This analysis has been republished from Free Europe.*
When asked whether Vladimir Putin was a “killer,” President Joe Biden responded, “I do.” Biden’s response to an on-air question from ABC on March 17, has strained the Moscow-Washington relationship. Russia recalled its ambassador, while Putin name-checked Biden with caustic commentary and threw down the gauntlet, demanding a public debate with the American president. International pundits are already speaking of a new Cold War.
Is this Biden’s foreign policy, a 180-degree turn from his predecessor? In some respects, this is undoubtedly the case: a return to the 2015 Paris Agreement and a mending of relationships with the European Union and NATO. When it comes to Russia, however, the more likely answer is no, this is not Biden’s foreign policy.
Since the Cold War, the Democrats have been known as the softer foreign policy party; unlike Reagan they were willing to talk to Moscow. Partially due to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, this is no longer the case. In a Feb. 4 speech, Biden was unequivocal, unlike his predecessor who was not mentioned by name, that he will send a clear and strong signal to Putin that Russian aggression will not go unanswered.
The Trump White House foreign policy on Russia did not end with Trump’s attempts to ingratiate himself with his Russian counterpart. Mike Pompeo took a hawkish position with Moscow to some extent. In 2017, Congress passed a law increasing the means and options for future sanctions against Russia and its business partners (investors in the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, for example). In 2018 U.S. Armed Forces defeated the Russian mercenary group Wagner in eastern Syria.
In other words, one can say there is continuity between the administrations. Biden will direct a hawkish foreign policy but will simultaneously – much like Trump – look for deals whenever possible. Moscow and Washington agreed in February to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by five years.
There is continuity with respect to China as well. Biden has avoided making any sharp turns and is proceeding with caution and subtle course adjustments.
In his Feb. 4 speech to the State Department titled “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” Biden characterized Beijing as “our most serious competitor” that poses challenges to American “prosperity, security and democratic values.” This is a departure from the Barack Obama White House of 2009-2016. The previous Democratic president saw China as an economic and diplomatic partner, not a serious threat. The current Biden position has more in common with his most recent Republican predecessor than with Obama. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that his predecessor Pompeo was right to describe China’s policy on the Uighur minority in Shenzhen as genocide.
At a time of hyperpartisanship in which Democrats and Republicans agree on nothing, a consensus on the U.S. policy toward China represents a rare point of bipartisanship. The minor nuance between the parties lies in Biden’s willingness to pursue cooperation in limited circumstances, such as the fight against COVID-19 and the fight against climate change.
Iran is next. On Feb. 25, U.S. airstrikes hit Abu Kamal, a border town between Syria and Iraq, seven times. The overnight strikes hit two Iranian-backed militias active in Syria and Iraq that are believed to be behind an attack on American personnel in Iraq a week earlier.
Biden’s attacks on Iranian targets show that, at least to a degree, Biden is bound by the foreign policy of the Trump White House. In May 2018, the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated during Obama’s presidency, and adopted a posture of “maximum pressure.” This included painful economic sanctions, thorough support for Iran’s regional adversaries, and the use of the American military against Iranian targets. This is exemplified in the strike that assassinated Qassem Soleimani, believed to be responsible for Iranian extraterritorial military operations, including the 2012 terrorist bombing of Bulgaria’s Burgas Airport.
Biden wants to rejoin the nuclear deal and remove sanctions, but only through additional Iranian concessions. Irrespective of those principles, the United States’ willingness to respond firmly and decisively to provocations by Iran’s military or its proxies and regional allies has remained steadfast.
The numerous and significant differences between Biden and Trump and their administrations are more than obvious. This will have an effect on U.S. foreign policy. Despite this, for better or worse, there is continuity to be found in key areas.
That is the message from the Feb. 25 bombing. The difference from Trump is that Biden’s strikes are measured. He chose a target in Syria, not Iraq, so that Baghdad’s government, looking for support from both Washington and Tehran, would not have been weakened. Secondly, the response was proportional: an Iranian proxy outside the territory of Iran, and furthermore, a target not of Soleimani’s caliber. In other words: military might is now a tool of diplomacy and will not be used for escalation without strategical purpose.
Dnevnik opinion pieces represent the view of its authors, not necessarily those of the newspaper as a whole.
*Editor’s note: Free Europe is a service of Bulgaria of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE / RL).
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