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. 

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.

Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe

On June 9, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. set off for a trip to Europe with stops in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland. While in the United Kingdom, President Biden, an avowed Atlanticist, attended a Group of 7 (G-7) meeting on the first leg of the trip and also met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then, he traveled to Brussels to meet with leaders from the other 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then attended a summit with leaders from the European Union (EU), including the Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission. On the last day of the trip, President Biden met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

Before boarding Air Force One, President Biden published an op ed in the New York Times, where he stated that “this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” In short, the purpose of his European trip was three-fold: show America’s European allies that the United States is back, get on the same page with the Europeans about China, and put guardrails on the U.S. relationship with Russia.  

The G-7 Meeting

President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the G-7 countries in Cornwall, a small coastal town in the United Kingdom, was relatively fruitful. Number one on his agenda was getting the United States’ closest European allies (including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), Canada, and Japan to agree on the threat that a rising China poses, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 meeting was the first attempt by leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to counter the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China lends and invests money to countries across Africa, Latin America, and now Europe. As a result, the G-7 leaders began discussions on designing a similar program called Build Back Better for the World.

Beyond direct concerns about China, the G-7 leaders announced several other initiatives. For one, the leaders of the G-7 committed to donating more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. The G-7 leaders also pledged to cutting their collective carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed to imposing a minimum 15 percent corporate tax.

The Special Relationship

While in the United Kingdom, President Biden met with Prime Minister Johnson for their first in person get-together. In a meeting designed to “affirm the special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, the two leaders introduced an updated Atlantic Charter based off the one signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941.

The two leaders revised the 80-year-old charter, originally created to ensure the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” to include present day threats like cyberattacks, election interference, pandemics, and climate change. Above all, the meeting between the two leaders was to “redefine the Western alliance” in the face of a global ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, led by China and Russia.

President Biden took the time to raise concerns over Northern Ireland. He worries that Prime Minister Johnson will destabilize the Good Friday peace agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in his Brexit dealings. President Biden publicly asserted during his campaign that it was imperative that the Good Friday Agreement not “become a casualty” of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson, who is eager to show off the United Kingdom’s newly branded post-Brexit plans called Global Britain, has not so subtly made his hopes known for a trade deal with the United States as a way to calm the nerves of his citizens in post-Brexit Britain. However, President Biden echoed his former boss when he declared that a trade deal between the two countries would hinge on the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country which is still part of the EU.

NATO Summit

After the G-7 meeting, President Biden and his team traveled to Brussels for summits with leaders of NATO and the EU. At a pivotal point in alliance history, President Biden made sure to alleviate his NATO pals’ anxiety after four turbulent years of American leadership under the Trump administration.

In this vein, President Biden met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and held meetings with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to hear concerns about Russia’s threat to NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO, during this summit, targeted Russia due to its aggressive military activity and wargames along NATO’s borders. Moreover, for the first time in alliance history, NATO mentioned China in its final communique, calling the communist nation a “constant security challenge” and recognized that China is trying to weaken the global order.  

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden recommitted to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. “Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” he affirmed. He also acknowledged the apprehension of America’s NATO allies: “I want NATO to know America is here.” His attendance and actions at the NATO summit were intended to reassure NATO allies that the United States is, in fact, back.

Let’s Talk Turkey

While in Brussels for the NATO summit, President Biden met individually with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time when Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe are quite tense, President Erdogan has considerable leverage over his Western allies. However, President Erdogan’s continued authoritarian tendencies have not helped the situation, and neither have his efforts to balance relations with Russia, NATO’s archenemy, particularly over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Through the first few months of his administration, President Biden has “given [President] Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder.” Biden called the Turkish president for the first time in April, only to state that he was officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This decision angered President Erdogan profoundly, calling the decision a “deep wound” in the relationship, and has reinforced his fear that the United States wants to replace him. However, besides publicly stating his frustration, President Erdogan did not retaliate, suggesting he wants to establish a good relationship with Mr. Biden and the United States.

As the two leaders met, the Biden administration is looking to sidestep the disagreements over the purchase of Russian S-400s, Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the animosity between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, both NATO allies. As Politico points out, there is “little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high”; it looks like tensions will likely remain high for the next few years.

US-EU Summit

On his next stop of his European trip, President Biden attended a summit with EU leaders. During the summit, President Biden noted the importance of the United States’ relationship with both NATO and the EU and stressed the importance of collaboration, stating that working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes.” President Biden and the EU agreed to remove tariffs on goods like EU wine and US tobacco and spirits, imposed in a row over mutual frustration over subsidies for Boeing, a U.S. company, and its European rival, Airbus, ending a dispute over the aircraft subsidies that last for 17 years.

There is one area of disagreement between the US and the EU on trade. In 2018, the Trump administration arbitrarily placed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, citing national security grounds. During the summit, the EU lifted the retaliatory tariffs on US steel and aluminum for six months, with hopes that the United States would reciprocate. However, President Biden did not commit to lifting the punitive tariffs. Despite this sensitive topic, President Biden went into the summit with EU leaders “seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China” at a time when the to adversaries are working to undermine the Transatlantic alliance.  

A Worth Adversary

On his final stop in Geneva, Biden met with Russian President Putin. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War and have only worsened in the first few months of the Biden administration. Russia’s significant cyberthreat, continued interference in U.S. and allied governments’ elections, a massive build up of forces along the Ukrainian border, and the horrendous treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the main sources of poor relations.

President Biden requested the meeting, which was a bit surprising after he called Mr. Putin “a killer” earlier this year. But, as the administration pointed out, President Biden has no intention of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia. Instead, analysts agree the purpose of the meeting was to avoid tensions with Russia in order to be able to concentrate on his ever-growing domestic agenda to-do list. In the meeting, it looks like Biden wanted to put guardrails on the relationship and to find areas of compromise, which is increasingly becoming a theme in Biden’s foreign policy.

The summit was not all symbols and speculation. In separate press conferences, President Biden said he raised the issue of Russia violating Mr. Navalny’s human rights as well as Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries referred to the summit as “constructive” and “positive,” and voiced their hopes of a better relationship, agreeing to restore ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow and discussed areas of cooperation and mutual interest, including Afghanistan and the Arctic. The summit was not meant to reset relations between the two countries, but it did seem to fulfill Biden’s initial purpose: making known to the Russian leader that the United States will not back down.

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.