US foreign policy guidelines in the Biden era

EWEI Chairman Giuseppe Scognamiglio addresses to Associazione Diplomatici’s students


The inauguration ceremony of the 46th President, held in Washington on January 20th, marked the beginning of a new course for the United States and a return to democracy following the coup events on Capitol Hill.

"Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured. […] America has been tested, and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again".President Joe Biden, during his inaugural address

Biden immediately set to work to remedy the difficult and chaotic legacy of Trump, but we would approximate the facts if we thought of a revolution in stars and stripes dictated by the new occupant of the White House. Trump has certainly been a controversial, and at times schizophrenic, protagonist on the international scene, but Biden will not overturn every dossier.

“Let’s start afresh. There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face. We will take action - not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration - but also to start moving our country forward” - President Biden on his first day in the Oval Office.

The return to multilateralism will be the hallmark of the new administration. The system of alliances built not without effort in the post-war period has suffered in the last four years not only a lack of support but even attacks from the US. Of primary importance in the current global situation, characterized by the persistence of the Covid-19 pandemic, is the announced return of Washington to the WHO. In recent days, the administration has communicated to the director of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, through the immunologist Anthony Fauci, his gratitude for the management of the emergency and confirmed intent to resume the financial commitment in support of the Organization. Trump’s decision to suspend contributions to the WHO, accusing it of collusion with the Chinese government, shocked the international community, not only because of the decision itself but because it was adopted at the most tragic moment in recent history, when the need for efficient global multilateral governance was felt by all. The accusations levied by Trump sound questionable. Suffice to say that the United States has always been one of the top partners of the Organization (mainly in health security, polio eradication, primary health care and maternal child health) and it accounted for 15.18% of the total WHO budget in 2019. Hard to imagine that the United States set aside within an organization that they primarily manage.

A starting clarification is essential: WHO gets its funding from two main sources: Member States paying their assessed contributions (membership dues), and voluntary contributions from Member States and other partners. Assessed contributions (AC) are a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product (the percentage is agreed on by the United Nations General Assembly), while voluntary contributions (VC) are largely from Member States as well as from other United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, the private sector, and other sources. According to the 2019 official report published by WHO, the United States was in first place as contributor followed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (12.12% - private foundation) and GAVI Alliance (8.18% - cooperation between public and private entities with the aim of improving access to immunization for the human population in poor countries). The US endowment amounted to USD 892,785, 76% of which were voluntary contributions (USD 655,873).In fact, the United States contributed to refining the budget also through donations by the Gates Foundation (of American origins) and GAVI Alliance, being one of the Vaccine Alliance's original six donor countries and contributing to its work through direct aid (USD 290 million in 2020 – 18.7% of the total budget). Moreover, the United States has been a global health partner, providing not only financial and technical support but also participating in the governance structure of the Organization (Executive Board member and engaged member of the World Health Assembly, the supreme decision-making body for the agency, convened annually. It is responsible for selecting the DG, setting priorities, and approving WHO’s budget and activities) and serving as a pillar for economic prosperity.

Today, the 2020 WHO budget was published. The US has dropped to third place (7.85% - USD 594,796 total, of which USD 357,885 was voluntary) leaving the gold medal to Germany (12.18% - 6th in 2019). Voluntary contributions have been practically halved in the last year. The Gates Foundation is confirmed in second place with sharply decreased donations (11.65%). GAVI Alliance dropped to 6th place, surpassed by UK and Northern Ireland (4th place with 6.83%, up from 5th in 2019) and the European Commission (5th place – 6.24%, up from9th in 2019 with a contribution of 3.05%). Tenth position went to the newly-introduced COVID-19 Solidarity Fund (2.46% - a global fund to sustain WHO’s fight against COVID-19). China holds the 20th position, contributing only 1.01% of the overall budget (37th in 2019 accounting for 0.21%).

Covid-19 showed the world the indispensable role of WHO, whose revenues it is unthinkable to reduce. Instead, Member States should double financing and create internal policies that encourage public and private foundations to donate. There are three key steps to implement in order to guarantee WHO effectiveness:

  1. increased funding for scientific research;
  2. creation of an emergency response task force with the right expertise to identify and isolate any new global outbreaks;
  3. improvement of organization and logistics (possible partnership between military emergency forces and WHO’s scientific and organizational structures).

It is important, then, to equip WHO not only with monitoring tools but also with intervening ones. To avoid relying on luck, we need to invest in research and technology. The issue of a quick reaction force is being considered: just as NATO is equipped with rapidly deployable forces ready to intervene, WHO must have health forces ready to intervene, as well, when necessary, otherwise collectivity risks paralysis and lead to unsustainable conditions at a psychological, sanitary and economic level.

