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President Biden and Foreign Diplomacy

I read the transcripts this morning to see what insights (those with an interest in National Security) can draw from the President Biden’s first foreign policy speech given at the State Department on February 4, 2021. Early speeches in any given presidency set the course for that administration’s policy objectives. Therefore, this first foreign policy speech in particular – the content, the tone, the optics – give important insight into where the Biden Administration will lead us for the next four years.

What jumped out to me when reading his speech was the symbolism. President Trump’s first visit as Commander-in-Chief to an Inter-Agency partner was the CIA headquarters; the first visit, and major policy speech from President Biden was at the Department of State. This was a deliberate and symbolic act to signal the priority he is placing on DOS (Department of State) as the lead agency to strengthen alliances, negotiate trade deals, help failed states, and spread U.S. interests and hope around the world.

Biden’s speech itself charts a dramatic shift in tone from his predecessor. Promising to work with allies, restraining the uptick in authoritarianism, focusing on human rights abuses, tending to the global pandemic and combating climate change, Joe Biden declared, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” In addition, Biden’s language suggests he sees a link between domestic and foreign policy, emphasizing the American worker and family first. His speech was used to reassert U.S. global leadership and realign foreign policy to serve American workers.

President Biden spoke of sweeping change, but will his policies really be that different from his predecessor?

Although President Biden’s rhetoric indicates a tone change from the last administration, I didn’t notice across the board policy changes from Trump’s policy of “America First.” So, beyond words and themes, what are some of the differences and some of the similarities between the two men, and what can we, as National Security professionals, take away from the speech?

Both China and Russia were addressed adequately for a general policy speech (meaning that both countries were identified as challenges moving forward and there were no significant changes between Trump and Biden on the need to address these challenges) and I didn’t see a problem with the language he used to address both these issues. As we know these are complicated matters. For example, our aggressive stance against “the growing ambitions of China” against Taiwan and ensuring shipping security in international waters. We still have to renegotiate a trade deal needed for both countries while also depending on China to help with North Korean de-nuclearization strategy. Complicated negotiations are ahead and the challenge will be to have the ability to understand clearly these different efforts. Likewise, Biden’s U.S. policy objectives towards Russia are not a far cry from Trump’s policies.

While what is mentioned in the speech provides insight into the priorities of a Biden Administration, what interested me most was what was not mentioned. Iran was not mentioned nor was North Korea. Sometimes things left unsaid speak volumes. Israel, Iran, Arab partners and other interested parties around the world noticed the absence and drew their own conclusions on what that meant.

Leaving out North Korea and Iran was intentional, but both need to be addressed. North Korea wants to be recognized by the United States and also North Korea does realize that although not a regional power it does have the ability to create instability in the pacific theater. Due to the fact that there is an unstable government, an open humanitarian crisis, and they are in possession of nuclear weapons, North Korea would likely be a priority in foreign diplomacy during the next 4 years. Leaving North Korea out of the speech would lead one to believe that the status quo is acceptable during the next 4 years but it would be a mistake to not address this issue early on in the Biden administration.

While North Korea is important, our relationship moving forward with Iran is critical – and urgent. Iran has already notified the UN that it is increasing its Uranium enrichment from 3.5% to 20%. The reason this is important is that the stage to do this is much harder than the step from 20% to 90% where it is weapons grade (this process is very short). This is a move to put immediate pressure on the new administration to join JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and drop sanctions. In addition, the Iranian presidential election will be held in June. The current president, President Hassan Rouhani, who made the initial JCPOA deal with the Obama administration, is not able to run again due to term limits. While we cannot predict the outcome, there is a good chance the winner may be a hardliner. This further compels a resolution on JCPOA. The pressure is on and each decision will have significant consequences. I will discuss JCPOA and what means for each party (U.S., Middle East in General, missile tech, Israel, Arab partners) in a future blog.

President Biden intends to stop the support of the Saudi Arabia war in Yemen and he stated he would review foreign military sales to see if the Saudis needed offensive capability (but agreed they needed to defend themselves). With an addition to his speech the following day, he is looking at removing the terrorist designation from the Iranian backed Houthi’s in Yemen. How does this play to the wider Middle East audience?

1. Israel is very concerned and feels like Iran will have the sanctions removed and will move towards a nuclear weapon. It also feels it will lose some support from the U.S.. Israel is concerned that its number one enemy (Iran), was not mentioned in the speech.

2. Saudi Arabia, along with UAE and some Arab allies, views that the U.S. might sign a new agreement with Iran. Both Israel and Arabs would hope that a new plan would include Iran’s support for Terrorism, Iran’s nefarious activities in the Middle East, Iran’s missile program and nuclear inspections that are long term and verifiable. Until then, there is great concern.

3. Saudi Arabia also is concerned about the review of offensive weapons sales (if attacked by Iran they do not need “JUST” defensive weapons but offensive weapons as well). Saudi noticed that Iran was not mentioned in the speech. There is an ongoing move to re-sign JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) by the Biden administration. JCPOA is the plan that the outgoing Obama administration signed with Iran (John Kerry was the lead) to attempt to delay Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. President Trump backed out of the agreement because he felt JCPOA did not have the necessary parts in place to prevent Iran’s nefarious activities in the region, funding of terrorism or prevent key missile technologies in the agreement. In addition, President Trump believed that this agreement would only delay Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and thought sanctions were needed to get Iran to re-negotiate for a better deal, which would include those aforementioned items. This issue is the most immediate national concern for the U.S. due to the threat of war within the next 12-20 months if Iran pushes forward with their nuclear ambition.

I believe President Biden and new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will attempt to improve on the language of the old JCPOA and work towards a deal. A new agreement with the proper checks along with added language would be the best outcome. Yet there are two questions that remain: what is Iran’s incentive (other than relief of sanctions) to form a new deal with the 5+1 countries but mainly the U.S.? And how will Iran’s leverage of Uranium enrichment, Iranian Militia against U.S. forces, antagonizing Saudi Arabia, and threat to destabilize Middle East, be used? There are approximately 4 months for this to happen before a possible hardliner takes the presidency of Iran. Stay tuned for Iranian presidential analysis and a deeper look at JCPOA.

Overall, President Biden’s speech to the Department of State spoke of sweeping changes from the Trump administration’s foreign policy efforts. And while there are, indeed, some major tone and policy differences, there are also some policies that will continue forward from the former administration. Critical to watch will be Biden’s positioning with Iran. Whether it is to shift gears, tweak policy, or stay the course with respect to this most critical conflict, to be sure, the focus will be diplomacy at its core.

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