Biden's first speech on foreign policy – Insights and implications for Israel


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | February 18, 2021

Biden First Speech
Photo: The White House Youtube Channel


On February 4, President Biden delivered his first speech on foreign policy during a symbolic visit to the State Department. Prior to it, he held a virtual talk with young diplomats starting their foreign service, during which the U.S. President promised to give them his full support. Secretary of State Blinken, who hosted Biden, and Kamala Harris, who joined him, stated that the U.S. intends to lead with value-based diplomacy and the restoration of alliances, as well as to shape reality on a global level, instead of merely reacting to events. They also underscored the close affiliation between U.S. domestic power and its power globally.



Highlights from the speech


Key message: The United States cannot stand idly by; it must lead the world as it faces future challenges. The United States views diplomacy as the main instrument by which it intends to become engaged once more and return to a leading global position.


Method: The United States cannot resolve global challenges alone. It must take joint action and respond together with international institutions and its allies, such as Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The United States needs to restore these alliances, as they have been neglected and have dwindled over the past few years. Its alliances are its key asset. The United States will therefore act with transparency, using the free media, and be fully committed to science and facts. The United States must safeguard American values – freedom, the rule of law, a dignified existence for all humans, and democracy – and tighten their affiliation with diplomacy, as they are the sources of its power and relative edge. An effective foreign policy depends on domestic issues, recovery, and economic renewal, as well as on addressing racism. No distinguishing line is drawn between domestic and foreign policy.


Global challenges: Pandemics, the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, strengthening tyranny and authoritarianism, China's growing ambitions to compete with the United States, and Russia's determination to undermine and sabotage its democracy.


China and Russia: Both are marked as the United States' key adversaries. China is "the most serious rival", and the challenges it poses to the United States' prosperity, security, and democratic values must be met head on. The United States will confront China's negative economic actions, impede its aggressive moves, human rights and intellectual property violations, and its disruption of global governance. The United States will no longer stand idly by while Russia continues to take aggressive action – interfering in elections, engaging in cybersecurity attacks, and oppressing its citizens – but instead will not hesitate to make it pay while protecting American interests.


Concrete foreign policy statements and resolutions: A demand to immediately and unconditionally release Russian opposition leader Navalny, and concern over Moscow's efforts to prevent protesting and freedom of expression. A demand that the army in Burma concede the power it has seized, remove media limitations, and refrain from violence. The start of a dialogue with the World Health Organization (WHO) as means of building readiness for grappling with the pandemic and preventing the next ones. Hosting two international summits this year on climate and democracy. Prioritizing cybersecurity threats, including the unprecedented appointment of a designated deputy national security advisor, and the launching of an urgent initiative to improve cybersecurity capabilities and preparedness. A re-examination of U.S. troops' global deployment headed by the Secretary of Defense, until the end of which the decision regarding forces' withdrawal from Germany will be suspended. The appointment of a special envoy (Tim Lenderking) as part of the accelerated diplomatic effort to end the war in Yemen, which Biden referred to as "a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe". To demonstrate its commitment to this issue, the United States will terminate all support of offensive operations in this war, including relevant weapon sales [some 10000 precise air-to-surface missiles to Saudi Arabia], while continuing to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against missile and UAV attacks by forces supported and supplied by Iran. Renewing the U.S. refugee resettlement program, increasing the number of entry permits, and cancelling the discriminatory prohibition in this context against citizens from Muslim countries.



Where the Middle East features in Biden's foreign policy and implications for Israel


Throughout his speech, Biden clearly attempted to present his administration's views as the very opposite of Trump's "America First" policy. However, the most fundamental aspect of this speech was the presentation of U.S. strategic set of foreign priorities. The need to restore the United States' status as leader and credibility globally, both morally and politically, is at the heart of this policy. It is a crucial precondition for the United States' ability to protect its interests, and address the global challenges and threats jeopardizing its security and supremacy: the climate crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, the great power competition, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity attacks, and the erosion of democracy worldwide.


The speech reflects the new administration's extreme sensitivity vis à vis China and Russia. Its strategic competition with China, particularly over who is in the technological lead, is a key shaper in this administration's foreign policy. There are strong ties between great power competition and Biden's acute needs to generate economic growth and gain popularity domestically. Winning this competition would show the world that a democratic regime is not only freer, but more effective (contrary to China's messages on the matter).


As for the Middle East – beyond the aspects associated with the war and severe humanitarian crisis in Yemen (including the United States' commitment to protect Saudi Arabia), this region did not feature in the speech. This fact demonstrates that the Middle East does not rank high on the Biden Administration's list of priorities. Yet two urgent matters will force it to pay attention to this region and make some difficult decisions: Iran and Afghanistan.


With regard to Iran, the Biden Administration warns that Tehran may reach the point where it will be just "weeks" away from accumulating enough fissile material for a bomb, states that a solution for this problem must be urgently promoted, and holds frantic consultations on this matter with its European allies.


With regard to Afghanistan, the Biden Administration will have to decide whether to withdraw the 2500 U.S. troops that have remained there by May 1 in accordance with the peace agreement signed by and between the Trump Administration and the Taliban, and risk the latter taking over, and the waging of a civil war.


Judging by its priorities, the new administration is not likely to invest in the renewal of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians anytime soon, as the chances of it succeeding under the current circumstances are slim. However, it may be required to make strategic decisions in this matter if the Palestinian elections will proceed to take place in May.


As for Israel, the fact that the incoming president did not list it, presumably intentionally, among the United States' closest allies, is striking. Along with the fact that Biden took a while to call Prime Minister Netanyahu, these two actions express the rage the new administration harbors toward Israel due to its view that Israel is seeking to thwart Biden's ability to return to the diplomatic path vis à vis Iran, and in the shadow of building permits it has issued for settlements in Judea and Samaria.


To conclude, the Biden Administration is fighting for the lead in the international theater (which is a fundamental Israeli interest) and perceives itself as being at a historical point in time with regard to foreign policy and its ties to domestic American issues. Only if Israel will realize that the new administration is busy with issues far greater than the Middle East, and even the Iranian nuclear challenge, will it be able to impact the Biden Administration's policy in areas important to it, and avoid mistakes in areas crucial to the U.S. (China, Russia). An Israeli policy that will create leeway in the Middle East for the new administration on the Palestinian issue or in other contexts, including the Iranian one, will allow Israel to strengthen its status as the United States' valuable ally, and ensure strong American support for its own interests as it faces the many challenges that lie ahead.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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