Allies, competitors & adversaries

Biden with Harris and Blinken

Last week, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris went to visit the United States State Department which is just over a mile from the White House. Biden’s speech, which you can read here, appeared to have at least four different audiences.

To the men and women who represent the United States around the world, he told them that diplomacy is back at the center of the US’s foreign policy. He also said that their new boss, Secretary of State Tony Blinken had his full support and more importantly that he “had their back”. He encouraged them to bring different points of view to the process of policymaking and that dissenting views were ok.

A second audience appeared to be the governments and people of the US.’s friends around the world. Biden spoke about how the new administration would rebuild the U.S.’ alliances and earn back its former leadership position. He said he will go back to full cooperation with them and re-build its alliances since no one country can take on the global challenges alone.

With respect to Saudi Arabia, he spoke at length about ending the war in Yemen through diplomatic means and at the same time underscored his administration’s commitment to defend the Kingdom against its enemies.

A third audience was the governments of China, Russia, and other totalitarian regimes such as the junta who have taken over the government of Myanmar (Burma). In Burma, he called for an end to the military government and the release of all of the people they have detained.

Alexei Navalny

Biden referred to China as “our most serious competitor” and Russia as an adversary. He specifically made mention of a warning he issued to Vladimir Putin in a recent telephone call that he would no longer “rollover” in the face of Russian cyber attacks. He also called for the immediate release of Alexei Navalny.

The administration will, however, work to achieve agreements with both countries and he spoke about the renewal of the START agreement with Russia for the next five years as an example.

The last audience that Biden spoke to was American public opinion. The main idea that both he and Tony Blinken put forward was that engagement with the rest of the world was a condition for peace and prosperity at home. In Biden’s words peace, security and human progress reflect the U.S.’ own “naked self-interest” and that every policy will be developed in the interest of the working men and women of the United States. He went on to list a number of initiatives such as a review of the country’s armed forces deployment, restoring the country’s asylum program, and pushing for fair treatment of all minorities around the world regardless of their ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Interestingly enough, Biden made no mention of Iran. According to CNN, this is because Secretary Blinken and his colleagues are currently working to develop a policy in consultation with congress and international allies before going public with it.

As it happens I am teaching a class on the links between geopolitics and business strategy this semester. My students have asked me repeatedly about what the Biden administration means for the U.S.’s relations with the world and how different it will be from the Trump administration.

After Biden’s speech, it seems clear to me that the basic geopolitical alliances and tensions will not change too much although the tone and style of foreign policy will be like night and day. Biden will be warmer with friends and allies but will, occasionally disagree with them when he feels there is an issue of values for example concerning the war in Yemen.  He will, at the same time, be much tougher with China, Russia, and other countries although that resolve will be shown in concerted action with allies or through quiet diplomacy rather than public tweets and off-the-cuff remarks.

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump

For some governments, the change will be unwelcome and uncomfortable as it was easier to understand the Trump/Pompeo approach which was all about each nation defending its own narrow self-interest without being overly concerned about American values.

On this subject, Biden made the commitment that he and his administration will put values such as freedom, opportunity, universal rights, the rule of law, and human dignity at the center of its policy.

In my view, that is how it should be.