Democracy or Allies? Biden Has a Tough Choice to Make

On December 9 and 10, President Biden kicked off a virtual Summit of Democracy, fulfilling one of his signature campaign pledges. The much-vaunted Summit, which focuses on defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights, fits neatly into the Biden administration’s fight against authoritarianism. In fact, Biden’s foreign policy is partly defined by his democracy vs. autocracy dichotomy.

The intention behind the Summit of Democracy – convincing the rest of the world that democracy is still the best form of government – is quite laudable and ambitious. Yet, the Summit highlights the difficulty in balancing democratic ideals with geopolitical interests. Yet, the guest list of over 100 countries from across the world includes many of the United States’ closest allies and partners who hardly quality as democratic due to recent authoritarian trends and persistent democratic backsliding. Mr. Biden, through including some American allies and partners that have questionable democratic records, has highlighted just how difficult it is to balance democratic ideals with geopolitical interests, instead choosing allies and partners over democratic ideals.

Russia Outweighs Democracy in Europe

The Biden administration demonstrated a degree of inconsistency when deciding which European countries to invite. Mr. Biden stood his ground with long-time allies, Hungary, who has openly championed illiberal democracy, and Turkey, who has been taking a more authoritarian approach for years with cozy ties with Russia. Poland, however, was invited to the Summit. Both an EU member and a NATO ally, the Biden administration chose interest over ideal when extending an invitation to Poland, whose Law and Justice Party has been shifting Polish politics further to the right in recent years.

Some surmise that the Biden administration included Poland not because of its stellar democratic record, but to show solidarity as Poland faces aggression from Belarus, a Russian ally. This is true for Ukraine’s inclusion in the Summit as well. Though Ukraine is not considered to be a full-fledged democracy, it is a strategic partner vulnerable to invasion by Russia, and plays a key part in the Biden administration’s clash with Ukraine’s authoritarian neighbor. Once again, interests eclipse ideals in the Biden administration’s choice to invite allies and partners with questionable democratic records because those partnership are key to the Biden administration’s clash with Russia.

China Outweighs Democracy in Asia

Geopolitics played a significant role in deciding who in Asia to invite to the summit. The United States invited India, the world’s largest democracy, to the Summit. However, India has not been immune to criticism over its democratic record, particularly due to the poor treatment of Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. Despite U.S. criticism on these human rights issues, the partnership between India, who is also a member of the Quad, and the United States proved more important than holding India accountable since the U.S. sees India as a key partner in its rivalry with China.

And, then there is Pakistan. Since India was invited, the Biden administration was almost obligated to invite Pakistan to avoid a geopolitical meltdown. Even though the State Department warns of the problematic degree to which Pakistan’s military plays a role in governing among other troubling criticisms, the U.S. invited Pakistan to the Summit anyway. This is likely because the United States needs Pakistan’s cooperation in working with the Taliban in the aftermath of the United States’ disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan. In both cases, interests surpass ideals.

Taiwan is another example. Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, is caught in the rivalry between the United States, where the line between supporting Taiwan with rhetoric and defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion from China is admittedly blurry, and China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan’s inclusion in the Summit seems almost like a no-brainer based on democratic records alone. However, the U.S. extended an invitation to Taiwan to attend at the risk of drawing further ire from China as Taiwan is an important component in both the rivalry with China and his pledge to confront authoritarianism. Once again, the United States chose relationships with allies and partners at the expense of furthering democratic ideals.

Interests Trump (No Pun Intended) Ideals Once Again in Latin America

In Latin America, one country that has constantly flouted democratic traditions in the last few years was invited: Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, populist, Trump-like figure leading Brazil, has shown his true authoritarian colors, speaking nostalgically about the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 and joining a rally calling for a military intervention into Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court in 2020. Perhaps one of his most egregious authoritarian displays yet occurred when he insinuated that he would not accept the 2022 presidential election results.

Under Mr. Bolsonaro, there is a great deal of concern for the state of Brazil’s democracy. Yet, the Biden administration seems reticent to confront Bolsonaro over his antidemocratic rhetoric and policies, as was evidenced by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s trip to Brazil in August. While Mr. Sullivan pushed back against claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was rigged, it became evident that the Biden administration is not pushing Bolsonaro too much in hope of his cooperation on climate change and China. In this case, the Biden administration’s partnership with Brazil in its fight against climate change and China superseded a promise to further democracy throughout the world.

EU Membership is the Solution to U.S. and EU Concerns in the Western Balkans

On October 6, the 27 European Union (EU) member states met with their counterparts in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – at a summit in Slovenia to discuss the Western Balkans nations joining the EU. However, many dismissed the summit as a perfunctory effort by Slovenia, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, as the possibility of membership in the bloc seems to be slipping further away. 

