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Biden’s foreign policy speech sets course for positive engagement

Feb 23,2021 - Last updated at Feb 23,2021

President Joe Biden outlined the foundations of his foreign policy in his first appearance on a world stage on Friday. While effectively rolling back years of Trump's isolationist approach to critical global challenges, Biden, speaking before a virtual meeting of the Munich Security Conference, declared that America is back as a global leader; stressing the importance of the transatlantic alliance through NATO, and underlining the importance of working with the EU and other democracies that share US values.

It was a largely humanitarian and optimistic message; focusing on shared global challenges like climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, the global economic crisis and approaching conflict resolution through multilateralism. He also stressed the role of diplomacy in ending wars and conflicts. Most importantly perhaps he reaffirmed America’s reclaiming of its place in international institutions such the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Without mentioning the previous administration, Biden was determined to distance himself for Trump’s “America First” mantra; one that distanced the US from the rest of the world and left the transatlantic alliance in shambles. The void left by the US was filled by Russia, especially in the Middle East as well as Eastern Europe. His commitment to work with other democracies with which the US has shared values appears to be a cornerstone of the administration’s foreign policy. It is a message that stresses the importance of people’s rights and adherence to the rule of law. While underlining the need to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system, Biden recognised that the US and its partners see China as a geopolitical threat that must be addressed. This position is not different from that of the previous administration.

But unlike his predecessor, Biden did not shy away from criticising Russia and its efforts to weaken the European project and NATO. He said [President Vladimir] Putin wants to undermine the transatlantic unity because it is so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community. 

On foreign conflicts, Biden referred to Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. On the latter he announced that the US was prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear programme while also addressing Iran’s destabilising activities across the Middle East.

What matters here is that the US is once again assuming its leading role as a global power while embracing multilateralism. This is important as the world struggles with the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a shrinking global economy. It matters that Biden has pledged $4 billion to support WHO’s COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) to enable poorer countries to receive the vaccines.

It also matters that the US will give diplomacy a chance in resolving global conflicts and that engagement will be through international institutions; Iran’s nuclear issue being a clear example.

But when it comes to the Middle East President Biden and his team must admit that more than 20 years of military interventionism has not only failed to deliver peace and stability but has exacerbated the region’s problems. While some analysts believe that Biden will embrace the pivot to Asia mantra of the Obama years; leaving the Middle East to fend for itself, others disagree.

World security is indivisible and the region’s predicaments have reverberated across the globe in the form of displaced refugees and waves of immigration that have flooded Europe from the Middle East, home grown terrorists and geopolitical shifts that have allowed countries like Turkey, Iran and Russia to extend their influence beyond their borders.

One cannot address Iran’s destabilizing activities without delving into the nuances of the Syrian civil war, Iraq’s inability to rid itself of sectarian divisions, Lebanon’s impending collapse and Yemen’s horrific humanitarian catastrophe.

While the US today is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, many of its partners in Europe and Asia are not. Even as Biden declares that the US will commit to promoting democratic values he cannot ignore the region’s struggle and resistance to endorse such values. The US will continue to lead an international and regional coalition to fight Daesh and other terrorist groups, but it can only do so through engaging countries in the region.

America’s ties to the region must go beyond the narrow boundaries of security and military partnerships. It must actively seek to de-escalate the region’s proxy wars and resolve its endemic conflicts, foremost of which is the Israel/Palestine Question which has polarised the region for so long.

Biden may not be able to achieve all this in the coming four years, but he can steer US policy towards achieving these goals in line with his Munich speech. The reality is US leadership is sorely needed in these critical times to draw a roadmap towards ending much of the region’s terrible conflicts.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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