In his final 48 hours as US president, Donald Trump was trying to govern the tenure of his successor, Joe Biden, who will be in power from midday on Wednesday. On Monday, Trump ordered the lifting of corona-related travel bans on foreigners from most European countries and Brazil, which have been in place since March last year. The incoming White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said Trump’s measure would not be implemented. Due to the dramatic pandemic situation in the USA, it is more likely that the restrictions on entry will be tightened.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration imposed initial sanctions on the german-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. In doing so, the outgoing president merely implemented a sanctions law that the US Congress had already passed in 2019. On the basis of this law, however, the Swiss company Allseeas, which was involved in the laying of pipes for the pipeline with two special ships, was already threatened by the Trump administration with the loss of orders and a work ban in the USA. Allseas then withdrew the two ships. Congress had passed the sanctions bill by a large bipartisan majority at the time, and Biden had already sharply criticized Nord Stream 2 as vice president under Obama, and has repeatedly reiterated that criticism in recent times. As a result, there was no opposition from the new president’s camp to Trump’s actions in office.
Russia as “main opponent”
Previous statements by the new president and his designated secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, even suggest that the administration, which is now in power, will take even more decisive action against the pipeline project. This could even very soon lead to a conflict with the German Federal Government, which has so far remained firmly committed to the project. Moreover, during the campaign, Biden had even called Russia the “main adversary” of the Us, while Trump referred to China for that role.
As varied as Biden’s reactions to his predecessor’s last foreign policy measures are, the new US administration will continue to behave in the various fields of international relations and politics, as varied from what is supposed to be contradictory. Apart from the fact that Biden, Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris appear much more objective, friendly, and binding than their predecessors in tone: the Biden administration will only partially or even completely correct Trump’s policies in some respects, but will continue or even tighten it elsewhere. And this according to their definition of US national self-interest. It remains to be seen how Biden, Blinken and Co.’s commitment to “multilateralism” and “international cooperation” can be tolerated with their simultaneously very clear claim to “global leadership of the United States”.
Back to the Paris climate agreement
The most clear thing is the shift away from Trump’s policies on climate change and the fight against the Corona pandemic. As his first foreign policy act, Biden plans to make the U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement as early as tomorrow Thursday. He also announced the goal that the US, like other developed countries, wants to bring carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050. Biden also wants to strengthen the National Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which Trump has neutered, financially and personally, as well as by appointing a dedicated environmentalist as director of the agency. The new president also wants to revoke approval for canada’s controversial Keystone XL natural gas pipeline to the United States, something the Canadian government strongly protested on Monday.
Even before he took office today, Biden had appointed his team to fight the Corona pandemic, and is thus immediately capable of acting in this area. In addition, the president announced spending of an initial USD 1.6 trillion to address this challenge, which was criminally neglected by Trump. This challenge will be the top priority for the Biden administration for the foreseeable future. Their success or failure is likely to determine whether Democrats can hold their current majority in both houses of Congress in the November 2022 midterm elections. The US can only benefit from Biden’s announced return to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the improved opportunities for cooperation with other countries in managing Corona and future pandemics.
What next in Iran?
As a third correction to Trump’s policies, Biden has announced a return to the Iran nuclear deal. But only on condition that Tehran initially reverses the gradual violations that have taken place since the US left in 2018. Iran’s leaders, on the other hand, demand that the US take the first step and lift sanctions imposed under Trump and drastically tightened them. The conflict is complicated by demands to extend the nuclear deal to include restrictions on Iran’s conventional missile armament and other issues. Time is running out for agreement and rescue of the agreement. The Trump policy of “massive pressure” on Tehran has strengthened Iran’s hardliners. With their majority won at the last parliamentary elections, they have already imposed further violations of the agreement. And in the presidential elections on 18 June, a hardliner is also in danger of winning.
How serious is the US about “global leadership”
The Biden administration will hold on to NATO, which Trump devalued as “obsolete. This institution, without prejudice to all internal controversies, is still the most important instrument for the UNITED States to exert influence and partial control over Europe. However, pressure from Washington on European allies to shoulder more financial and military burdens will increase. This is to the extent that the US is actually making a “turn to Asia” that former President Barack Obama announced ten years ago. However, this is still the place for the greatest uncertainties. The Obama administration – which included many other members of the new administration in Washington, along with Biden – spent eight years without results discussing a proper strategy toward China. Tough, even military confrontation through a massive increase in US forces in the Asian Sea and the Pacific, or China’s involvement in international rules, cooperation, and institutions, was the never-decided alternative.
Trump, in his first act in office four years ago, announced the US free trade area negotiated under Obama with all of Asia’s economically relevant states, other than China. Meanwhile, China has created a Beijing-led Asia-Pacific free trade area without the US. Moreover, Trump waged an economic war against China, which, as a result, did more harm to the US economy than to the Chinese. Much more decisive for the future behavior of the US towards China will be whether the Biden administration is actually serious about its claim to a “global leadership” of the US, or whether this is more of a rhetorical phrase. Because, given today’s global political framework, this claim is unrealistic. The US has been in a relative decline in power since the 1990s.
The high price of global leadership
One of many indications of this is their diminishing competitiveness with other advanced capitalist industrialized states. The EU’s gross national product is already larger than that of the US. China is expected to outtake the US in two years. In many areas of science and technology, too, the future world power China has already reached or even overtaken the US. Russia is still on par with the US, at least as a nuclear power that is almost even-handed. And in a few years' time, these strongest four global political actors will be joined by india as the fifth. If the Biden administration does not recognize the multipolar reality of the world and actually insiston on enforcing US “global leadership,” that would be possible – if at all – by maintaining and constantly expanding its own military strength and superiority over others.
That would mean that the Biden administration would stick to the nuclear and conventional upgrades and modernization projects that were decided and launched not only under Trump, but under Obama. Then the military budget, which was almost always passed in the past by broad consensus between Democrats and Republicans and reaches a new record for 2021 with more than USD 778 billion, would continue to grow. With a US claim to “global leadership” largely asserted by military strength and superiority, the risk of a new bipolar Cold War confrontation between the US/West and China is growing. With the risk of escalation to a hot war. Moreover, without a reduction in gigantic military spending, the Biden administration will lack much-needed resources to repair infrastructure and other pressing domestic challenges.