The United States’ foreign policy just hit another ‘reset milestone’, following the Trump administration’s foreign policy that had almost diminished the country’s global leadership in the international political arena. It comes as no surprise that the Biden administration has reset a ‘new path’ for foreign policy to restore the US’ credibility on the world stage. During the Trump administration, questions were raised on whether the US could turn back the tide of Trump’s foreign policy that was considered an antithesis to everything that Washington had built its international image based on. During the Trump era, it was evident that efforts of ‘isolation fetishism’ of the US in international affairs were romanticized but the policies were undesirably self-defeating and a gratuitous discarding of long-held US values. While there remains some consensus that, the damage to America’s reputation on the international stage is reparable, an immense reset and complete overhaul from the Trump foreign policy is a matter of urgency. The current administration now has the task to reacquire Washington’s rightful place among the comity of nations that were turning away from its leadership.
While descriptions of the traditional US role in the world since the end of World War II vary in their specifics, it can be described in general terms as consisting of four key elements: global leadership; defense and promotion of the liberal international order; defense and promotion of freedom, democracy, and human rights; and prevention of the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia. These four key elements that have framed the US’ foreign policy for decades and fostered its hegemony in global politics were openly demolished brick by brick by the Trump administration that continuously showed its lackluster knowledge in global affairs. It was not only the fact that strategically important US alliances were openly devalued but there was also a deliberate attempt to undo key international agreements and obligations that were in Washington’s interest to remain intact. This culminated in both friends and foes of the United States questioning its commitment to its relationships, its values, and the international institutions it helped to create. President Biden has vowed to restore the United States’ reputation as a resolute and dependable power, but some analysts and academics worry that the damage done over the last four years may be long-lasting. It would be understandable if traditional US allies cautiously regain confidence in Washington once again. However, the case of Trump’s foreign policy serves as a true testament that the longevity of an alliance can be threatened by divergent perspectives.
The nature of alliance and the specific problems caused by diverging perspectives that had once been the back born of the raison d’être of that alliance can easily test the foundational aspects of any alliance. Joseph S. Nye a Harvard Political Scientist cautioned that “The lingering long-run question of whether allies can trust America not to produce another Trump cannot be answered with complete assurance.” On Jan. 28 2021 in his speech to the European Parliament, Portugal’s Defense Minister echoed Joseph Nye, underscoring wariness about the United States. He described the Trump years as an ideological experiment that had devastating effects in terms of the credibility of Washington and its strength internationally. Therefore, this leaves the new Biden administration with a difficult task of mending and rebuilding the confidence of Washington’s alliances to put their trust back in the US. The trans-Atlantic alliance might have received continuous hostility from Trump throughout his presidency but there is a unique opportunity during the Munich virtual security forum to be held on Feb. 19 for President Biden to accentuate America’s commitment and appreciation for the alliance.
It would be incognizant not to acknowledge that the international political climate is going through some shifts. If the US is to maintain its role on the international stage, such changes should be taken into consideration. The US had been in support of the war in Yemen during the Obama administration when Biden was vice president and was doubled down in the last four years by Donald Trump. However, On Feb. 04, 2021, President Biden announced that the US support for the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen would come to an end. The US’ decision to step back from the Saudi military offensive in Yemen might correct the ills that the offensive has had on the poorest country in the Middle East. While the humanitarian crisis has shown the evils of proxy wars, Washington’s decision to step back might be signaling a more restrained US role in certain aspects of global affairs. An aspect that has been widely favored as helpful for responding to changed US and global circumstances and for defending US values and interests, particularly in terms of adjusting the US role to one that is more realistic.
As a gesture to keep the focus on foreign policy issues that Washington can accomplish, the Biden administration is extending its commitment to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. The Treaty remains the sole arms control treaty between the countries after former President Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in August 2019. The extension of the New START would not only continue acting as a nuclear proliferation deterrent between Washington and Moscow but would give comfort to US allies in Eastern Europe.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that “The New START Treaty’s verification regime enables us to monitor Russian compliance with the treaty and provides us with greater insight into Russia’s nuclear posture, including through data exchanges and on-site inspections that allow US inspectors to have eyes on Russian nuclear forces and facilities.” Extension of the treaty for five more years ensures that there is a path forward in the movement for nuclear arms control, the possibility of arms races is lessened, and secures a win for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. However, the treaty should be made permanent to avoid having to renew it periodically.
It is President Biden’s warning to Moscow and his decision against trying a “reset” with Russia that may, over the long run, say more about the redirection of American foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union. Taking a tough stance on Russia particularly following its 2016 US election interference and cyberattacks comes as no surprise considering the Trump administration did close to nothing on the issues. By asserting his administration’s position on aggressive Russian antics, a red line is being drawn in the sand. Even though the Biden administration does not explicitly state how it would handle Russia’s antics, the fact is that they will neither go unpunished nor unchallenged. Consequences are guaranteed.
The Biden administration seeks to reposition Washington on its traditional role of being the protector and defender of the liberal international order. This can be done by making sure its global leadership in framing international issues, organizing and implementing multilateral efforts to address international issues, and enforcing international rules and norms is at the center of the foreign policy reset.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Ian Fleming has an M.A. & B. A. in International Politics by the University of South Africa. He has been published in Asian Journal of Peace. His areas of research include nuclear diplomacy, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. He is currently serving as the Editor in Chief for IAPSS journal ADV and is the Chairperson of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime. Furthermore, he is a member of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization Youth Group. In addition, he is a board member of the British American Security Information Council’s Emerging Voices Network.