President Joe Biden promised a clean break from the Trump years in US foreign policy. However, according to recent statements from Biden's new state secretary and other top officials, there will likely be more continuity than change for at least a while.
It is only three days to the new administration, but Biden's team members have already signaled that they intend to continue some of the policies pursued during his presidency, from Venezuela to Ukraine to Israel and even China.
Many of these details of Biden's foreign policy plans were revealed during the confirmation hearing of Foreign Minister-designate Antony Blinken on Tuesday, the day before Biden was sworn in as president.
Blinken said the US would continue to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president, a decision the Trump administration made in January 2019 as part of its efforts to oust the country's dictator Nicolás Maduro. Blinken added that the new team will continue to sanction Maduro and his government, only "more effectively".
Blinken also said the Biden government would continue training and sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military to repel Russian forces in the east of the country. Trump approved the sale of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine in 2017, a move the Obama administration rejected and which some feared would escalate the seven-year conflict.
The new top diplomat said Biden would speak out against the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia. The Trump administration sanctioned Russia over the plan in 2019, claiming the $ 11 billion oil delivery system would make the heart of Europe more dependent on Moscow. Biden, who, according to official reports, does not plan to "postpone" relations with Russia anytime soon, appears to agree.
Biden's pipeline opposition could spark a conflict with Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said she wants to discuss the issue with the new American president. "My mindset hasn't changed to the point where I say the project shouldn't exist," she said during a press conference on Thursday, noting how critical many in the US and Europe are about Nord Stream 2 see.
Blinken told lawmakers that he and the Biden government consider Jerusalem the capital of Israel and commit to keeping the US embassy there. Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocated the embassy there from its previous location in Tel Aviv in 2018. This was a move that turned decades of US diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its head, and was feared by some that it would spark widespread violence in the region. That violence didn't happen, and now the status quo seems to be just that – the status quo.
Blinken also praised Trump for "being right to take a tougher approach to China," saying the Trump administration's decision to label Beijing's treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang as "genocide" was correct. It was clear to the Biden advisor that the new team's tactics towards China would be different from those of the Trump team, but the general direction of US policy towards the country – the confrontation – would remain the same.
Eventually, on the campaign, Biden promised to rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal as long as Tehran returns to compliance by reducing its uranium enrichment levels. But Blinken, along with Biden's Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, have made it clear over the past few days that a return to the deal may take a while and may not even happen.
"I think honestly we are far from that," Haines said during her own confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
This is not the foreign policy shift many expected, considering the number of times Biden blew up Trump's foreign policy during the election campaign. However, some critics, including progressives, are not surprised.
"Joe Biden never promised to be a revolutionary or to bring about radical change. What we've seen so far, both personally and politically, shouldn't come as a surprise," said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without Krieg. "Given how broken our current foreign policy is, any transition will begin far from where progressives want to be."
Is Biden's Foreign Policy Trump 2.0? Not exactly.
None of this means that Biden plans to conduct American foreign policy in the same way as Trump.
Biden has been in the White House for less than a week, and it is common for new presidents to resume many of their predecessors' foreign policies, even if they may not fully agree with them because they cannot find a way to reverse it quickly or easily. For example, Presidents Obama and Trump both wanted to get out of the Afghanistan war, but did not end it despite twelve years of attempts.
Plus, Trump has done some good things on the world stage, so Biden doesn't want to scrap every move he takes.
"Biden is right to maintain continuity on some foreign policy issues as well," said Jordan Tama of American University, an expert on US foreign policy. "Not every foreign policy action by the Trump administration was wrong, and hasty steps to reverse any Trump decision would create a kind of whiplash that makes the US look like an unreliable partner."
However, it is extraordinarily clear that Biden's tenure does not mirror Trump's. There will clearly be big differences, and we've seen some before.
Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization after Trump withdrew the US from them. He lifted travel bans for Muslim majority countries and vowed America would participate in Covax, the global initiative to develop and equitably distribute vaccine doses worldwide. More than 170 countries are members of the initiative despite the Trump administration refusing to join – an outlier along with Russia.
"These early foreign policy steps show a commitment to international cooperation, justice and fundamental rights, as well as a willingness to assert oneself against opponents, which was sorely lacking in Trump's foreign policy," said Tama.
And perhaps the biggest change so far is Blinker's confirmation that Biden will be fast End support for Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen. "This is one of the highest human rights and progressive priorities," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a leading proponent of left-wing foreign policy.
These are major breaks, and it is clear that US foreign policy will change significantly during Biden's four-year tenure. But those hoping that Biden will immediately leave Trump's legacy behind completely may be disappointed by some early signals from the government.
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