Today, entho-nationalism and tribalism are on the rise in the region. Bosnia looks to be on the verge of possible civil war. EU leaders are increasingly worried that Serbia is again showing authoritarian tendencies. Moreover, the United States, which has historical and strategic interests in this region, continues to warn its European allies that Western adversaries like Russia and China are gaining influence. As the EU and the United States continue to grapple with these internal and external threats to regional stability, the worse the situation becomes. The longer the EU holds out on extending EU membership to the Western Balkan nations, the more likely the region is to descend into chaos. The solution is for the EU, with U.S. support, to push the accession process in earnest to ensure the region’s guaranteed chance at stability.

EU Enlargement

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the former Soviet states in Central and Eastern Europe began integrating with the EU, seeing Western institutions – like the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – as the keys to more stable and prosperous futures. Soon they began pursuing membership in these Western institutions. As a result, ten former Soviet republics joined the EU in 2004 – the Visegrad Four of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia; the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Slovenia, a former member of Yugoslavia. Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania joined, as well as Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, in 2013. It seemed almost certain that EU would next expand into the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans After the Cold War

That was not necessarily the case. After the Cold War, Yugoslavia took a bit of a different path than Central and Eastern Europe nations. While never part of the Soviet empire, Yugoslavia was a socialist state, comprised of six republics and run by its own dictator, Josep Broz Tito. Soon after the end of the Cold War, a strong sense of nationalism quickly replaced communism in the Western Balkans. 

Yugoslavia collapsed, descending into war in the early 1990s along those same ethnic and tribal lines suppressed under Tito’s rule. After Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, war broke out in Croatia where Serbs tried to create their own state. By 1992, the conflict spilled over into Bosnia, where its Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, drove Bosnian Muslims from their homes in what has been labeled an ethnic cleansing campaign. Then, in 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province, fought another brutal war of independence against Serbia.

Europe turned to its American allies to end the conflicts. The war in Bosnia ended only after the United States brokered a peace deal with the warring parties. In 1999, NATO stepped in with a US-led bombing campaign in Serbia in an effort to halt the violence against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The decades-long bloody wars left those countries war-torn and devastated. Yet, the possibility of EU membership served as a catalyst for reform in the Western Balkans. 

EU Enlargement into the Western Balkans? Not So Fast

Since 2003, the EU, supported by the United States, has essentially promised the remaining Western Balkan nations the prospect of membership in the bloc, assuring them that their future lies with Europe. Today, the remaining Western Balkan nations – minus Slovenia and Croatia, which declared independence in 1991 and are already members of the EU – are at various stages in the membership process. 

Still, these talks are barely progressing. Montenegro and Serbia are the furthest into the process, already having opened formal accession talks several years ago. Albania and North Macedonia – whose membership bids are linked – are awaiting official negotiations to commence. Lastly, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain potential candidates for membership, yet are nowhere near actually starting the negotiations. Yet, admitting new members from the Western Balkans is no longer as popular as it was nearly 20 years ago. But, that is exactly what the EU and the United States need to be pursuing.

Political Fault Lines Rumble Once Again

Just over a quarter of a century after the end of the war in Bosnia, the country is again facing renewed threats to political stability (Lowy). The 1995 Dayton Accords eventually brought peace to Bosnia, a country comprised of several ethnic groups including including the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Catholic Croats, after several years of bloody, ethnically driven war.

The Accords implemented a government under which one Bosnian Serb, one Bosniak, and one Bosnian Croat share power. There is now speculation over whether the Dayton Accords may no longer be able to hold Bosnia together. In early October, the Bosnian Serb leader, part of the tripartite presidency, announced plans that amount to secession to build up a Serb-dominated state. Just as it did in the early 1990s, Bosnia once again finds itself on the verge of civil war.

A Turn Toward Authoritarianism

The EU and the United States are concerned that Serbia is growing more authoritarian under President Aleksander Vucic. This is a threat to the stability of the Western Balkans region as well as the larger EU given that Serbia – the prevailing republic in the former Yugoslavia under former President Slobodan Milosevic – spent much of the 1990s clashing with the other former republics. Mr. Vucic is a reformed ultranationalist who, in the waning days of the Yugoslav wars, interestingly served as Milosevic’s information minister. 

Under Mr. Vucic, Serbia has turned toward authoritarianism as the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party, controls the government, judiciary, and security services and limits the local media. Moreover, Serbia has undergone a democratic backslide of sorts, filled with allegations of corruption, cronyism, and voter intimidation in what Foreign Policy politely describes as soft autocracy. To make matters worse, Serbia is ramping up its defense spending to “unite Serbs wherever they live.” While Serbia is nominally democratic, deeper engagement with the EU and a push for reforms would do a lot to help Europe extinguish the growing authoritarianism on its southeastern flank.

