A Biden presidency brings new hope

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Tom Brenner/Reuters

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Published Nov 20, 2020


Biden’s impending ascension to the Presidency of the United States bodes well for the strengthening of multilateralism and collective action in confronting global challenges, which are priorities of South Africa’s foreign policy.

In a call between President Cyril Ramaphosa and President-Elect Joe Biden on Tuesday night, the leaders discussed ways to strengthen US-Africa relations. The Biden team has identified Africa as a major player in international affairs.

A return to the constructive engagement of the Obama administration which heralded the Iran nuclear deal and saw a thaw in relations with Cuba would be a positive change in direction after President Donald Trump’s aggression. Biden has indicated that such a return is on the cards under his Presidency.

Biden has pledged to restore US commitments to the Iran nuclear deal, and has referred to Trump’s actions on Iran as “cruelty” in the context of the global pandemic, as Trump administration sanctions have inhibited Iran’s access to humanitarian assistance.

Biden has gone further in recent months, calling on Trump to create licences to allow goods to flow from pharmaceutical and medical device companies into Iran, and to create dedicated channels, banks and service firms to allow Iranians access to life-saving medical treatment.

Biden was second in command when Obama had defied all the odds and engaged in secret talks with the Cubans and Iranians in what was an exhaustive process of quiet diplomacy. Using the Sultan of Oman as an interlocutor, this secret channel of communication had resulted in four letters being sent from Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.

While the Cuban and Iranian initiatives were deeply controversial in Washington, they were an admission that US policy towards both countries had failed.

Cubans are hopeful that President-elect Biden will start a process of easing sanctions and once again brokering talks with the Cuban government. While Biden has insisted he will prioritise human rights in US foreign relations, he could hardly lecture Cuba on human rights while the US maintains an illegal base on the island used to imprison and torture detainees in defiance of international law.

Similarly he would not be in a strong position to lecture other countries on human rights when under the Obama administration the US expanded its drone program in Pakistan which the UN deemed a violation of international law.

Another welcome shift from the last four years of US foreign policy is the fact that Biden has pledged to reassess US-Saudi relations, and some of his close advisors are in favour of ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The fly in the ointment is the fact that many of those that will seek to advise Biden going forward have direct links to the US military-industrial complex. Of Biden’s appointed Defence Agency Review Team, at least eight of the 23 members have listed as their most recent employer think tanks or companies that receive money from the weapons industry.

A number of team members have worked for the conservative right wing think tanks RAND, CSIS and CNAS, the latter two being the top two recipients of donations from US defence contractors.

One can only hope that Biden stays true to his statement made last year while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President when he said, “It’s past time to end the Forever Wars which have cost the US untold blood.”

He should have also acknowledged the untold number of lives lost of citizens of foreign countries as a result of US military intervention, as well as the vast destruction of their civil infrastructure and livelihoods.

The downside of what we can expect from Biden’s foreign policy is that hostility towards China is unlikely to abate. Trump’s abrasive and offensive rhetoric on China will not likely characterise the style of the incoming Biden administration, but behind the scenes the US will likely ramp up its strategy to attempt to counter China’s rise and impede it where possible. Unions and left wing groups in the US who voted for Biden tend to blame China for American job losses and factory closures.

Biden’s strategy will likely be to forge common foreign policy positions on China with the US’s traditional allies in Europe and try to pressure China as a collective of Western powers.

But with the US having retreated from its role as a global hegemon under the Trump administration, and with China having very effectively flexed its muscles as a global leader in promoting multilateral cooperation, championing trade cooperation across regions, and assisting developing countries in their coronavirus response, the US is no longer perceived as the global leader that it once was.

The most constructive outcome would be for the new US administration to work together with China in confronting global challenges, rather than pouring its resources into a new global confrontation.

With climate change posing one of the greatest challenges to the current and future generations, only real global collaboration from world leaders with a vision will produce the results that the world so desperately needs for its own sustainability.