Joe Biden’s US Foreign Policy: Return to the Old Normal?

by Roger Harris, published on Counterpunch, February 26, 2021

US President Biden bellicosely proclaimed, “American is back,” in his major foreign policy priorities speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 19. Repeated twice for effect, Biden signaled the end of the Trump interregnum.

No more assuring words could have been uttered for George W. Bush’s former Defense Secretary Colin Powell and the 70 odd Republican national security officials, who wrote an open letter endorsing Biden out of fear that Trump would upset the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of regime change, forever wars, and the NATO alliance. Republican neo-cons now shelter in the Democrat’s big tent, today’s party of war.

The major difference from his predecessor is that the new US president promises a greater reliance on multilateral diplomacy and international cooperative agreements to achieve US imperial goals. Biden pledged to remain in the World Health Organization and to return to the Paris Climate Agreement, although compliance with the latter is voluntary and Biden defends fracking. After Trump withdrew the US from the UN Human Rights Council three years ago, the US will reengage as an observer. And Trump’s “Muslim ban” was reversed in Biden’s first day in office.

Regardless of the changing of the guard in Washington, the imperial goal of the “full spectrum dominance” endures from one administration to the next. The global network of 800-1000 foreign military bases will not be shuttered.

The fact that the US can with impunity punish a third of humanity (39 nations) with illegal sanctions – what the UN calls  unilateral coercive measures  – is a measure of its hegemonic standing. These sanctions are a form of “hybrid warfare,” which can be just as deadly as outright war. Although Biden is reviewing the sanctions policy, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, he is expected to “keep using [the] US sanctions weapon but with sharper aim,” as reported by Reuters.

The new Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that his policies would follow his predecessor, but will “more effectively target” official enemies such as Venezuela and will double down on Russia. Following Trump, Biden is appealing to the UK High Court to extradite Julian Assange.

“We’re at an inflection point”

Biden warned, in his foreign policy priorities speech, about “competition among countries that threaten to divide the world” caused by “shifting global dynamics.” The threat to “divide the world” that concerns the US president is precisely any deviation from US domination. Biden was referring to the emergence of potential rival powers. His warning affirms and extends Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy doctrine of “great-power competition” and swings away from Obama’s earlier and subsequently abandoned conception of “international interdependence.”

Biden’s “shifting global dynamics” are what Obama’s Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to as “challenging the world order that American leadership helped build after World War II.” In other words, the world’s sole superpower is averse to an emerging multipolar world.

Biden’s speech concluded, “We’re at an inflection point” caused by “new crises.” While not identified by Biden, this is implicit recognition of the impending crisis of legitimacy of the neoliberal world order. The US is the main beneficiary, proponent, and enforcer of a global political economy that increasingly is seen as failing to meet people’s needs. Class disparities during an economic recession are ever more evident in the US and internationally. Here in the US, billionaires added $4 trillion to their net worth since the onset of the pandemic.

Return to Atlanticism and NATO expansion

While still president, Trump spoke against the US as the world’s gendarme: “The plan is to get out of endless wars to bring our soldiers back home, not be policing agents all over the world.” For a variety of reasons, Trump’s iconoclastic words never found their way into policy. And, certainly, Biden’s speech writers will never give him similar words to read.

Rather, Biden said in his foreign policy speech that the US is “fully committed to our NATO Alliance” and “welcome[s] Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities.” The US mission in Iraq will be expanded and more US troops will be sent to Germany.

Biden justifies the NATO military encirclement of Russia, with intimations that Ukraine and Georgia may eventually join, by “the threat from Russia.” However, Russian reactions to staging hostile war games and nuclear capable facilities on its border are plausibly defensive. Meanwhile the US-led military alliance has long since broken loose from its Atlantic-centric borders with NATO Partners Across the Globe extending to Afghanistan, Australia, Colombia, Iraq, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Pakistan.

Africa and the Middle East

The new administration will expand US military presence in Africa through its Africa Command (AFRICOM), which in 2019 deployed Special Forces in 22 countries and was in active combat in at least thirteen of them. The largest ever US military exercise in Africa, African Lions 21, is scheduled for this June with “partner nations.”

Biden’s State Department approved a $200 million arms sale to Egypt, a country headed by the man Trump called his “favorite dictator.” The US is and continues to be the world’s largest purveyor of military equipment, eclipsing the combined sales of the next four highest war profiteers.

Oil and gas are strategic resources, and their international flows are key factors for imperial control. Absent oil and gas sales, 60% of its GDP, Russia would be a minor economy.

Now that the US is a net oil exporter, the oil-rich Gulf monarchies are both allies and potential competitors.

Trump extended the US’s “special relationship” in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia; Biden continues this trajectory. Trump’s provocative move of the US embassy to Jerusalem will not be reversed by Biden, nor will Palestinian rights be recognized.

Ignoring nuclear-armed Israel, the Biden team continues the US’s obsession with Iran’s nuclear program. Biden has committed to renegotiate “a better deal” regarding Iran after Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, his the deal includes Trump’s demand to include Iran’s whole regional policy.

