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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The final days of Mike Pompeo as U.S. Secretary of State were filled with actions described, with some accuracy, as a “complete burning of diplomatic bridges.” Designating Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism, abruptly changing the delicately balanced policy with China on official visits to Taiwan, and labeling Yemeni Houthis as “terrorists” seemed designed simply to complicate the agenda of the incoming Biden foreign policy team.
But with the new president’s team now settling in, it’s time to look ahead. White House press secretary Jen Psaki made it clear from her first briefing that President Joe Biden’s attention through January would be domestically focused: COVID, the economy, equity, climate, health care. But she also stressed that “Restoring America’s place in the world” would be a media and press emphasis on a date certain in February.
- From campaign rhetoric and statements in confirmation hearings, it’s becoming easier to assess President Biden’s policy toward states that wish us ill: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran; but how are THEY viewing THEIR first 100 days, confronting a new U.S. Commander in Chief? And how might they respond over the near term to what they are seeing and hearing from Biden’s new team?
- Despite the history that suggests that predictions on rival states’ behavior during presidential transitions can be more embarrassing (to the predictor) than insightful, it’s worth a try.
So, consider: of the four states that pose strategic challenges, two - China and Russia - are arguably easier to assess and more confidently predictable regarding near-term diplomatic moves:
Their leaders clearly saw opportunities in the transition – a more pragmatic and predictable new U.S. President, with chances to lower the temperature through cooperation on global health and climate. They heard Mike Pompeo on his way out describe PRC actions against Muslims in Xinjiang as “genocide” and were predictably outraged.
- But now they’ve heard the genocide word repeated by Antony Blinken in his testimony before the Senate, and they see that Biden chose Kurt Campbell - no softie on China - to be his “Indo-Pacific czar” on the National Security Council staff. Whatever optimism they may have had almost certainly has been diminished.
- What to watch? Blinken and White House statements on Taiwan; so far, those statements have been muted. But Biden’s invitation to Taiwan’s de facto “ambassador” to attend his inauguration (eagerly accepted!) set off the predictable alarm bells in Beijing.
- Absent another “accident” in the air or high seas, however, a sudden China move that raises military tensions is unlikely. But to be clear: China’s drive for regional dominance in the western Pacific will continue unabated; there will be no relaxation of military pressure on their strategic periphery. Fortunately, in this vital security domain, President Biden and the U.S. Congress are helpfully aligned – as they largely are over Russia.
Putin will miss his friend in the White House. But if he was considering foreign adventures to test Biden during the 100 days, they’ve been put on the back burner. Russian security forces are now forced to deal with waves of protests over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny; internal stability is suddenly an immediate worry in the Kremlin.
- Biden’s offer to extend the New Start nuclear agreement, while a welcomed development, should not be misinterpreted as a signal that Biden is prepared for a “reset with Moscow; far from it. He and Tony Blinken believe strongly in advocating for human rights across the globe; their voices are already being heard over the Kremlin’s outrages leveled against Navalny, and they won’t stop.
- This is clearly an inflection point in U.S.-Russian relations as well as in the long arc of Putin’s reign.
The two remaining countries however are a predictor’s nightmare:
So far, except for his military display last month of new hardware, Kim Jong Un appears to be biding his time during the first 100 days.
- One North Korean analyst has speculated that the “Dear Leader” is waiting for Biden’s State of the Union address in February and the March joint U.S./South Korea military exercises to assess the new U.S. President’s intentions.
- But Kim, like his father, has a penchant for springing surprises (missile launches, nuclear tests) to greet new presidents. And especially with reports of near economic collapse because of COVID restrictions, no one should be surprised if there is a Kim reminder to the rest of the world: “Don’t forget about us! We are still here!”
Whatever President Biden and his new team may say about wanting to restore the nuclear deal, Iran’s leadership is deeply skeptical about any new U.S. promises – for the first 100 days and well beyond. They viewed Trump pulling out of the deal, one with which they were complying, as confirmation of their deepest fears about engaging with the U.S.: Washington can’t be trusted.
- This is the most difficult foreign policy challenge to navigate through, and the one with the greatest potential for blowback from Congress. The political parties are badly split; most Republicans are insisting that Biden go well beyond simply reinstating the limits of the old deal and include constraints on Iranian missile testing at the very least.
- To compound the worry, because of Trump’s withdrawal decision, the breakout time for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon has been shortened from over a year to today’s estimate of three to four months.
- One of the best suggestions of late on a possible Biden way ahead was offered recently by Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Special Middle East Coordinator (SMEC) for three presidents. Ross urged as a starting point to try to do “less for less:” forget about going beyond the limits of the old deal, or even reinstating the deal itself; instead, offer limited sanctions relief in exchange for Iran dialing back a limited set of actions (i.e., enrichment above 4%) that violate the nuclear deal.
- The goal? Start a dialogue! Biden needs quickly to restore trust with U.S. allies in the region (Israel, the Gulf States) and begin once again to try to extend Iran’s nuclear weapons breakout time, a strategic goal that’s been at the heart of U.S. policy toward this troubling nation for over ten years.
As challenging as this strategic environment appears, and as focused as the President himself seems to be on domestic challenges, one can take comfort that the team assembled by Biden – Blinken at State, Austin at Defense, Sullivan as National Security Advisor, Burns as CIA Director, and Haines as Director of National Intelligence – is the most talented assembly of security professionals in decades.
And each is a passionate believer in the philosophy that undergirds Biden’s foreign policy vision, one built on reengaging with friends and allies in the democratic community of nations. The most encouraging manifestation of what this might mean beyond the first 100 days?
Biden’s first calls to foreign leaders. They were not to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman or Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, but to Canada’s Pierre Trudeau and Mexico’s Lopez Obrador!
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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.