Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-12-02 10:26:29 Published on Dec 02, 2020
In line with his agenda of restoring America’s place in the world, Biden is banking on Obama-era liberal internationalists
Seasoned faces who could aid the return of America

The President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden, recently announced nominations for some key national security posts. During the campaign, Mr. Biden argued for a liberal internationalist foreign policy to “once more place America at the head of the table”. Whereby, Washington would reassume the role of a steward on global governance issues, lead in the advocacy of democratic values and human rights, and sustain its network of alliances from western Europe to northeast Asia. Given this restorationist agenda for “rescuing” U.S. foreign policy after Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ conduct, most of Mr. Biden’s nominations are veterans of the Barack Obama administration. However, the decision to nominate his former colleagues also seems to be a very calculated one.

The band back together

With Mr. Trump overseeing America’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO, Mr. Biden has tapped career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to represent Washington at the global high-table. Biden will also restate the post to cabinet rank, since Trump had it downgraded. Moreover, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield’s experience as Barack Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Africa (at the critical time of responding to the Ebola outbreak) would be particularly relevant in the U.S.’s effort to “increase trust with non-Western diplomats”, at a time when China has sought to do the same to expand its influence at the UN.

From the standpoint of rekindling America’s relationship with its prime allies, Mr. Biden’s nomination of former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken for Secretary of State is significant. After Mr. Trump’s derision of Europe as America’s “foe” and for allegedly having “ripped off” Washington on collective security, European capitals will now deal with someone who is fluent in French and considers them as partners of “first resort, not last resort.” In addition, the decision to tap former Secretary of State John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate is reflective of the high priority Mr. Biden would accord to the issue. Apart from Mr. Biden’s pledge to reverse Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement (which Mr. Kerry helped negotiate), he is expected to elevate the position as part of his National Security Council.

Finally, Jake Sullivan, who most recently served as National Security Adviser to Vice-President Biden, will “take on the same title — but now to a President Biden”. His appointment as the gate-keeper of Mr. Biden’s national security agenda, will most definitely have bearing on Mr. Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, since Mr. Sullivan was a key player in the secret negotiations that led to the 2015 deal. During his time as the Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mr. Sullivan also worked on the implementation of her ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy — arguably the early precursor to the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The India outlook

Most analyses already predict considerable continuity when it comes to U.S.-India ties under Mr. Biden. With the nominations, that assessment gains further credence, with key members having had the experience of being part of the modern-day development of America’s ties with India. Mr. Blinken for instance, was staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when as its chairman then-Senator Biden oversaw the passage of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Similarly, Mr. Sullivan reportedly had been a supporter of U.S.-India ties being a central component of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy.

In addition, the Biden administration’s agenda on India will hardly be different, given Mr. Trump’s own continuity on the Obama years’ progress on the U.S.-India portfolio. For instance, during the campaign, Mr. Blinken touted two Obama-era developments to underscore Mr. Biden’s commitment to U.S.-India ties. On both those developments — India’s designation as ‘Major Defence Partner’ and the initiation of the United States-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), Mr. Trump has only built on the Obama-Biden record by classifying India under the Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 and finalising the Industrial Security Annex for the actualisation of the DTTI. Hence, while Mr. Blinken as Mr. Biden’s top diplomat would adopt a restorationist agenda towards most partners of the U.S., in case of India, the priority will be to further build on Mr. Trump’s record.

One aspect where things would depart from the Trump precedent however, is with respect to U.S. apprehensions over some of India’s domestic policies. Mr. Blinken for instance, has already spoken about there being “real concerns” over India “cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, some of the laws on citizenship”. But he has pragmatically called for working on those “differences”, even as the U.S. and India continue to “build greater cooperation and strengthen the relationship.”

Handling China

Whereas on China, Mr. Blinken has reportedly been receptive to the idea of construing America’s approach on ideological lines. Whereby, in a sign of shedding the Obama-era baggage of over prioritising cooperation with China (to even ignore its transgressions), Mr. Blinken has rallied against Mr. Trump’s “signals of impunity” on Beijing’s human rights record. Towards now overseeing America’s reemergence to “a position of strength from which to engage China”, Mr. Blinken has notably invoked Mr. Trump’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct to call on India to be “a key partner in that effort”.

Hence, while differences over India’s domestic policies could emerge, increased attention on the China challenge by Mr. Biden’s team of Obama-era liberal internationalists could inform a pragmatic approach towards New Delhi.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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