The new US administration will be augmenting troops in Syria and expanding and building new military bases there. Damascus is in a weakened state with the pandemic, economic blockade, and continued military hostilities by the US and its “partners.”

Biden announced that the US will no longer support “offensive operations” in the Saudi-led war on Yemen, a human rights catastrophe. It remains to be seen what continuing “defensive” lethal aid to the Saudis entails. The Saudis have the world’s fifth largest military, costing an astronomical 8% of their GDP. Some US military sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been temporarily suspended. In response, the CEO of military merchant Raytheon commented: “Peace is not going to break out in the Middle East anytime soon.” He should know, as Biden’s defense secretary formerly sat on his board of directors.

“America’s backyard” – 21st century Monroe Doctrine 

Treatment of Latin America and the Caribbean as the US’s proprietary backyard, under the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, is being challenged by a rising “pink tide”:  recent leftist electoral wins in Mexico, Argentina, and Bolivia and a possibility in Ecuador in April; popular uprisings in Argentina, Haiti, and elsewhere; and continued resistance by Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Biden, the day he entered office, had the power of executive order to restore Obama’s openings to Cuba that had been reversed by Trump. Now, over a month in office, Biden has not ended limits on remittances, restrictions on travel, or other illegal sanctions on Cuba. Biden continues the illegal policy of regime change for Cuba of the previous twelve US presidents: covert and overt destabilization, blockade, and occupation of Guantánamo. Obama’s openings to Cuba, by his own description, were not a deviation from previous policy but an attempt to achieve regime change by different means.

Venezuela featured prominently in the presidential campaign speeches of Trump and Biden, with both promoting regime change. US-anointed counterfeit president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó has lost his credentials with the European Union. But the farce – initiated in 2019 by Trump – is being continued by Biden, who backed down on his campaign pledge to possibly negotiate directly with the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro.

Biden, once in office, has deported thousands of emigres back to Haiti and other countries. This is “a disappointing step backward from the Biden administration’s earlier commitments to fully break from the harmful deportation policies of both the Trump and Obama presidencies,”  according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Pivot to Asia

US foreign policy reflects the personal qualities of the person occupying the Oval Office, party affiliation, and the constellation of state and corporate powers behind the administration. Eclipsing these factors are larger geopolitical developments, especially now with the emergence of China as the world’s workshop.

China is an upcoming rival but falls short as a peer of the US in terms of economic power. China’s remarkable economic growth has been predicated by its integration in and indeed dependence on the international capitalist market, which is dominated by the US. Although China is the world’s leading exporter, only a miniscule 4% of the international exchange of currencies are denominated in the Chinese yuan compared to 88% in US$. Tellingly, close to half the trade between China and Russia, two countries sanctioned by the US, is denominated in US$.

Following Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012, Biden’s policy portends a continuation of Trump’s hostility toward China only with further intensification. The US military buildup to confine China includes land, air, sea, and even space forces with the South China Sea as a hotspot of contention.

Trump negotiated a peace agreement between the Taliban and the US-backed government in Afghanistan, now in its twentieth year of war. The Biden administration has indicated that it will not honor the agreement, which requires a US troop drawdown instead of Biden’s announced buildup.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is entering its 71st year of official war with the US with no end in sight. When Trump met with DRPK President Kim Jong-un in 2019, the Democrats screamed “treason.” To be sure, Biden will not make the patriotic mistake of trying to reduce tension between the two nuclear powers.

Nuclear policy – 100 seconds before midnight

The US is ringing Russia and China with “missile defense systems,” which had been illegal until George W. Bush abrogated the US-Russia ABM Treaty in 2002. A “missile defense system” is designed to shield against a retaliatory response after a first-strike nuclear attack. Congress recently authorized a new generation of US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

China’s official policy is “not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.Russian policy is to use nuclear weapons only “when the very existence of the state is threatened.” On contrast, the US reserves the right to “first use” nuclear weapons.

A trillion-dollar plus nuclear weapon modernization, started by Obama and continued by Trump, lurches on under Biden with the entire US nuclear arsenal scheduled to be upgraded. The consequences are far greater risks of launching an accidental nuclear war and an accelerated arms race with Russia and China. Head of the US Strategic Air Command, Admiral Charles A. Richard, warned just this month that in a conflict with Russia or China “nuclear employment is a very real possibility.”

Given such an international climate, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the 2021 doomsday clock to 100 seconds before midnight. Although the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons became international law on January 21, the US has not ratified it. On the brighter side, Biden extended the New START nuclear arms treaty for four years.

Another world is possible, another US is necessary

 American leadership” of the world, touted by both Republicans and Democrats, is not democratic. No one elected the US to be the world’s nanny. International polls show the US is rated among the most feared, hated, and dangerouscountries in the world and the greatest threat to world peace.

Meanwhile, the Vox Populi project reports majorities or pluralities of the US people support reducing the military budget, achieving peace by avoiding foreign intervention, negotiating directly with adversaries to avoid military confrontation, decreasing US troops overseas, and constraining the president’s ability to attack a foreign adversary.


Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.

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