Outside Influence 

Further compounding Western concerns that Serbia is developing closer ties with China and Russia. Western officials fear that Russia, who regularly provides arms to its Slavic ally, is encouraging Mr. Vucic to destabilize the Western Balkans. Beyond Serbia, Russia has increased diplomatic interactions with several countries along tribal and religious lines to hinder the region’s integration into the EU and NATO. This, however, is the West’s fault as the EU and the United States have neglected the region for decades, laying the groundwork for China and Russia to fill the vacuum. 

China now has economic ambitions and ties in the region, including the extension of its Belt and Road Strategy. The nations in the Western Balkans, as a result, are looking to China for trade and investment. Delaying EU membership to the Western Balkans only opens the region up to the EU and United States’ adversaries filling the void left by Western institutions. Deeper engagement and progressing accession talks would help the EU and the United States more efficiently and effectively battle growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. 

Iran Nuclear Deal Talks Are at an Impasse

In the first round of negotiations since last parting in June, Iran and the other signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – met in Vienna, Austria to resume talks in hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Under a new regime led by hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Iran struck a uncompromising tone with negotiators while the remaining signatories fought to keep negotiations running.

In 2015, the United States, along with other members of the P5+1, and Iran agreed to a deal, which limited its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. However, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 in an effort to launch a lackluster maximum pressure campaign against Tehran and ramped up economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Initially, Iran complied with the agreement after the U.S. withdrawal. After a year, though, Tehran became impatient and building up its nuclear program in breach of the agreement. The Biden administration came into office with the goal of reviving the deal. While negotiators, minus the United States upon Iranian refusal to negotiate directly with the Americans, are back at the table, it appears as though the nuclear deal talks are at an impasse.

Iran’s Demands Are Out of the Question

Iranian negotiators came in on the offensive for the seventh round of talks. Under its recently elected yet hardline regime, Iran is making nearly impossible demands, arguing, not without merit, that the United States is at fault for the current situation. For one, Iran demands the removal of all economic sanctions – not just the ones imposed on its nuclear program, but also those targeting Iran’s human rights, terror, and ballistic missile activities.

Iran is also seeking guarantees that the United States will never back out of the deal again, a promise that is impossible to make because of the nature of the United States’ political system. Only then will Iran come back into compliance with the nuclear deal. The Iranians have stated firmly that they want to revive the nuclear deal – even though it is not a priority for the Raisi regime – but contend that the United States must take the first step. The Iranians are unlikely to budge given their current demands, leaving the nuclear talks at an impasse.

Trying to Keep the Lights On

European diplomats walked away from last week’s negotiations with a more pessimistic view. A joint statement issued by British, French, and German negotiators noted that “Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work, and demands major changes to the text.” From their perspective, the future of the talks are not promising.

The United States’ European partners have been instrumental in the meetings with Iranian officials, as the United States, while maintaining diplomatic staff in Vienna as the talks resume, are not taking part in the talks as Iran refused to negotiate with the Americans. However, as the European diplomats observed, unless Tehran’s position changes, the talks have little chance in succeeding.

Not Even at the Table

The Biden administration came into office willing to re-enter the JCPOA. However, it is evident that American patience with Iran is beginning to wear thin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken summarized American feelings toward the talks: “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s needed to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” he commented on Thursday.

U.S. and European officials have been warning for a while that time is running out. Biden administration has noted that diplomacy, though the preferred method, is not the United States’ option for preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. As American and likely European patience runs out the more Iran balks, the more the talks will remain at an impasse.

No Right to Exist?

A complicating factor for the United States in reviving the Iran nuclear deal is its strong partnership with Israel. Israel is increasingly concerned about the advances Iran has made on its nuclear program and regional activity. Israel, a nuclear-armed country, and Iran are mortal enemies as Israel views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat sine Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Israel has reacted strongly to the news of a potentially revived deal, imploring its partners in the United States and Europe to halt negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated emphatically that Israel is not part of the negotiations and, therefore, not bound by the deal and stressed that Iran doe not deserve the diplomatic option. Without the Israel’s support – arguably the country with the most to lose if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons – the talks will remain at an impasse.

Charting Our Own Course

The United States’ Gulf Arab allies, much like Israel, are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities over recent months, and are frustrated over feeling caught in the middle in the United States’ conflict with Iran. At the same time, they worry about a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, observing that the deal is not sufficient enough to stop Iran from actually developing nuclear weapons.

