a common policy and a coordinated approach to meet this challenge more proactively than in the past.

Trump rarely had a plan in foreign policy, but it was not always wrong that he challenged the ruling status quo. This was clearest in the Middle East.

Trump did away with the mantra-like idea, repeated by both the EU and the Obama administration, that the conflict in the Middle East must be solved first in order to reach an Israeli-Arabic rapprochement in the region.

Israel’s peace treaties with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret visit to Saudi Arabia this past weekend, show both that this idea is outdated and how much the strategic coordinates in the region have shifted. Therefore, it would be wrong to return to these worn-out mindsets, which are still in vogue in Europe, in matters of the Middle East.

In its final phase, the Obama administration had also become increasingly hostile toward Israel, another error that Biden should not repeat. It is necessary to develop a more balanced American plan for peace than that which Trump presented. However, it is just as necessary to dispel the Palestinian leadership’s illusions and make it clear to them that the time in which they could make the entire Arabic world into a hostage of their territorial conflict with Israel is over.

The same applies to the nuclear conflict with Iran. The deal negotiated by Obama was flawed in many respects, which even the leading European co-architects have since admitted, including Germany. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s new National Security Advisor, had negotiated the deal on the American side at the time. The temptation to simply return to the old position again may be great, but that would likewise be an error.

Trump achieved little with his sanctions regime against Tehran because he never showed the mullahs a diplomatic way out, and they were not interested in negotiations with Washington. However, Trump’s sanctions have placed great pressure on the regime and now offer Biden a lever to negotiate a new agreement with better conditions.

That’s exactly what Europeans were prepared to do at the start of Trump’s term, but what the president did not pursue because it was more important to him to unilaterally withdraw from the nuclear deal. In the end, Obama’s foreign policy team displayed an arrogant attitude against any criticism. Many of the actors from that time are now coming back into leading positions; and regarding the issue of Iran, it remains to be seen whether they are ready to admit the errors of the past or whether their own pride will prevent a reevaluation. It is important in trans-Atlantic relations as well that Biden doesn’t simply return to the old position, but rather makes use of the shock that the Trump administration caused in Europe. In the Obama years and also before, it was common for the Americans, behind closed doors, to politely express their displeasure over the lack of European military spending — and then they were just as politely ignored by the Europeans.

Comfortably Neglecting the Military

Because states like Germany, in particular, were comfortable neglecting their military, spending the money on social welfare and otherwise relying on the American promise of protection, Biden is now faced with a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he has to make it clear that America is still firmly committed to the defense of Europe. On the other hand, Europeans should not be so sure that they will just fall back into their old negligence.

For the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance it is of central significance that Biden insists much more aggressively than Obama that Europeans shoulder more of the burden for their own defense and for the security of the international order.

This includes making it clear to Europeans that Biden may be the last president who has a nostalgic relationship to Europe, which developed during the Cold War, and that the calls in the United States for less costly engagement in the world may become even louder in the future — as much on the right as on the left. That’s why Biden might be the last chance for Europeans to amicably find a new balance that considers America’s overextension just as much as Europe’s need for a persistent American military presence.

It won’t be difficult for Biden to accomplish a clear break with the Trump administration because Trump’s foreign policy was so erratic and unorthodox. On the other hand, it may be more difficult for him to distance himself, where it is necessary, from Obama’s foreign policy, which Biden himself helped characterize for eight years, and for him to make use of dynamics wisely even if they were triggered by Trump’s impetuous approach.

About this publication

About Michael Stehle 106 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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