Biden’s foreign policy challenges vis-à-vis the other elephants in the room: Russia, Europe, and the United Kingdom

Breakfast With Bwana

It will be difficult to get all these challenges right, easy to muck it up

By Anil Madan

On December 7, the anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, it is instructive to think how Japan and the U.S., two former enemies as recently as in the second World War, each the object of a signature devastating attack on the other — acknowledging, of course, that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a spatial dimension apart from Pearl Harbour — have achieved a rapprochement that would have been unthinkable in 1941 or 1945. Today, the U.S. and Japan are allies and dependent on each other in a mostly constructive relationship. Vietnam provides another example that post-war peaceful and cooperative coexistence is possible with a communist country.

Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, arrive at the Guatemalan air force base in Guatemala City on March 2, 2015. Photo – Getty Images

In my first commentary on the foreign policy challenges facing future President Biden, I emphasized how India and the U.S. once less than fast friends could and probably will emerge as indispensable partners, driven there by the necessity of dealing cooperatively and cohesively with China. 

The examples of Japan and Vietnam should provoke President-elect Biden and his advisers to take an enlightened view of the U.S.’s relations with China, seeing an opportunity to build a constructive and cooperative, maybe even friendly, relationship. There is much to be gained by encouraging China to agree on rules of conduct that will govern competition within acceptable rules and norms while also joining with the U.S., Europe, and Britain to solve common problems with global ramifications. 

We will return to China in future commentaries. For now, let us focus on the other elephants — or rather, ancient mastodons — in the room that cannot and should not be ignored: Russia, Europe, and the United Kingdom. Obviously, Turkey and NATO must be brought into the matrix.

Russia’s ongoing diplomatic guerilla war

Russia continues to present the most difficult, but not the most important challenge for the U.S. Having lost almost every major economic and diplomatic battle and certainly the Cold War to the U.S., Russia is an ungracious combatant refusing to concede that hostilities should be ended. Led by Putin, Russia remains engaged in an ongoing diplomatic guerilla war, taking potshots here and there at the U.S.

The lesson here is that we are paying the price for not having had the wisdom and foresight to agree on competition under acceptable rules and norms. The agreements that the U.S. and the Soviet Union made on arms control, missiles, and nonproliferation were illusory. Neither side wanted to be destroyed. Neither side was about to risk self-destruction by attempting a preemptive first strike. Yet, we wasted enormous bandwidth on agreements that would have been unnecessary if we had instead focused on build a constructive trading and economic relationship. With each country seeing the other’s economic system as incompatible with its own, Russia and the U.S. never stopped to imagine where they might cooperate. 

The time has come to change our approach and rebuild our relationship with Russia and use the lessons of the past not to make the same mistake with China. It is not difficult to see that America has little to gain from continuing conflict with Russia and perhaps little to lose as well but the ongoing distraction caused by Russia’s nagging presence on the world scene invades bandwidth needed to deal with other more pressing problems. Russia is simply not an existential threat to the U.S. or to Europe despite its capability to cause much destruction. But to what end? Russia itself would not survive a preemptive attack on Western Europe or the U.S. On the other side, neither the EU nor the U.S. has anything to gain from the destruction of Russia.

A constructive relationship is possible if the U.S. encourages Russia’s role as a major supplier of natural gas to Europe. In turn, Europe can be an important source of needed food and manufactured goods for Russia. President Biden must make it clear, however, that Russia cannot use its gas supply to exert leverage as it did with Ukraine. Russia’s agreement to engage with the U.S. and Europe based on constructive rules and norms would, in turn, allow Russia access to American technology as well as free access to capital, credit, and banking networks. These accommodations will allow Russia to upgrade its infrastructure and to deploy its income from supplying gas to improve the lives of its people.

This challenge for America is made all the more difficult because the U.S. must feel an unwelcome stranger when looking across the pond, whether it is at Russia, the EU countries, Turkey, or even the NATO alliance. The exception is, of course, Britain. This state of affairs is not entirely Donald Trump’s fault although he is the author of much of the chaos that prevails.

Biden’s primary task will be to convince European countries that there is no binary choice between the U.S. and Russia as we move forward. Rather, the common threads of Democracy and western concepts of freedom, natural justice, due process, human rights, and competition in free markets, should define the matrix into which Russia is welcomed. Donald Trump’s scolding of Angela Merkel and Germany over the Russia-Germany gas pipeline was misplaced and counterproductive.