However, despite their own concerns over the nuclear deal, most Gulf Arab allies admit that a flawed deal is better than no deal as a deal at least puts some guardrails on Iran’s nuclear activities. With little enthusiasm coming from its Gulf Arab allies – who are trying to chart their own diplomatic courses with Iran to deescalate tensions that have plagued the region for nearly 50 years – the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna will likely remain at an impasse.

Ukraine Is Unlikely To Become a NATO Member Any Time Soon

On December 3, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence indicated that Russia was planning a potential military invasion of Ukraine as soon as early 2022. This intelligence report came after a buildup of Russian troops on its border with Ukraine over the past month. Relations between the Russia and the United States and its European allies continue to deteriorate because of Western concerns that Russia will invade Ukraine and Russian demands that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not expand eastward.

Max Boot, in a recent Council on Foreign Relations op -ed, wrote that “the most powerful deterrent in the West’s arsenal is NATO membership.” In 2008, NATO stated that Ukraine would become a member. However, Ukraine is no closer to joining the alliance today than it was in 2008.

In The Past

Ukraine has long been a sticking point between Russia and the West. After independence in 1991, Ukraine attempted to forge its own independent path, separate from Russia and its Soviet past. As part of its independent path, Ukraine looked to the West, with goals of joining the European Union and, specifically, NATO. In 2008, NATO essentially promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another country that Russia wants to keep away from the West. Russia, which shares deep cultural, historic, and political ties to Ukraine, has done what it can over the past three decades to thwart Ukraine’s Western ambitions, as Russia sees Ukraine as “central to [its] identity” and feels threatened when Ukraine expressed interest in joining Western institutions.

In 2014, Russian invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea, a province coveted as an important part of the Russian empire, and arming separatist in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. Some analysts believe that it was NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement that pushed Russia to invade, fearing its former satellite might be the next candidate for membership. Others posit that the most significant factor behind Russia’s invasion was Putin’s apprehension of losing power domestically. Whatever the reason, Russia’s intervention raised the alarm in Washington and in capitals across Europe.

Russian Demands

Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin, made no efforts to hide their disgust for NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union satellite states. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, many of the former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe were eager to join the West, viewing NATO as a way toward democratization, stability, and prosperity. In 1999, NATO welcomed three former Soviet states: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. A few short years later, seven other former Soviet states joined the alliance, including the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The expansion drew Russia’s ire, cementing its hatred of future NATO expansion into the region Russia sees as its sphere of influence.

This frustration came to a head over the course of the past week. Mr. Putin demanded that the United States and the rest of its NATO allies guarantee that the that any further expansion will not include Ukraine or Georgia. For months, Mr. Putin has railed against U.S. and allied military activities in Ukraine, labeling them as crossing a red line. Mr. Putting went as far in trying to secure “legal guarantees” that the NATO alliance would not expand eastward.

NATO Says No Way

The United States reacted with strong rhetoric but also a degree of ambiguity. U.S. officials stress that Mr. Putin’s intentions are murky, and that an attack is not imminent. Yet, Secretary Blinken, who traveled to Latvia and Sweden for to attend NATO and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings promised “severe consequences” should Russia indeed invade.

Limiting the further expansion of NATO is a non-starter for the alliance. In response to Mr. Putin’s absurd request, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that “Russia has no veto, Russia has no say…” He continued, “It’s only Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO.” While the United States and its European allies within NATO continue to assert that it is up to Ukraine and NATO, not Russia, to decide if and when Ukraine joins NATO, the question then becomes whether it will actually happen?

Ukraine Is Not Likely to Join NATO Any Time Soon

In June, the NATO summit ended with the alliance signing a joint communique that reaffirmed Ukraine’s potential membership. Ukraine, however, wishes that its membership was in the near future. As a result of Russia’s recent military buildup along its border, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing both the Biden administration and NATO to specify a timeline for membership. He has been met with tentative statements, which only further empowers Russia’s claims over Ukraine.

While accession in NATO is at the top of Zelensky’s political to do list, encouraged by NATO’s public but elusive promises of membership, Western officials admit that the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future is quite improbable. For one, there is no consensus among alliance members about the severity of confrontation with Russia. Mr. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 dampened any excitement of NATO members to welcome Ukraine into the fold, not wanting to admit a country already locked into a fight with Russia since they too would be drawn in.

Beyond NATO’s concerns about Russia, NATO members also agree that Ukraine is not ready to join. When asked over the summer about when Ukraine might expect to join NATO, President Biden noted that the former Soviet state still needed to root out corruption before it could become a full member. Ukraine is no closer to becoming a NATO member now than it was in 2008 and likely will not become a member any time soon.

