With President-elect Biden naming nominations to key positions in his cabinet, the contours of the expected US foreign policy are becoming clearer. Who are the officials that will helm the United States’ re-engagement with the world, and what does their eventual nomination mean for the region?
Antony Blinken has been nominated to the most important foreign policy position; the US Secretary of State. Meanwhile, Former Secretary of State John Kerry has been assigned the President’s Special Envoy of Climate Change, the first-ever climate-related position made in the US.
As the man who will be taking over from Mike Pompeo, Antony Blinken will have the world’s eyes on him. Blinken is an established Democrat, but is also a career diplomat; having served as both the Deputy Secretary of State under President Barack Obama and as the Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the Bush Presidency. He has spent a six-year term in the Senate as one of Biden’s top aides, and has been instrumental in crafting Biden’s presidential manifesto – to the extent that he is sometimes is referred to as Biden’s alter ego.
John Kerry has previously served as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s second term as president, and has been in and out of top positions in the government over the decades. He was one of the architects of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, also known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act. As the Democratic presidential candidate he lost to incumbent Republican George W Bush in the 2004 election. Kerry is a veteran Democrat; he was a senator for 28 years and has served as the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee as well.
The new cabinet’s first job would be to undo the damage done in the last four years. For this very reason. Blinken’s priority would be to mend the NATO alliance first, then reach out to treaty allies in Asia, nations such as Japan who have been ignored in the previous term, and then finally set the stage for a push-back to the growing Chinese regional hegemony in Asia. Similarly, the nomination of Kerry as envoy for the environment is meant to send a strong signal to the world that America is ready to lead the world in climate issues, and re-engage with allies across the globe. The new position allows for another avenue through which US will throw its diplomatic weight around.
With Obama-era veterans in charge, a continuation of US’ conventional international role – disrupted by Donald Trump’s turbulent four years in office – can be reasonably foreseen.
Given the larger role of the US in Afghanistan, it will inevitably have to rely on Pakistan not only for access to Afghanistan but also to keep the peace process on the rails. However, previously relations with Pakistan have only been seen through the lens of the Afghanistan crisis by Washington, and a possible solution to the issue and an eventual withdrawal, albeit slow and gradual, will leave the US-Pakistan relations in limbo, where both countries would require a new lens to view the alliance.
Blinken, during his term as Deputy Secretary of State in 2015 was responsible for urging India and Pakistan to resume bilateral talks. Although the talks were scrapped a few weeks later, getting the Modi government to the negotiating table was a significant achievement for Blinken, on that he may try to replicate.
John Kerry has previously lobbied for more civilian aid for Pakistan rather than just seeing it as a military ally in the region, under the Kerry-Lugar bill which nearly tripled the civilian aid for Pakistan in 2008. With his appointment to the Presidential Special Envoy for Environment, there can be increased cooperation with South Asia on environmental issues, which is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change.
Beyond the Afghanistan lens, the new cabinet members have had a stern focus on human rights and journalistic freedoms when looking to create more civilian collaboration with Pakistan; it would also be observing Pakistan closely on what many term the “democracy aid/trade” model. This would mean closer scrutiny of Pakistani policies regarding social media, press and domestic human rights issues.
Blinken is likely to slow down the exit of US troops from Afghanistan and would revisit the US-Taliban peace deal signed in Doha. A US presence in Afghanistan also makes sure the country does not become too close to China, the only other power in the region that can support the Afghan post-war rebuilding process.
Even with the peace process, the violence in Afghanistan has not ceased, rockets were launched on Kabul last week, the Kabul University attack shook the country, and a similar stream of attacks on tuition centres and academies have continued for the last month. These attacks point towards the rise of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) in Afghanistan.
But ISIS is not the only threat to the Afghan peace process; the Afghan Taliban are also engaged in occasional skirmishes with the Afghan forces and as of yet have provided no proof of reducing violence; a prerequisite of the US withdrawal as per the deal.
Blinken is likely to hold the Afghan Taliban to the deal in a more stringent manner than the Trump presidency, and as such a complete withdrawal seems unlikely in the near future.
