President-elect Joe Biden has made clear in his staffing plans and public remarks that he intends to return America to many of the foreign policy positions championed by his former boss, President Barack Obama.
While American mainstream media has largely cheered this – and glowered at President Donald Trump for defending his achievements by making regression more difficult under Biden – many of America’s allies, and some of its foes, around the world are making moves suggesting they expect a full return to the state of global affairs in 2016.
The Obama administration’s foreign policy was defined by the tension between the president’s message, repeated routinely over the years, that America’s involvement in geopolitics made the world worse, and his regular, violent interventions abroad. His apologetic words – “America has shown arrogance” to its neighbors, “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect” – clashed dramatically with his routine drone strikes on civilian targets, the invasion of Libya, and the widespread arming of Syrian “rebels” that ended up handing those weapons to jihadists.
The approach produced widespread death and chaos, perhaps most emblematically in the eruption of the “Arab Spring” a decade ago. What began as a reaction to a Tunisian merchant setting himself on fire resulted in the election (and violent removal) of a Muslim Brotherhood extremist in Egypt, open-air slave auctions in Libya, and the bloody rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Closer to home, communist and socialist dictators used Obama’s carte blanche to violently repress citizens. Venezuelan protests beginning in 2014 against socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro resulted in thousands of casualties, including the deaths of many children at the hands of state security. In Cuba, the Castro regime took advantage of a windfall in tourism profits following Obama’s “thaw” policy – despite the fact that U.S. tourism to Cuba remains technically illegal – to commit about 10,000 politically-motivated arrests in 2016.
Under Obama, American enemies like China, Russia (which annexed a giant chunk of Ukraine with impunity), and Iran expanded their global influence. Allies that could have played a role in mitigating the advance of American rivals were told to “share the neighborhood” or otherwise snubbed. Taken by surprise during Obama’s term, it appears that at least Saudi Arabia, Japan, Taiwan, and India are preparing for a third Obama term.
Saudi Arabia – Iran’s biggest geopolitical rival – took no time following Biden’s electoral victory to declare that, if Biden’s policies result in Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, Riyadh would immediately launch its own nuclear program.
A Saudi nuclear weapons program, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said in November, was “definitely an option” under Biden. Al-Jubeir had made similar remarks in the past.
“If Iran acquires nuclear capability we will do everything we can to do the same,” al-Jubeir said in 2018, shortly after Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Riyadh has accompanied its tough talk with action. A report in Al-Monitor, a pan-Mideast outlet, this week detailed that Saudi officials have begun mending fences with Qatar and Turkey – both increasingly strained relationships due to Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to become the leader of the Muslim world, in the latter case, and due to close ties with Iran, in the former. Under Trump, the Saudi government felt it could rely on Washington for support against extremist governments in the region, a luxury it cannot expect to have during Biden’s term, just as it did not with Obama.
Iranian officials appear to agree with the tacit concern that Saudi Arabia has exhibited about the return of the Democrats to the White House.
“I have no doubt that the heroic national resistance of Iran is going to compel the future U.S. government to bow … and the sanctions will be broken,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proclaimed last week. “We are very happy to see Trump leave.”
In Asia, Japan – which has longstanding territorial disputes with China and no official military, only a “self-defense force” – prepared for the incoming Biden administration by passing the largest defense budget in its history on Monday. Japan will spend $51.6 billion on defense spending in 2021. Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, specified that the money will go to combatting “security challenges posed by China.”
Not waiting for the Biden administration to support Japan in any dispute with China, Japanese officials also deployed diplomatic tactics to protect its sovereign territory. In late November, Tokyo welcomed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for high-level discussions, the first of their kind under new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. Illegal Chinese fishing expeditions in Japanese waters – increasingly common there and around the world – were high on the list of issues discussed.
Taiwan, another nation regularly under Chinese military threat, has also revealed plans to expand its military capacity in the next year. Taipei announced the construction of indigenous submarines in late November.
“We are letting the world see Taiwan’s strong will to defend its sovereignty,” President Tsai Ing-wen said at an event to inaugurate the construction of the vessels. Tsai is the first Taiwanese president since the era of President Jimmy Carter to engage in a vocal conversation with an American president after Trump accepted a phone call from her congratulating him on his 2016 victory.
On China’s western border, the government of India has indicated it will increase preparation for hostilities after the first gunshots were fired across the border in 45 years this summer. Indian news outlets reported last month that the government had purchased at least 20,000 cold weather suits for its Himalayan troops from the U.S. government. Asian News International (ANI) cited an unnamed source in the Indian government stating that, in addition to the suits, New Delhi had purchased “a number of assault rifles for the special forces as well as the SiGSauer assault rifles for the infantry troops.” India’s rules of engagement did not allow firearms on the border until this June.
China appears to also be preparing for future conflict with India, potentially expecting Indian officials to change their strategies after the departure of President Trump, who maintained close relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Dictator Xi Jinping replaced the head of China’s Western Theater Command, the wing of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for the Indian border, this weekend, removing Gen. Zhao Zongqi. Under Zhao, Chinese troops suffered an embarrassing defeat against Indian troops in a bloody melee in India’s Ladakh region, where PLA troops were reportedly present illegally.
Reports from mainstream American outlets indicate that President Trump is working to enhance the permanence of his foreign policy achievements as the clock winds down on his term, potentially preventing a Biden-era Arab spring or Crimean colonization. Or, as CNN derisively termed it, failing to recall the state of the world the last time Biden was in the White House, Trump’s team is hoping to “set so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out.” Many of America’s allies may be hoping to see Trump succeed, but few appear to be waiting to find out if he does.