Is American Really Back? That’s What America’s European Allies Would Like to Know

America is back,” claimed U.S. President Joe Biden in his first foreign policy speech after taking office after four tumultuous years of a Trump presidency. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he pledged in his inaugural address in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these promises in a speech in March, noting that the United States was working tirelessly to “reconnect with our friends and allies, and to reinvent partnerships.” Based on rhetoric alone, the Biden administration’s intentions to repair the damaged relationships with its allies, particularly those in Europe, were unmistakable.

While the United States reasserts its return to diplomacy and reiterates the importance of its alliances, it is unclear whether these laudable yet ambitious pieces of rhetoric are actionable or only a pipe dream. In Europe’s eyes, the Biden administration got a lot right at the beginning of his presidency. Yet, in a year that seems to involve crisis after crisis in trans-Atlantic relations – including the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the inept handling of the AUKUS announcement –America’s European allies are questioning the United States’ sincerity. In the eyes of its European allies, is America indeed back? That still remains to be seen.

Is Europe Getting Left Behind?

The United States’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban in August is one example of why Europe is questioning whether America is actually back. With little consultation or communication, the United States “dragged its NATO allies into an embarrassing mess that they had warned against,” one that likely could have been avoided. The withdrawal triggered an age-old insecurity for Europe – wondering whether the United States was leaving Europe behind. This has led Europe to ponder whether it should invoke a strategic autonomy tactic most often championed by France. Mr. Biden, who promised to reset relations with American allies, came close to squandering the excitement and relief felt by European allies after he won the 2020 election as Europe is now coming to terms with the fact that they may never truly be able to rely on the United States for its security.

Is Washington Retreating from Europe?

The United States blindsided its European allies with the announcement of a formal alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in September. To the United States, this was simply about deepening relationships with allies in its effort to counter China, a lynchpin of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The announcement of the nuclear submarine pact caused confusion and disappointment in Europe. This is particularly true for France, the one European nation most directly impacted by the pact as Australia cancelled a $66 million submarine deal with France. France, naturally, reacted in anger, temporarily withdrawing its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra, and cancelling a gala in Washington to celebrate the friendship between the U.S. and France. While France and the United States have largely reconciled, the abrupt nature of the AUKUS deal – which President Biden acknowledged was “clumsy” – caused some concern for America’s European allies since the root of Europe’s disappointment about the AUKUS deal is the fear that the United States is retreating from Europe – the central focus of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War – in favor for the Indo-Pacific region.

Great Power Rivalry Rears Its Ugly Head

The United States and its allies in Europe perceive the threats posed by China and Russia differently. President Biden has labeled China as the world’s “greatest geopolitical threat” of this century. As a result, he has re-shifted U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific with the aim of countering China. The United States would prefer its European partners be part of its. Yet, Europe does not view China with the same level of alarm. Europe, as the French Finance Minister recently noted, wants to engage China as Europe is weary about of damaging the continent’s economic ties to the growing economic giant, though European sentiment may be changing.

Similarly, the United States and its European allies maintain disparate views on the threat posed by Russia as some in Europe – especially those in Central and Eastern Europe –believe the U.S. will not support its allies in the region in favor of improved relations with Russia. The United States’ decision not to sanction the German company overseeing the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 pipeline in favor of maintaining good relations with Germany only reinforced this fear. Just this week, Belarus, a Russian ally, weaponized migration by luring desperate Middle Eastern migrants to the Poland-Belarus border in an effort to force the EU to lift sanctions imposed against Belarus. Moreover, the recent buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine has also alarmed the U.S. and its allies in Europe. To Europe, the United States’ myopic view to the threat posed by Russia is quite frustrating, though it seems that the United States may becoming more attuned to the threat.

Europe Is Right to Be Wary of the United States’ Reliability

The Biden administration came into office in January with promises to repair America’s relationships with its allies. However, several events as well as different threat perspectives are causing Europe to question the United States’ sincerity. Whether the U.S. is back remains to be seen, but the time has come for the Biden administration to review its policies toward Europe and assess whether the United States is doing what it can to reassure its European allies that the United States is back after four years of the turbulent Trump administration and an inconsistent first year in office.

Africa Matters to U.S. Foreign Policy…and Deserves More Attention

On November 15, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for Africa on his first trip to the continent as the United States’ top diplomat, with stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. This summer, Blinken postponed his visit, originally planned for August, as the United States became engrossed in its messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, Blinken is making the trip this week to convey the Biden administration’s overplayed message that “America is back” as two crises critical to U.S. interests in the strategically important Horn of Africa region rage on.  

What’s on the Agenda?

