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Biden team to face immediate decisions on global hotspots

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Nov 26, 2020 - 08:32 AM

WASHINGTON — US President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy team has entered the stage with calls to return to international cooperation and democratic values after Donald Trump’s chaotic four years.

The incoming administration has made clear that its top priority will be fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, but it will also face immediate decisions on several global hotspots:

Facing China and Russia 

The Trump administration by its final year had taken a hawkish turn on China, declaring that years of US engagement had failed and speaking of a vast global confrontation with the world’s most populous nation, which it blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Biden, who has extensive diplomatic experience with China, has broadly agreed that times have changed and that the Asian power should be treated as a competitor.

But Biden’s team is also likely to temper the rhetoric. Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken has said that the United States will be vocal on human rights and other concerns but also find areas in which it can work with Beijing, such as fighting pandemics and climate change.

By contrast, Biden has vowed a tougher line on Russia — whose president, Vladimir Putin, was admired by Trump — that includes imposing costs for Moscow’s alleged election meddling and supporting the democratic movement in Russian ally Belarus.

But while Biden is unlikely to speak of a “reset” of relations, like former president Barack Obama did, most experts believe he has little choice but to engage Russia.

Biden could face an early test as the New START treaty that caps nuclear warheads expires on February 5. Leading Democrats have agreed with Putin on extending the pact for a year.

Shift in Middle East

Biden favors a return to diplomacy with Iran, which has been hit by sweeping sanctions under Trump, but any negotiations are expected to be grueling.

Biden, Iran and European allies all still support a denuclearization deal negotiated by Obama with which Tehran had been in compliance until Trump pulled out.

Blinken has called for the accord to be both toughened and extended but Iran is already playing hardball, saying it will not revisit conditions and seeking not only sanctions relief but compensation.

Putting deadline pressure on both sides, Iran in June holds presidential elections in which hardliners, who say that the clerical state was wrong ever to trust the United States, are favored.

Biden has also made clear he will take a firmer line on ally Saudi Arabia, which Trump courted despite human rights concerns including the brutal killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Afghanistan troops 

Biden inherits Trump’s deal with the Taliban under which US troops plan to leave Afghanistan by May, ending America’s longest war. Trump is speeding up the withdrawal, with plans to pull out 2,000 more troops by mid-January.

Afghanistan is a rare issue on which Biden has largely agreed with Trump; as vice president, Biden questioned the wisdom of an indefinite military commitment.

But Biden, mindful of the turmoil in Iraq after Obama removed all troops, said in September that he still wanted to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan that can strike Islamic State extremists.

Experts believe that such an approach could bring about the collapse of the deal or even revive all-out war, as the Taliban have held fire on US-led forces on the understanding that they are leaving.

No more North Korea pageantry 

One of Trump’s most unusual diplomatic approaches was to hold three meetings with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, with whom he said he had “fallen in love.”

North Korea has been quiet on Trump’s loss and has hardly started on friendly footing with Biden, with state media calling him a “rabid dog” that must be “beaten to death.”

Biden has said he will not meet Kim without preconditions, accusing Trump of giving the young authoritarian the legitimacy he craves, but is open to more traditional, low-level negotiations with Pyongyang.

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the Biden team not to undo its approach, saying Trump’s diplomacy has “reduced the risk” with the nuclear power.

New approach on Venezuela? 

The Biden team has not given clear signs on Venezuela, where Trump has failed in his nearly two-year push through sanctions to oust leftist leader Nicolas Maduro.

Some experts believe Biden will adopt a more moderate approach that relies more on international mediation in hopes of a gradual transition.

Maduro has voiced hope for a “decent” dialogue with Biden, but opposition leader Juan Guaido is keen on continued US support.

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