The “star” that attracted the most attention at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who symbolizes America’s progressive politics. The picture of Sanders, wearing a simple winter jacket and mittens while sitting among the many celebrities at the inauguration, enjoyed huge popularity and demonstrated his political status.
The month-old Biden administration’s political agenda is “governance” with progressive goals where Sanders himself plays a critical role. Along with countermeasures to fight COVID-19, a $15 per hour minimum wage and writing off student debt, which are major platform pieces for progressives, are the main issues for the U.S.
The progressive camp is paying close attention to the possibility that Biden and the centrist camp, including many supporters from financial circles, might be involved in special interest battles between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The political influence of the progressive camp and Sanders, now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is stronger than ever.
We should also take notice of the progressive camp on national security issues. The core of Biden’s foreign diplomacy staff includes experts from the Barack Obama administration such as White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Kurt Campbell, the “Asian czar,” who is managing Indo-Pacific policy. However, many progressives are being hired as national security staff, and their demands are also being accepted as mainstream ideas. This will prevent the Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy from simply rehashing the strategy of the Obama administration.
Melanie Hart, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, has a leading role in reviewing U.S foreign policy on China at the State Department. Sasha Baker, a senior adviser at the National Security Council, was a diplomatic security adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She is also a progressive and supports disarmament. Politico has also reported that Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, will soon join the State Department.
Rob Malley, appointed as envoy to Iran, has been aggressive about restoring communication with Iran, and has criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The progressive camp’s demands on issues such as the termination of American arms sales to civil war combatants in Yemen has taken a central position in the Biden foreign policy agenda. In addition, the administration is distancing itself from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who led the civil war in Yemen and also ordered the brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna, both major American progressive figures, define China as a “main economic rival.” They have spoken positively about Donald Trump’s tariffs on China, and have supported hard-line policy on China to modify unfair Chinese trade policies that have contributed to the collapse of the American middle class.
Together, they set up human rights as their main core value, and strongly criticize China’s Uighur labor camp in Xinjiang province and its enforcement of the Hong Kong National Security Law. However, they oppose entering a “new Cold War” against China, and insist on drawing down the presence of the U.S military, reducing the military budget and preventing America from entering “forever war” situations.
In an interview with the Council of Foreign Relations last September, Sanders clarified his position on North Korea. He supports diplomacy with North Korea, as promoted by the Trump administration, but believes negotiations should be about more than “photo ops.” He also expressed interest in pursuing a “step by step process” to revise North Korea’s nuclear program, and supports a partial end to sanctions against North Korea in return for the partial dismantling of its nuclear program. This incremental denuclearization negotiation process differs from the Trump administration’s “denuclearization first, lifting of sanctions later” approach. Sanders also said that South Korea and China should mediate policy options between them about negotiations with North Korea.
Of course, the powerful influence of American corporations and financial concerns are the other side of reality. The Biden administration emphasized a tough stance toward China, but American corporate investments in China are still growing. China also opened its financial market to Wall Street to draw in American capital.
The Biden administration’s foreign and security policy depends on how it manages polarized demands from the progressive camp and Wall Street. It is difficult for the U.S. to keep up a complete decoupling or confrontational strategy against China. The U.S. will use its state-of-the-art technology, economic power and other advantages to maintain superiority in global leadership, while simultaneously seeking opportunities for future cooperation.
The South Korean conservative camp is constantly under pressure, to discontinue its relationship with China and rapidly join the American side. This is nothing but an irresponsible assertion that ignores reality; even the U.S cannot choose this way. If the Biden team’s “foreign policy to save the American economy and middle class” strategy manages to change the U.S.-China trade relationship and its specialized structure, South Korea will then need to consider how to adapt.
On the other hand, South Korea must face up to the biggest changes to U.S. foreign policy in decades. The American progressive camp is much friendlier than Republican foreign security experts on the issues of negotiation with North Korea and incremental denuclearization solutions. They have also actively supported declaring an end to the Korean War. However, they consider human rights issues in North Korea and China to be critical. They do not hesitate to criticize Saudi Arabia and Israel’s human rights record, even though they are a part of a core regional alliance. Some Korean politicians avoid mentioning North Korea’s human rights and take China’s human rights issues very lightly, saying it is just “China’s internal affair.” This only complicates the mediation of U.S.-Korea diplomatic issues.
If South Korea clearly and consistently sticks to its principles of human rights and democracy, the U.S. will be the friend who can advance the Korean Peninsula’s peace process. What we need now is not to either panic out of fear of not being in line with the U.S., nor to stubbornly insist that everything is fine with the U.S. What we really need is the right diplomacy to sync up with U.S. diplomatic policy, and to adapt judgment and actions to change.