While not making stops in either country, the crises – Ethiopia and Sudan – will likely top the list when Blinken meets with the Kenyan president. In Nigeria, Blinken will deliver a speech outlining the Biden administration’s Africa strategy and discuss health, energy, and security issues with the Nigerian president. Blinken will close out his trip in Senegal, where he will reiterate the close partnership between the two countries.

In the first ten months of his tenure, Secretary Blinken has traveled to every other region of the world, except Africa, which is often eclipsed by urgent crises in regions considered to be more strategically important to the U.S. In fact, Blinken’s visits to three of the United States’ closest partners in Africa highlights the lack of attention that this region receives in U.S. foreign policy. It took two major crises – a coup and a potential civil war – to entice America’s top diplomat to Africa when there are myriad issues in which the U.S. has interests. Now, it is time for the United States to pay closer attention to Africa.

Multiple Coups and A Civil War

Over the past year, coups and civil wars have shaken the African continent. For one, the Horn of Africa has been a hotbed of activity. Ethiopia, arguably the United States’ closest ally in Africa, is on the precipice of civil war. Ethiopia’s western neighbor, Sudan, suffered a military coup in October when the coup leader reappointed himself as the chairman of the new sovereign council, sparking a political crisis in the country’s nascent and fragile democratic transition. To the east, Somalia has been experiencing its own political crisis for decades. These crises promise to be topics of conversation when Blinken visits Kenya, another member of the volatile neighborhood.

Military takeovers in Africa seem to be in vogue over the past twelve months The coup in Sudan was the fourth this year. Similarly, three countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea, and Chad – also experienced coups. Moreover, coup attempts occurred in the Central African Republic, Niger, and Madagascar. Yet, those countries were able to fight off the unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the sitting governments. One of the objectives of Blinken’s three-country trip to Africa will focus on defending democracy This is coming at a particularly challenging time given the democratic backsliding in many countries across Africa. The military takeovers and potential civil war have the potential to upset U.S. interests in of the most some strategically important regions in Africa. Encouraging democratic governance across Africa is in the United States’ interest.  

The Terrorist Threat in Africa is Real

Many countries across all regions of sub-Saharan Africa suffer from terrorist groups operating in the vast and often lawless areas. After the end of the Cold War, counterterrorism became central to U.S. policy toward the continent as a result of the rise of international terrorism. Many of the terrorist groups located in Africa maintain ties with U.S. adversaries like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In in the Sahel region, terrorist groups such as the Group of the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plague the vast, instability-ridden region. Boko Haram, a dangerous group in Nigeria, is allied with the Islamic State and is infamous for kidnapping young, school-aged girls.   

In East Africa, al Shabab, once labeled as “the world’s largest, best financed, most kinetically active arm of al-Qaida” by the U.S. commander of U.S. forces in Africa, is based in Somalia with approximately 10,000 fighters and aims of overthrowing the virtually non-existent government. In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army – a fundamentalist Christian group – wages war against the government. Moreover, the Islamic State reaches further south into Africa in the form of an insurgency group in Mozambique, responsible for vicious attacks. These terrorist groups around Africa, many of which espouse anti-American ideology and often target Western citizens, are dangerous and directly pose threats to the United States and its allies.

The Other Global Power

China’s influence in Africa has long agitated the United States. In fact, China has surpassed the United States’ diplomatic, political, and economic influence on the continent. As the second largest economy in the world, China has ample resources to fund development projects in several African countries. Beyond that, Chinese foreign direct investment increased significantly and exceeded the United States’ in 2014. Moreover, China is now Africa’s largest trade partner and largest bilateral lender to many African nations. China’s influence on the African continent cannot be overstated.

As President Biden noted early in his administration, China is the “biggest geopolitical test” of this century. For this reason, Africa is becoming an increasingly important battleground in the growing tensions between the two competitors. China is an attractive option to African nations desperate for economic and development assistance because China, unlike the United States and its Western allies, does not “condition its assistance on political agendas,” including democracy promotion and human rights. Still, this is the primary manner in which China has gained more influence across Africa compared to the United States. As the Biden administration shifts U.S. foreign policy focus toward the Indo-Pacific region, with its eye primarily on China, the United States must step up its engagement with Africa so as not to lose any further ground to China.

U.S.-Afghanistan Relations After the Rise of the Taliban

On August 30, the United States officially ended its involvement in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after its initial invasion in 2001. As the U.S. and its NATO allies rushed to withdraw their troops, the Taliban, swiftly advanced into Kabul, the capital. As a result, the Afghan security and military forces collapsed, as did the Afghan government. Now, after quickly regaining power, the Taliban has quite a job ahead of them: they must now govern. The Taliban, which has signaled that they will soon announce their new government, faces several challenges that include setting up a functioning government, providing essential services, a looming economic crisis, and avoiding yet another civil war. The Taliban has realized in recent weeks that cooperation with the U.S. government may prove critical to their governing efforts.

