WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) President Joe Biden has begun his presidency with sharp breaks from Donald Trump in both substance and tone, from climate change to immigration to a general openness to working with the rest of the world.
But on several key international issues, the Biden administration has signalled that it will not deviate from Trump, drawing unease from some on the left who hoped for a cleaner break but also renewing a US tradition of continuity in foreign affairs.
University of Chicago Political Scientist Paul Poast said the fundamental objective of the US since the end of the Cold War has been to maintain primacy, a challenge that has become more pertinent with the rise of China.
“Maybe the rhetoric changes a bit but regardless of who is president, the overall goal of US foreign policy remains the same. And with Biden, I am not expecting that to change.”
Biden’s pick to be secretary of state Antony Blinken in his Senate confirmation hearing said Trump “was right in his approach to China”, a signature policy of the defeated president that has drawn growing bipartisan support.
Even on Iran, where Biden plans a U-turn by returning to diplomacy, Blinken and the new Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, used nearly identical language to emphasise a long road ahead as they put the onus on Tehran to return to compliance with a 2015 accord rejected by Trump.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, smiled and said “we are off to a good start” with Blinken, a longtime advocate for refugees who answered the Republican’s question about a caravan of Hondurans heading to the US by advising, “I would say, do not come.”
The preternaturally calm Blinken’s approach may largely be shrewd politics in facing an evenly divided Senate – and it appears to have paid off, with the former Senate aide coasting toward easy confirmation as America’s top diplomat.
Biden followed through on promises to erase some of Trump’s most controversial moves, immediately taking action to rejoin the Paris climate accord and stop the US exit from the World Health Organization and rescinding a ban on visitors from a number of Muslim-majority countries.
Blinken said the administration will end US military support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating offensive in Yemen, pointing to the role of the Trump-aligned kingdom in what the United Nations calls the world’s largest humanitarian disaster.
SMALLER SHIFT ON FOREIGN POLICY
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning Washington think tank, said Biden was shaping up to be the most progressive president in modern US history on key issues including economic equality, racial justice and climate.
“Having said that, I think foreign policy is the arena where you see the biggest gap between the Biden or centrist wing, whatever you want to call it, and the progressive wing,” she said.
“There are some very thoughtful people like Blinken. They are smart, they are experienced, but they are also inside players at a moment when we need bold new ideas,” she said.
She hailed the shift against backing the Saudis in Yemen, calling it the culmination of years of activism to raise awareness of suffering in the country.
The bulk of Biden’s key officials served with him under president Barack Obama, whose legacy was on the line when Trump walked away from the Paris and Iran accords.
Obama, who rose to prominence with his opposition to the Iraq invasion, as president poured troops into Afghanistan, ramped up drone strikes and put a new focus on Asia in the face of China.
Trump vowed to end “forever wars” and break ways with Washington experts but further intensified drone attacks and hiked military spending as part of his “America First” policy.
“If you were ever to see somebody totally change the direction of US foreign policy, it would have been Trump, but even then it is hard to say he did,” Poast said.
“If anything, Trump was the exception that proved the rule.”