Emerging from Isolation

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 22, 2021

Amid a promised flurry of executive orders, hefty legislative packages and the necessary attention to confirming a new government, Joe Biden inherits an American foreign policy in disorder that international friends and foes want addressed — right now.

Even setting aside the leftover issues of Donald Trump’s double-impeachment and continuing national divisions, Biden is forced to deal with even last-minute ways in which Team Trump has made America’s position in the world precarious.

It will take some days, at least, to get the Biden national security team into place, since confirmation must come in a Senate that itself is trying to move through a different majority-minority set-up. Biden has selected an experienced, if unexciting set of people to handle foreign affairs, something that should help with easier confirmation hearings.

Indeed, in the early questioning of Secretary of State designate Antony Blinken, the Biden approach may actually adopt some of the Trump positions, as on China, while rejecting others, like those on Iran and Climate. Whatever else you want to say about Biden, he knows how to run the government, unlike his ego-centric, work-averse predecessor.

But Biden wants America to reenter the world from its Trump-imposed isolation. Even most Republicans probably want that too, but are stuck between loyalties to Trump over reality.
At the end of a presidential term and its election, we ask ourselves whether we feel safer than four years ago, better off, as Ronald Reagan famously posted. The answer right now clearly is no — despite four years of troop withdrawals overseas and outward foreign attacks.

Trump traded foreign incursions for home-grown attacks on our institutions, our economic and public health security, on truth itself that over time can prove yet more dangerous.

Problems in Every Direction

Pretty immediately, Biden must address the American isolation that Trump engendered, re-establish alliances and make it clear to rivals that there is a new sheriff in town.

As evidence, The Washington Post let us know that Biden is already seeking a five-year extension of on the only remaining nuclear treaty with Russia, even while moving ahead on sanctions against Russian cyber attacks in the United States. The nuclear agreement sets caps on deployed missiles and warheads.

Meanwhile, despots in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia and China may be eyeing internal dissension in the United States as weaknesses to press for advantage militarily, economically and politically. The Saudis are asking for a slap-down, the Russians are acting openly in defiance of treaties, and any trade talks with China remain all but hostile.

Even among friends, the British are hoping that American trade will sustain their Brexit decision, the Israelis want the same free hand that Trump had offered in grabbing Palestinian properties and NATO members need reassurance that the Trump years were aberrant.

After four years of moves that too often have baffled world leaders, Team Trump was moving even in its warning days to make major foreign policy moves that may well create roadblocks for Biden. As Trump was increasingly consumed by his obsession with election fraud and now impeachment, those moves were happening almost independently by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who may have his own designs on running for president.

Just in the last week, for example, Pompeo relisted Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists, removed long-standing restrictions on contacts between senior U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the long-contested Western Sahara, approved controversial arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and new sanctions against Iran.

Of course, there are some areas where Biden agrees, as in a late call this week to say China is guilty of “genocide” against its Uighar Muslim population. And Biden agrees that now is not a good time for a new immigration caravan building in Honduras that has started moving into Guatemala on its way to the U.S. border, where Trump has just extended emergency policies through 2022.

A week from now, Biden may countermand most of hease policies. We don’t know. But then, neither do our allies.

Immediacy Required

The White House has offered separate arguments for each, but the Biden advisors see them all more as motivated by domestic politics than an organized Trump strategy. Within days, we need to get beyond the bromides for international cooperation into realpolitik.

As one example, Biden has disagreed with blanket U.S. support for the Saudis in pursuing war in Yemen that has left millions homeless and starving, for instance. But our anti-Iran fervor has made the Iranian backed Houthis more of an enemy. Trump has ignored bipartisan congressional majorities who have demanded we pull back from what clearly has become a humanitarian nightmare.

Now, reversing Pompeo and Trump will require legislation in a Congress already overwhelmed with confirmations, new domestic pandemic aid packages, climate and immigration policies and an impeachment trial.

But moving past Yemen brings Iran and worldwide nuclear threats into focus. Biden wants to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear accords with Europe and Russia, and that now has become a can of diplomatic worms. Biden will find himself caught among the effects of Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Europe’s insistence on trading for Iranian oil, Iran’s hastened nuclear developments and Russia’s sneaky promotion into regional politics.

Plus there is North Korea proudly and defiantly showing off new nuclear-equipped missiles of its own this week with no interest in disarmament talks despite Trump having played diplomatic footsie with Kim Jong-Un. And there is Russia’s decision to break the Open Skies treaty, which Trump said he was happy to do too.

On top of all else, Biden wants to work with allies to confront continuing trade rule-breaking by China, figure out how to ease tensions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and revisit U.S.-China strategies.

Safer than four years ago? Nope. Making America Great just means starting over four years later.



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