In light of this realization, the Taliban has publicly stated their intentions to build cooperative ties with the United States. Two decades on, the Taliban has adopted a more moderate tone compared to their rule in the mid-1990s and is now calling for friendly relations with the United States. “The Islamic Emirate wants a good and diplomatic relationship with the Americans,” the Taliban spokesman stated on September 1. The Biden administration recently noted that U.S. relations with the Taliban depend on behavior. “The United States and the Taliban could cooperate on priorities that are in America’s vital American interest,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken elaborated. While the Biden administration’s position is that a relationship with the Taliban is contingent on behavior, cooperation with the Taliban may be a course of action that the U.S. can’t avoid, regardless of their behavior.

A Mutual Threat

One factor that promises to challenge Taliban rule in Afghanistan is the existence of the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K. Just as the Taliban was fighting U.S. coalition forces in its quest to retake power of Afghanistan, the group was also engaged in a parallel war with ISIS-K, its Islamist adversary. ISIS-K was rose to prominence in 2015 after the Islamic State, or ISIS, seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014. ISIS-K, a group of disgruntled former fighters from the Taliban and militants from South and Central Asia, including Pakistan, invited Islamist fighters to create a chapter in the Khorasan province, a region that historically includes parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and the former Soviet states in Central Asia.  

It is precisely the growth of the Taliban’s Islamist rival that makes it an attractive international partner today. While the U.S. grapples with whether to diplomatically recognize the Taliban as the governing body of Afghanistan, the United States will have to factor in the fact that the U.S. and the Taliban mutually view ISIS-K as a threat. If the United States wishes to contain ISIS-K, the Americans may be forced to coordinate with the Taliban. At the same time, should the Taliban, who is struggling to consolidate control over all of Afghanistan, wish to limit the reach and power of ISIS-K, they too may have to rely on their former American adversary.    

Peer Pressure

While the United States is still unsure of what its future relationship with Afghanistan under the Taliban will look like, regional powers are willing to work with the Taliban. In fact, the regional consensus appears to be keeping Afghanistan in an operational state, even if that includes the dysfunction that comes along with Taliban rule. Turkey and Qatar are among those countries. Both maintain close ties to regional Islamist movements. Moreover, Turkey as a member of NATO, played a central role in meditating. Qatar hosted talks between the United States and the Taliban and has interest in seeing a stable Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In July, China invited Taliban leaders to meet with the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing with hints of legitimacy and in hopes of suppressing any extremist agitation in its western Xinjiang province. Iran, too, has engaged with and provided weapons and money to the Taliban in recent years, despite fundamental differences in ideology. Russia, for its part, began negotiating with the Taliban several years ago, despite classifying the group as a terrorist organization.

Even the United States’ closest Arab allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have noted that they will accept the Taliban’s again, as both were two of the only countries in the world to recognize the Taliban during its reign in the mid-1990s. Lastly, Pakistan, notorious for its support of the Taliban, is already calling for the world to recognize with the Taliban to prevent a return the civil war which enveloped Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in the 1990s. While the United States may not be prepared to recognize the Taliban quite yet, the U.S. may be pressured to coordinate with the Taliban based on regional dynamics to preserve regional stability.

The Afghan Allies

Over the course of the rushed evacuation, the United States moved more than 120,000 people, including 6,000 U.S. citizens and tens of thousands of Afghan allies who worked with or for the U.S. government and military through the 20 year war, out of Afghanistan. In this effort, the United States coordinated with the Taliban to allow for safe passage of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies into the Kabul airport for safe departure and as protection against ISIS-K. However, there are roughly 100 to 200 Americans who wish to return home and thousands more Afghans in danger of Taliban retaliation due to helping the U.S. military still in Afghanistan. If the United States is going to fulfill its promise to evacuate all American citizens and Afghan allies who want to leave the country, then coordination with the Taliban will be inevitable.

Conclusion

As the Taliban resumes control over Afghanistan, the Islamist group has not been shy about its efforts to coordinate with the United States. And this may be a course of action the United States cannot avoid. Both parties view ISIS-K as a critical threat. Most regional powers – including some of the United States’ closest allies and primary adversaries – are already moving forward in working with the Taliban. Lastly, the Untied States, in order to be able to safely remove the remaining American citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, will have to coordinate with the Taliban. After a 20-year war aimed at removing the Taliban from power, the United States has come full circle again, facing the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan once again.  

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.

While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war. 

A Generation Later

On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.

Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.

Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.

