We shouldn't allow the relief from watching Trump go colour our view on Biden's administration, argues Chris Nineham
There was relief around the world when Donald Trump lost the election last year.
His brand of confrontation and disruption and his support for the far right caused fear and loathing around the globe.
He stepped up bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, supported Saudi’s war on Yemen and came close to starting new wars with South Korea, Iran and Venezuela. On his watch tensions with China soared.
We shouldn’t, however, allow relief to colour our view of the new administration.
Joe Biden was the vice-president under Barack Obama with an unusual influence in foreign affairs.
These were the years when the “pivot to China” began and when the US first backed the Saudi war on Yemen.
Biden makes much of the fact that he privately opposed US involvement in the attack on Libya in 2011.
But when it began to look like a Western win, he changed tune. “Nato got it right,” Biden said in a speech on the day president Obama announced Muammar Gadaffi’s death, “In this case, America spent $2 billion and didn’t lose a single life.”
This, Biden went on to say, was the way forward.
At the time Biden was developing a new US military strategy, moving from what was called “counterinsurgency” to “counterterrorism.”
In central Asia and the Middle East, this meant trying to move away from large-scale deployments of US forces and relying on air strikes, drone strikes, and “kill or capture” raids, while recruiting and training proxy forces wherever possible.
This was not a move away from aggression. It was a strategy of keeping casualties down and continuing to fight behind the backs of the US people, at a time when foreign war had become deeply unpopular.
Biden has made much of his plans to work more closely with allies.
We should be clear, however, that working with allies is not the same as seeking peace.
In an article in Foreign Affairs last year, Biden made this point himself when he explained the purpose of heading up a Western alliance: “It makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners.”
If strategy will be modified, the goals will not change much and the result is likely to be a good deal more continuity than many hope.
Even during the election campaign, Biden kept restating that Washington’s commitment to Israel would be “ironclad” and he has recently been applauding the Trump/Kushner initiative to reconcile Arab countries with Israel.
Grassroots pressure over Yemen has forced the president to announce the end of support for the Saudi-led war.
This is a win for the movement but not the end of the story.
Biden’s statement included support for Saudi military self-defence and it’s still not clear what concrete steps the new administration is willing to take.
Given this ambiguity and the fact that Britain is still openly backing the war, the anti-war movement needs to keep piling on the pressure to end the carnage in Yemen.
For years the US has been trying to shift its military emphasis away from terrorism back to what it calls “state actors,” in other words great power rivals. The chaos caused by the wars in the Middle East continue to make this very hard.
All the same, Biden is committed to a more confrontational approach to Russia and pushing back hard against China.
He spent the last year doing his best to outdo Trump in hostility to the Chinese.
In April, his team released a digital ad attacking the then president as too willing to accept Chinese government explanations about the virus.
Trump “rolled over for the Chinese,” the ad says, a message delivered over footage of what appear to be Chinese security forces.
Biden has been quick to take on China verbally wherever possible and his top foreign policy aide Antony Blinken is clear that Biden is prepared to be confrontational, including over Taiwan.
Biden, he says, is prepared “step up defences of Taiwan’s democracy by exposing Beijing’s efforts to interfere.”
These moves reflect bipartisan support in Washington for a much tougher attitude to China which is now not just almost an economic equal, but in danger of becoming a real military competitor.
Containing China’s global ambitions will be the main foreign policy imperative of the new government and it will continue to shape the whole of US foreign policy.
This will involve accelerating the military encirclement of China, stepping up the diplomatic, political and economic offensives, challenging China for dominance in hotspots around the globe, and even taking the fight into space.
Biden has declared a new era for foreign relations. But what he is actually doing is offering a slightly different answer to the question of how to restore US influence and control.
If it is less unilateral than Trump, this will not make it any less deadly or dangerous.
There is strong anti-war sentiment in the US and in Britain which has already had a profound and complicated impact on elite politics. But in the months and years ahead it will need to be mobilised on a serious scale to rein in the warmongers.
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Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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