Even though a full withdrawal of US troops is out of the picture, Biden does intend to reduce presence in Afghanistan or as he puts it, have a “smaller footprint” there. “We also need to distinguish between, for example, these endless wars with the large-scale, open-ended deployment of U.S. forces with, for example, discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations, maybe led by Special Forces to support local actors,” he said.
This would mean a reduction of US military troops but keeping special forces in Afghanistan, and even the reduction of troops would be on basis of the Intra-Afghan dialogue and the Taliban abiding by the peace deal.
India is a major ally of the United States in the region and Washington sees the Indo-American partnership as a viable method to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Biden’s new cabinet has overseen the pivot to India during the Obama years, and in many ways has been responsible for setting up India as a counterweight to China.
Blinken stated that the priority of the new presidency for foreign policy would be “leadership, cooperation and democracy”. Given the complete consensus in the power corridors of America against the growing Chinese global power, the partnership with India is likely to be strengthened.
In an event at the Hudson Institute on July 9th, 2020, Blinken said “I think from Vice President Biden’s perspective, strengthening and deepening the relationship with India is going to be a very high priority. It’s usually important to the future of the Indo-Pacific and the kind of order that we all want.”
Blinken was also part of the administration under Obama that led the efforts to bring India closer to the US with the signing of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008 and the formal support of the US to India’s membership in a reformed Security Council.
“We made India a so called major defence partner,” said Blinken at the Hudson Institute, adding that “when it comes to advance sensitive technology that India needs to strengthen its military, it’s treated on par with our allies and partners.”
While closer relations with India seem to be inevitable, Biden’s campaign document had a section on Biden’s vision for the American Muslim community and their international concerns which criticised India’s unilateral move to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, it also called on the Indian government to grant Kashmiris greater freedom and choices.
Similarly, Blinken had commented in August that concerns over new laws and the Kashmir situation will be communicated to Delhi. At the event in July he said “we obviously have challenges now and real concerns, for example, about some of the actions that the government has taken particularly in cracking down on freedom of movement and freedom of speech in Kashmir, [and] some of the laws on citizenship.”
Furthermore, Blinken added that “with a vitally important [ally] like India” it is better to speak frankly and openly about issues where there are differences, even if greater cooperation is being built on other issues.
It is too early how the Biden-Blinken stance on Kashmir may impact regional politics. Biden has termed India and America as “natural allies” and India is the only stable partner the USA has in the region at the moment to counter the growing threat of China.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – known commonly as the Iran Deal – was one of the biggest achievements of the Obama-Biden tenure. The work has been undone by Donald Trump, but the Biden presidency would seek to revive the deal and take steps towards normalising relations with Iran alongside easing restrictions and trade sanctions.
Blinken has previously criticised the Trump presidency for failing to create better relations with Iran. He added that this policy had harmed US interest, giving Iran no incentive to stop its nuclear research. “Iran is restarting dangerous components of its nuclear programme, putting itself in a position where it has a greater capacity to develop a nuclear weapon now than it did when it signed the agreement” he commented on the issue.
It is clear that Blinken would prioritise resuming the normalisation of relations with Iran as the US sees Iran as a stabilising force for western Afghanistan, which can provide cheap trade imports and improve regional sustainability for Afghanistan as a model for long term US withdrawal in the future.
This policy also helps Pakistan as it would allow for better trade between Iran and Pakistan specifically for Iranian oil. This also allows Pakistan a cheap alternative to Arab oil, where old friendships seem to be souring. Iran’s oil is cheaper on the international market due to a weak economy and lack of trading partners.
The new cabinet is interesting as it is made up career diplomats in key positions who have worked together on American interests in the past – particularly in the Obama administration. It is a cabinet with diverse skill sets, but a shared worldview and converging ideas of American interests.
While many have dubbed the new cabinet setup “Obama 2.0”, the global realties of today are different from 2016. It would be a while before the US can exercise the same influence in the region that it wielded pre-2016.