Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email email@example.com.
Yogi Berra’s classic quip defining when it’s “over” couldn’t be more descriptive of this year’s Presidential election. Pending legal challenges and recounts, it appears as if Joe Biden will be the White House occupant come January 20th.
Attention therefore naturally turns to the agenda of a Biden Presidency, and to one area in particular given short shrift throughout the lengthy campaign: foreign affairs. How might a President Biden address the key foreign policy challenges that can mean the difference between peace and war in multiple corners of the globe? It is to 2021 and those challenges, therefore, that we now turn.
There are at least three major issues where the road for the new foreign policy team seems reasonably clear: on China – whether to confront or engage? for Iran – do we negotiate or intensify pressure? and with Russia – do we sidle up to Putin or lead a hardened western response?
But there are also at least two other major issues - and many more of lesser significance - where the road ahead is almost completely imponderable: North Korea, and Trade; even the alternatives for dealing with these two challenges are hard to define.
Let’s start where one can make reasonable guesses on key issue next-steps by the new foreign policy team (and by the way, except perhaps for CIA Director Gina Haspel, there will be no Bob Gates-like holdovers):
First, on China: Make no mistake, the next four years will ones of confrontation with the PRC, not ones of competition or engagement. Certainly, the new president will look for areas where cooperation might get the two sides off the down-escalator - like on climate and nuclear proliferation; but Xi Jing Ping has staked out an adventurous agenda that no U.S. President or Congress can ignore.
Biden and his team, like Trump’s, will continue to push back against the Xi-inspired “Wolf Warriors;” the major difference will be a Biden effort to bring the voices of key allies to be bear against Chinese behavior that is undermining global norms in human rights, trade, and international maritime law.
But the new president will not jettison Trump’s and Pompeo’s Indo-Pacific strategy, one that embeds a critical “Quad” alignment of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. to counter China’s regional ambitions.
In the end, however, the existential question for the new team is a simple one: is countering China’s growing hegemony in East Asia worth going to war over? No candidate during the primaries, and certainly not President Trump or the President-elect, dared to ask the question. The need to ask it, and more importantly, to answer it, is increasing by the month.
Second, Iran: there will be no line of policy continuity here; expect an effort to reengage with Tehran in the weeks immediately following inauguration; and as with the push-back against the PRC, this outreach will be preceded by discussions with the UK, France, and Germany, whose leaders approached Trump before the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal (“JCPOA”) with pleas to hold off, and with sensible ideas on how to improve the flawed agreement.
To be clear, though, any renegotiation with Tehran will be a fraught endeavor. Iran now has an apparent Chinese lifeline, and they feel they’ve been burned by the U.S. in walking away from a deal they were upholding. Expect talks, but no quick resolution. Tensions in the Gulf, though, should diminish as the U.S. backs off its “maximum pressure” campaign.
Third, Russia: Putin’s days in the “BFF Club” are over; but savvy as he is, Putin deftly began distancing himself from Trump in the weeks prior to the election. Biden’s team will look for areas of cooperation, as slim as they appear to be at this point -- nuclear arms control (extending New Start) and perhaps cooperation in the Arctic.
Biden knows Putin well; and unlike his long-standing relationships with other world leaders like Bibi Netanyahu with whom he enjoys a friendship, the President-elect is no fan of Vladimir.
But Biden also knows the stark reality of pressing against Putin’s strategic interests in Russia’s “near abroad:” beyond rhetoric, and yet more rounds of targeted sanctions, there is very little in the end the U.S. and our key allies can do to bring Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, or Georgia into western security and economic institutions if Putin objects.
And on the imponderables or wild cards, consider two:
North Korea: Even though he didn’t move the denuclearization ball forward on the peninsula, President Trump deserves some credit for trying a different approach to the Hermit Kingdom; and some of the “love” lingers, reflected in Pyongyang’s continued abeyance in nuclear testing. But the complete unpredictability of Kim Jong Un, far more than uncertainty about the team Biden gathers to handle this issue, makes it impossible at this point to predict future US policy toward Pyongyang.
Trade: This is probably the one area, next to defense spending, where the foreign policy fissures in the Democratic party loom largest, and where the new president will find it most challenging to bridge to a coherent end-game. It’s what makes any forecast here a wild card. The “bridging” will be a clear test of Biden’s political leadership, in what is now clearly his party.
Sadly, because of the yawning disagreements between progressives and the President’s more centrist inclinations on this issue - and of course, differences with Republicans -Trade Promotion Authority is likely to expire next year, dooming promising trade deals with key partners like the UK and the EU.
As I have written before, despite stark differences in Presidential temperament, rhetoric, and announced foreign policy doctrine (“America First” vs “America Engaged”), there nevertheless will likely be some lines of continuity between President #45 and #46.
But make no mistake: the differences are enormous; and taken together, the shift from Trump to Biden will represent one of the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy execution since WWII.
The Carter-Reagan shifts, and even the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition, were minor tremblors compared to the tectonic adjustments that lie ahead. Traditional allies, especially NATO/Europe, are exhaling.
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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.