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8 December 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 6:12am

Will Joe Biden look left on foreign policy as US president?

American progressives see cause for both optimism and concern over the new administration’s international priorities.

By Emily Tamkin

“America is back,” president-elect Joe Biden announced victoriously last month. But for some on the political left in the US, a promised return to the pre-Trump status-quo brings its own concerns: of continuing socioeconomic and racial inequity at home; and of American hegemony, militarism and a record on human rights abroad that is hypocritical at best.

In certain foreign policy areas, some believe that work will be required to close the gap between the Democratic Party’s left flank and the Biden administration’s present stated position.

“The defence budget is going to be a challenge… Budgets are about priorities,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. “Progressives believe that we need to make some real strategic choices about priorities in order to cut this massive defense budget.”

Biden’s reported and as yet unconfirmed pick for the position of secretary of defence, Lloyd Austin, the former commander of US Central Command, may also spark concerns in relation to his position on the board of Raytheon Technologies, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defence manufacturers.

And there’s reason, some say, to be wary in Afghanistan. Biden was one of the strongest voices against the surge of troops into the country over a decade ago, but has since said that he does want to keep a small counterterrorism force there. Sources say that exactly how small could be a sticking point with those keen to end America’s endless wars.

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Nevertheless, there are many who point to the ways in which the new administration, come January, can usher in a new progressive era in American foreign policy – one based on human rights and diplomatic multilateral engagement, not the flexing of American muscles.

“After a presidency that ripped apart our alliances, propped up dictators around the world and put us on the brink of war, president-elect Biden has a tremendous opportunity to reorient our foreign policy towards peace and justice,” Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota and member of the “squad” – the moniker for a group of progressives in Congress – said in a statement to the New Statesman.

“We can create an America that means what it says when we claim to stand for human rights and democracy. That means an end to arms sales to dictators, an end to collective punishment of innocent civilians in the form of brutal sanctions, and renewed support for multilateralism and accountability.” Omar pointed in particular to Biden’s stated willingness to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and “stand up to human rights violators like Saudi Arabia”, as well as to “the capable team he has surrounded himself with”.

That team is itself a source of optimism for some. Biden’s intended nominees are experienced foreign policy professionals, but they are not known for being particularly progressive. They have, however, demonstrated a willingness to listen to those who are.

“Tony Blinken [Biden’s pick to lead the State Department] made a point to lead the Biden team’s engagement with the progressive foreign policy coalition during the campaign,” said Duss. “That’s a new and really important development.”

The prospective realignment of the US’s relationships in the Middle East in particular is one many progressives have spoken about with cautious optimism. Sources in Congress were fairly confident that the Biden administration will move to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen.

“The president has the power to turn support on and off for the coalition countries,” said Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War, speaking of the US backing in Yemen for the Saudis. “He could do that easily in the first 100 days.” 

What comes next is less clear, though. “The question will be specifically how much political leverage and pressure they put on the Saudis to end the war,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “The main goal is to end the war,” the aide reiterated.

A Senate aide added that they hoped to see the Biden administration take a different approach to the region more generally, pointing to Biden’s commitment to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and their own expectation that the Biden administration will put arms sales, such as the $20 billion that the Trump administration is currently trying to rush through to the United Arab Emirates, through a more rigorous process.

There are many areas on which it is not yet known exactly what the Biden administration will do. What line will Biden take with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un – where will he fall between Trump’s early threats of “fire and fury” and later declarations that he and Kim had fallen “in love”? How will Biden handle Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has worked so closely with Trump over the past four years, and where many fear the West Bank is now under de facto annexation?

One Democratic congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as to speak freely, added that progressives will be watching Biden’s use of sanctions: how targeted or sweeping they are, and whether they affect specific individuals or countries’ general populations. 

On certain foreign policy areas, such as climate change, progressives think Biden might even improve on the pre-Trump foreign policy consensus. The former senator and secretary of state John Kerry, whom Biden intends to make climate tsar, will sit on the National Security Council – making him the first person solely dedicated to the climate crisis to do so. 

More broadly, progressives will also be paying attention to how the US under Biden positions itself geopolitically. “How is a Biden administration going to frame the China issue? There are concerns about being drawn unnecessarily into a new great power conflict, and not just among progressives,” said Duss.

And, in addition to all of the above, progressives will be paying attention to how much attention Biden pays to them and their concerns. “If you have a more friendly executive, there’s an opportunity to do that direct engagement,” said Kizer. How much or how little the Biden team engages with his party’s progressive left on foreign policy could be an issue – a source of celebration or cause for further work – in and of itself.

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