Today international cooperation is more essential than ever. No nation in the world, not even the United States, can handle a global crisis on its own. Climate change, global trade, public health and peacekeeping require governments to coordinate their actions responsibly. Trump has shown that it is easy to fracture global institutions through accusations and allusions, but he was not able to propose a viable alternative. Another example, in addition to the one already mentioned with reference to the WHO, is the paralysis the former president triggered in the WTO. Trump has never made a secret of his aversion to the WTO; he has always accused the Organization of damaging the United States and favoring other countries (and especially China) when deciding on disputes between members. In reality, according to an analysis carried out by the European University Institute, the United States has the highest percentage of open and won disputes of all the members, equal to 70%; as complainants, they have won 42% of the time, more than all other states.

The numbers would argue Trump is wrong. However, these did not prevent the boycott enforced by the United States, as early as the year of Trump’s inauguration in the White House (2017), blocking consensus for the appointment of the judges of the Appellate Body. The Appellate Body is a permanent group of seven members entrusted with reviewing the legal aspects of the reports issued by panels in disputes brought by WTO Members. The Appellate Body is thus the second and final stage in the adjudicatory process of the Dispute Settlement Mechanism (DSM). Appellate Body Reports are adopted by the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) unless ALL members decide not to do so. The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism (DSM) has been emasculated by a United States that had blocked appointment or reappointment of Appellate Body (AB) Members, reducing the number of sitting AB Members to three, based on various procedural and substantive objections to Appellate Body practices, some dating from 2002.

In the multilateral context, one of the very first measures launched by the new administration, emblematic and deliberately so, is the return of the United States to the Paris Agreements, signed in 2015.

“Today [21 Jan], @POTUS rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, restoring America’s credibility and commitment — setting a floor, not a ceiling, for our climate leadership. Working together, the world must and will raise ambition. It’s time to get to work - the road to Glasgow begins here…” – Tweet by Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry

The decision has been warmly welcomed by international institutions and has brought hope to civil society. The EU, through  High Representative Borrell, has stated that it is looking forward to working with the United States to tackle this decisive challenge of our time. The 2020 economic upheaval had inadvertently put the United States on track to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. In absolute numbers, 2020 remains the greenest year in recent history with a decline in total emissions of 6.4% (only 2.8% in 2019). In general, CO2 emissions have decreased more in the regions that have suffered the first and greatest impacts of COVID-19: China (-8%), the European Union (-8%) and the United States (-9%, also as a result of milder climate conditions). Biden also set a further goal -- carbon neutrality by 2050 -- thus strengthening the country’s commitment to the fight against climate change. Significantly reducing carbon emissions is the most urgent mission; this is the same main objective of the European Green Deal for climate neutrality, which to achieve, it will be essential to invest in efficient renewable energy sources. The strategy aims to arrive at an economic system with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions achievable through two ways: balancing carbon dioxide emissions with carbon offsets or reducing carbon emissions to zero through changing energy sources and industry processes.

Biden also promised, soon after elections, the intention to re-join the Iranian nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but resuscitating the agreement will not be easy.

“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” promised Biden as a candidate back in September. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would re-join the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations”.

When Donald Trump ran for President, he promised a "better deal" to limit Iran’s nuclear program and pledged to put pressure on Tehran to stop its aggressive behaviour throughout the Middle East. After leaving the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration increased sanctions against Iran. Tehran responded by exceeding the limits of its nuclear programme set by the agreement. Since that time, Iran has carried out different “destabilizing activities”: Tehran developed an advanced arsenal of ballistic missiles, produced uranium in excess of the stockpile cap (limit set to 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas), and its heavy water stockpile has fluctuated, at times dipping below the 130-ton limit. Also, Iran has continued to install advanced centrifuges for the production of enriched uranium up to 4.5 percent (limit set to 3.67%).

Biden has said he will resume the deal if Iran returns to compliance, which Iranian officials have signalled they are willing to do. He also indicated that he wanted to negotiate another agreement to address the Iranian missile program and support for regional armed partners, an idea that Iranian officials have rejected so far. These difficulties would also be compounded by the possibility that a renegotiated agreement might require the approval of Congress. On January 5th, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by any operational limitations of the JCPOA, but that it would maintain compliance with its safeguard obligations under the deal. Since then, Iran has not taken any apparent additional steps to violate the deal, but Tehran specifically wants the US to lift sanctions and unfreeze Iran’s foreign financial assets before it agrees to roll back its latest nuclear developments. President Joe Biden’s team has made clear in its earliest hours that a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal is unlikely — potentially prolonging a foreign policy crisis many in Washington had hoped to resolve quickly. The problem is also that Iran has a presidential election coming this summer, and Rouhani, who was President when the nuclear deal was signed and who staked much of his political future on making the deal happen, will be leaving office after his second and final term ends. The next Iranian president might not be as amenable to saving the nuclear pact, which means Biden may only have a few months before the reentry window closes.

New Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced that the administration is already at work on other foreign policy lines. It is worth recalling the objective of strengthening and expanding Abraham’s agreements between Israel and Arab countries, a "new strategy" against the North Korean nuclear threat, the revision of the peace agreement signed by Trump with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the re-launch of NATO and relations with European allies. Not everything will change drastically; Joe Biden immediately sent the first tough signals to Russia and China. Unlike President Trump, he stressed the need to work closely with allies and international organizations to present a united front against two countries which Washington considers its main competitors. The new American president wants to overturn Trump’s complacency towards Putin. On the one hand, he is ready to extend for another five years the New START Treaty (due to expire in February 2021) for the control of nuclear arsenals and for the sake of national and international security. On the other hand, he is preparing for new sanctions on Russian interference in elections, cyber-attacks, Navalny poisoning and human rights violations.

"President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies," the White House said in a statement, referencing the main talking points of Tuesday January 26th afternoon's call but listing no further details. A Kremlin statement did not refer to any points of friction, saying the call was "businesslike and frank".

Since the 2017 speech at the Communist Congress Party, Xi Jinping’s China proposed itself as a “mighty force” on the international scenario, capable to lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues. Beijing "no longer hides", openly demonstrating that it is aiming for world leadership. The relationship between the United States and China was defined by Obama, at the time, as the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Obama was the first president of the United States to visit China during the first year in office. H idea was to establish fruitful relations with Beijing but the assumptions have gradually changed. Although relations have always remained positive, China’s failure to evolve towards practices closer to the US disappointed many of those who had hoped for a more solid partnership. They were distressed by the fact that there was not yet a free-market economy and by the constant repression of dissent and the moves to limit Western business in China. In addition, China’s relentless cyber espionage and the theft of American industrial secrets outraged many in the United States government, including the president. Obama’s strategy then focused on countering the growing Chinese protagonism through the so-called "Pivot to Asia" focused on security and trade. Obama’s National Security Strategy, which was based on a cautious approach to China’s rise to prominence in an attempt to incorporate Beijing into a strategic partnership, was deemed unsuccessful by the Trump administration.

Since then, tensions between the giants have grown exponentially during the Trump Presidency, with several hot topics: the so-called trade war and the clash on custom duties, the Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea area, the issue of Taiwan, the protests in Hong Kong, the issue of Uyghurs and Chinese adventurism in space. In order to contain this renewed Chinese assertiveness, Biden’s United States is committed to recruiting American allies such as Europe and Japan to put pressure on China to make economic reforms (e.g. on protection of intellectual property). The president has committed to devote more resources to improve production capacity, but also infrastructure and technological development, to ensure that the United States maintains an advantage over China by investing large sums in areas such as telecommunications, artificial intelligence and semiconductors. Moreover, the future head of Washington’s diplomacy assured that the commitment to ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself would continue under the Biden administration and, in addition, Trump’s decision to define Chinese conduct against the Uyghurs as "genocide" was confirmed.

"I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state", Mr Pompeo said in a statement on his last day in office as part of Donald Trump's administration. China reacted angrily, dismissing the statement as "outrageous lies". Mr Blinken was asked at his confirmation hearing if he agreed with Mr Pompeo's announcement, to which he answered: "That would be my judgment as well”. He added: "On the Uighurs I think we're very much in agreement. And the forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide".

In the new global bipolarism, "US-China" mediation must be European. Europe must play a more active part, which means working on its role as a mediator and guarantor of de-escalation, by becoming the protagonist of an initiative for dialogue. Europe has many similar objectives on both sides; it will be necessary to develop a public, political and cultural debate in order to foster a strategic vision of global security in which there are no tensions, no winners or losers. On Sunday, January 24th, President Biden called French President Macron, the very first EU Leader he reached out to. “The two Presidents had a friendly and in-depth working conversation during which they noted a great convergence of views on multilateral issues as well as on issues of crisis and international security”, Macron’s office said in a statement. Biden has expressed his desire to strengthen bilateral ties with the US’ oldest ally. President Biden also stressed his commitment to bolstering the transatlantic relationship, including through NATO and a partnership with the European Union. The leaders agreed on the need for close coordination, including through multilateral organizations, in tackling common challenges such as climate change, Covid-19, and a global economic recovery. They also agreed to work together on shared foreign policy priorities, including China, the Middle East, Russia, and the Sahel.

Furthermore, it would be necessary to reopen the G2 dialogue, to ease tensions and benefit both the parties and the international community. The informal agreement between the United States of America and China, which consists of the bilateral and, in some ways, privileged relationship between these two states, cracked under Trump’s “America First” policy. Since the Trump administration ended, Beijing has indicated its desire to reset or salvage China’s relationship with the US in several ways. Addressing a foreign audience via a recorded video to the World Economic Forum on Monday January 25th, and with Biden notably absent, Xi said antagonism and confrontation would only hurt everyone and ideological confrontations should be put aside. The US has deemed China a threat. Xi and Biden have not yet held phone conversations, but the new US president has talked with allies, and countering the rise of China has been a frequently mentioned topic in those exchanges.

Last but not least, it is worth mention that, despite the huge damage to global trade, Covid-19 could help bolster China's Belt and Road Initiative. The operation is Chinese but not exclusively. More than 290 billion dollars have been allocated for more than 1400 projects and part of the funds come from the Asian Development Bank, among whose shareholders is the United States (15.6%).

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