From now until Jan. 20, 2021,when President-elect Joe Biden takes over, a lot of things could still happen. Executive orders remain in effect until either reversed by the new president or not renewed, and as in past transitions, outgoing administrations may rush to sign orders in order to create new realities that could be difficult for their successors to change.
Local issues as usual were the main concerns for voters, but the world is more focused on the impact of the elections’ results on foreign policy and global affairs.
To say the Biden administration will begin from where former President Barack Obama’s ended would be an oversimplification and naïve. However, Biden, who is no stranger to foreign policy challenges since his days as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would benefit from the democratic foreign policy pool of experts who served in the past Democrat administrations or are part of democratic leaning and liberal think tanks.
In his victory speech Biden said: “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” signaling his affinity toward diplomacy and multilateralism in confronting global issues, although while some decisions may be easy to reverse, others have become political realities.
A Biden administration will certainly rejoin the Paris Agreement and return to transatlantic cooperation. Unlike the Trump administration, the new administration will try to bring back the warmth to the relationship with the European Union and restore confidence with NATO allies. The new administration is expected to renew its membership with international organizations such as UNESCO and WHO.
When it comes to the Middle East, reversing policies become trickier. No one is expecting the new administration to rescind the decision to move the US Embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv or change US policy concerning the Golan Heights, which was annexed by Israel and blessed by the Trump administration.
However, for certain the flagship “Deal of the Century” peace plan introduced by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will no longer be the guiding principles of any potential peace efforts by the US. The new administration may depart from its predecessor by reopening the Palestinian Authority representative office in Washington and lifting a travel ban imposed on several Muslim countries introduced in the early days of the Trump administration.
The most anticipated change would certainly be the new policy toward Iran. Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and pulled out unilaterally from the controversial Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposed old and new “crippling” sanctions against Tehran.
The Iranian deal was a thorny issue in the relationships between the Obama administration on one side and Israel and some Arab Gulf states on the other side.
Arab countries that enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump White House will be forced to open up to Russia and China in order to compensate for a reduction in Washington’s support and a potential cozying up with Iran.
Traditionally, the Senate assumes the opposition role of foreign policy if the chamber is not controlled by the party of the sitting president. If the Republicans manage to maintain the majority in the Senate, Biden’s ability to change the current direction may not be smooth sailing.
Some senators eyeing the 2024 presidential bid will try to inherit Trump’s Republican base and will stand against reversing Trump’s policies. After all, Trump managed to get more than 70 million votes and proved to have an unshakable base which is not expected to erode anytime soon.
While Trump may have caused some strains with traditional US allies and was not an articulate foreign policy speaker, his critics acknowledge some achievements. Containing Iranian growing influence, negotiating a new free trade agreement in North America (NAFTA) and mediating agreements between Israel and some Arab states are a achievements that cannot be ignored.
Previous administrations were subject to compromises and trade-offs in order to build coalitions. Transactional policies may not totally disappear but it will have a different, more diplomatic term.
Trump proved that the US could advance its interests unilaterally through other means, mainly sanctions and soft power, and he loved to flex US muscles and tough rhetoric but refrained from committing US troops abroad and exhausting American resources. These realities would be difficult to ignore by any administration, which make the return to traditional policies a remote possibility.
A potential crisis between Israel and Iran or its ally Hezbollah may be the first Middle Eastern challenge that the new administration will face. Israel will not sit idle while Iran continues to enrich Uranium in the presence of a more relaxed attitude toward Tehran by the US.
It will not be an easy decision to return to JCPOA by the Biden White House given that the Republicans are expected to maintain majority in the Senate while the Iranians may take a strong negotiating position after withstanding the tough sanctions.
How the Biden administration handles the Iranian nuclear issue will have a rippling effect on the other Middle-Eastern related outstanding crises such Yemen, Syria and the tough sanctions policy toward Lebanon’s Hezbollah and its local allies.
Laws and policies may not be easily changed, but policies sometime could be relaxed or defanged, awaiting diplomatic efforts and compromises.
Biden served next to Obama for eight years, but he was also the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years and built personal relationships with foreign leaders and has vast knowledge of global affairs.
Therefore, to say Biden’s foreign policy will be a continuation or an extension of Obama’s may not be an accurate statement. Biden would love to leave his own mark and legacy on foreign policy although Trump fingerprints may be hard to erase.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut who is currently in Washington.