There was no chance that Germany would forgo a source of cheap energy even if the deal entails the risk of overdependence on Russia. That kind of behaviour from an American president may have the perverse effect that European countries will resent American interference and be driven to do deals with Russia that ignore the common interests of western countries. Avoiding that kind of lose-lose situation is a delicate proposition that requires keen attention on the part of the U.S. and European countries.

In due course, a similar clarity with China will be needed as Europe, Britain, African, and Latin American countries become more accepting of Chinese technology such as Huawei’s 5G networks and devices.

Reliable allies: Britain and the U.S.

Britain and the U.S. have long had a special relationship made stronger by America’s military and financial support during World War II. The U.S. and the U.K. have been reliable allies standing up for each other over the decades since. The relationship is about to be put to the test as Britain and the EU enter the final stages of the Brexit dance.

With Britain committed to its Brexit strategy, America is in the delicate position of supporting and protecting Britain while not antagonizing the EU. Britain and the EU have important trading relations with the U.S., and each is an important market for each other. But there are difficult emotional, economic, and practical problems. There is an almost visceral opposition in Britain and America to the EU’s moralizing, political correctness, and regulatory overreach. This translates to sympathetic understanding, even support from Americans of Britain’s rejection of governance from Brussels. 

The EU’s regulators seem determined to show America and American companies who is boss. The task for the U.S. president is to forge a regulatory scheme in common with the EU so that American and European companies can do business in without having to comply with disparate regulatory requirements and risk prosecution and disciplinary administrative sanctions for antitrust, privacy compliance, and intellectual property management. In effect, a Biden administration will have to convince the EU’s regulators that European sovereignty is not at issue here, that Europe must abandon the need to impose punitive sanctions on American companies.

In short, finding a way to treat the U.S., the EU, and the U.K. as a common market while maintaining the independence of each is the task for the next decade. One part of the solution is to undertake the Herculean task of a common regulatory regimen. European and British advisers can participate with American regulators in oversight of companies with American advisers being granted reciprocal participation.

The future of NATO

All of this is complicated by deciding the future of NATO. Conceived initially as the continental bulwark against Soviet aggression, and now a de facto dinner club to which Russia does not belong, NATO still serves an important function. In bringing Europe’s previously warring states together, NATO has helped forge peace on the Continent and, indeed, made it possible to imagine that cooperation could be extended and that imagination led to the EC and the EU. But is NATO really necessary as a military defense network against Russia? Probably not.

Here Biden’s chief task and biggest challenge are not to sell this notion to Europe, but rather to convince Putin that America no longer regards Russia as an existential threat or cares to engage in continuing hostilities. There are reports that Putin may step down from the Russian presidency in 2021. That may or may not be a good thing. If Putin is replaced by another paranoid ex-KGB nationalist, Russia’s ultra-sensitive approach to its diminished status on the world stage may continue unabated. On the other hand, if the U.S. and Europe see Russia as a potential market with opportunities for investment, development, and cooperation, the easing of tensions will redound to the benefit of Europe and America and hopefully improve the lives of the Russian people.

Convincing Russia to change course could be as simple as getting enlightened American and Russian leaders to understand and acknowledge that neither country has much to show for seven decades of suspicion and mistrust. The ongoing cooperation with respect to the ISS suggests that there is merit to a change of course. In the twenty-first century, it should be clear to Russia that no European country has designs on Russian territory and certainly, the U.S. does not.

What about the other way around? Does Russia present an existential threat to Europe? It is simply too difficult to predict what Russia might do with respect to any of the former Soviet Republics. The experience with Crimea, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and Putin’s veiled threats concerning Belarus cannot be ignored. But it is unlikely that Russian aggression will extend to Germany which is now a major customer for Russian natural gas and a source of foreign exchange. France and the U.K. are nuclear powers. The rest of Europe offers no strategic opportunities for Russia in today’s world.

Turkey is the wild card here. It has sought membership in the EU but been denied. Whether true or not, the perception is that the European countries were not too anxious to have open borders with an Islamic country even if it viewed itself as secular. Whether that rejection led President Erdogan to erode Turkey’s secular nature is not clear. But it is difficult to see Turkey being invited to join the EU any time soon. Meanwhile, Turkey has turned to Russia for military equipment and become more belligerent on the world stage. The danger here is that Turkey will continue to pivot away from its alliances with Europe and cause more havoc with Greece, in the Middle East, and with Israel.

The challenge for President Biden is to stop this erosion of what has generally been a productive and cooperative relationship with Turkey in its tracks and re-engage with that country.

It will be difficult to get all these challenges right, easy to muck it up.


* Published in print edition on 11 December 2020

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