Conclusion

Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”

Secretary Blinken on U.S. Adversaries

The previous post discussed how Secretary Blinken, whom the Senate confirmed on January 26 as the next Secretary of State, would recalibrate the United States’ strained relationships with its key allies. This post is the second in a series of how Secretary Blinken would address U.S. allies and adversaries. 

U.S. Adversaries

The United States’ adversaries were another central theme throughout the hearing. During the Trump administration, the former President was often accused, beginning early in his term, of praising strongmen and admiring U.S. adversaries while treating U.S. allies poorly. The Biden administration plans to correct that. What policies toward U.S. adversaries can we expect to see over the next four years with Secretary Blinken leading the State Department?

China

China, in particular, garnered quite a bit of attention. Secretary Blinken took a hardline in his analysis of China, noting that “there is no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.” In providing his views on the world’s second largest economy, Secretary Blinken stated, “I also believe that [former] President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China.” However, he opined, “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it.”

The United States must approach China from “a position of strength.” This “position of strength,” he affirmed, included “a unified position among our democratic allies,” U.S. cooperation and coordination through international institutions, and standing up for “our values.” Despite his hardline analysis, Secretary Blinken also acknowledged that there are issues on which China and the United States can cooperate, including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Arctic Circle.

Secretary Blinken touched on the specific, more contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. Chief among those are China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic minority group in the Xinjiang province. Before leaving office, former Secretary Mike Pompeo classified China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. When asked whether he agreed with this assessment or not, Secretary Blinken replied in the affirmative.

Relatedly, Secretary Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s comment to Taiwan, stating that he would review former Secretary Pompeo’s late decision on loosening the rules which regulate how the United States can engage with Taiwanese officials. Taiwan is a particularly thorny issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and Secretary Blinken echoed seemingly bipartisan support for Taiwan in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Russia

Questions about how the Biden administration would handle Russia arose. On Russia, Secretary Blinken said the threat posed by Russia was “very high on the agenda,” signaling a sense of urgency for the new administration. Secretary Blinken promised an approach to Russia different from that of the Trump administration, which is often accused of being too lenient on Russia. This begins, Secretary Blinken observed, with seeking an extension to the New Start Treaty, that expires in early February.

Secretary Blinken also raised the recent detainment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from aa failed poisoning attempt last summer, with all fingers pointing to the Kremlin as the likely guilty party. Secretary Blinken expressed his support for Mr. Navalny, and drew attention to what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fear of the opposition leader: “It’s extraordinary how frightened Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.”

With respect to Russia’s larger regional and global threat, Secretary Blinken stated his strategy to continue supporting “the arming and training of Ukraine’s military, the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance and indeed, of the training program as well,” noting that he felt this program had been “a real success.” Secretary Blinken told the Senators that “I spent a lot of time on Ukraine when I was last in government” and concurred with the Senate’s desire of trying to help Ukraine and standing up to Russia in the face of the annexation in Crimea and the deteriorating situation in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Iran

Much of the disagreement” [between Republican Senators and Secretary Blinken] centered on the Biden administration’s plans surrounding Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Republicans on the Committee worry that President Biden will abandon the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Secretary Blinken stressed how the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement has actually left the United States in a weaker position and noting that Iran is closer than before the deal to acquiring nuclear weapons, highlighting that Iran has “increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and fired up its centrifuges to produce higher-grade uranium.”

Secretary Blinken pointed out that Iran “represents a greater threat if it [Iran] wields nuclear weapons or reaches the threshold of using nuclear weapons.” He echoed President Biden’s plan to reenter the nuclear deal and that he would seek a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran.

The United States is more likely to curtail Iran’s support for terrorism and proxy militias and regional antagonism, the Secretary claimed, if the nuclear weapons issue is no longer the primary issue. However, Secretary Blinken admitted that the Biden administration is “a long way from” any terms of a deal with Iran as it is too early to know what terms Iran will be willing to accept.”

North Korea

Secretary Blinken recognized North Korea as a strategic challenge for the Biden administration. He did not offer much in the way of the Biden administration’s plans or policies toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons. Secretary Blinken shared that the Biden administration would conduct a full review of the United States’ approach to North Korea in search of ways to get its leader, Kim Jong-Un, to agree to further negotiations.

Simultaneously, Secretary Blinken vowed to watch the worsening humanitarian situation. “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.” What’s more, Secretary Blinken said that any actions taken on the North Korean issue would begin with close consultation with U.S. allies in Asia, specifically Japan and South Korea.

Conclusion

Similar to his perspective on the United States’ allies, the Secretary also has an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the United States, particularly in its complicated and strained relationships with its adversaries as each adversary presents a unique challenge. However, Secretary Blinken’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlighted his capability, readiness, and enthusiasm to lead the State Department and return U.S. foreign policy to a more traditional and unified foreign policy.