With Tomasz Pugacewicz on how Joe Biden’s presidency will affect the defense of NATO’s eastern flank, who can be a counterbalance to China, and whether we can expect any changes in the US-Israeli relations, talks Michał Zieliński.
The USA is paying more and more attention to the Pacific. Will this tendency grow during Joe Biden’s presidency?
Tomasz Pugacewicz: First, it needs to be emphasized that the president has been sworn in very recently and many departmental positions are still waiting for appointments. The national security strategy has not yet been published either, and the US Congress has still not received a budget proposal from the new administration. Judging by President Biden’s election statements, by the characteristics of his advisors and his first foreign talks, we can nonetheless indicate the priorities of the new administration. We can also make assumptions on the basis of initiated sector reviews. One of the three special sector reviews concerns the American strategy towards China. It shows we can expect continuity in the matter of perceiving China as the biggest challenge currently faced by the USA. Apparently, people associate actions targeted at China with Donald Trump, but the back-room planning already began during Barack Obama’s second term as president.
I see a certain paradox in the relations between the USA and the People’s Republic of China. On the one hand, Beijing expresses hope that Biden’s presidency will bring thaw, but on the other, there are growing tensions in the region. How should we understand this discrepancy?
The Biden administration is considered to be ready to implement a somewhat more conciliatory policy towards China. Two important steps regarding China have been taken, which do not, however, settle the issue on the direction of American policy towards this country. The first step is the already mentioned special sector review at the Department of Defense. It is to determine what concepts should be implemented, what military technologies should be developed and where to deploy armed forces. The second step is the appointment of a coordinator for issues connected with the Indo-Pacific region at the White House National Security Council. We already know about President Biden’s phone call to Xi Jinping on the occasion of the Chinese New Year. During the talk, he upheld the accusations regarding forced technology transfer, unfair economic competition, violation of human rights, and posing a threat to Taiwan. At the same time, Biden’s administration emphasizes that the rivalry with China or Russia does not exclude cooperation with them in particular areas, such as the struggle with the ongoing pandemic, climate change, or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The last point concerns mainly the attempts to influence China to help limit the nuclear program in North Korea.
The subject of North Korea was often brought up during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s spectacular policy in the context of US relations with North Korea did not lead to any breakthrough in restricting the development of the nuclear and missile program. There have been no indications yet that would ultimately settle the question on the direction of President Biden’s actions in this matter, but history teaches us that Democratic administrations have always been more willing to negotiate with North Korea some agreements that would offer economic help in return for limiting armament programs.
The matter of North Korea is feeding the imagination of the public, but lately most political and military activity is undertaken in connection with Taiwan. Maybe President Biden’s administration will focus on this matter?
Yes, and it will be a continuation of what we saw during Donald Trump’s term. Taiwan is considered the line China should not cross. We need to be aware, though, that for the US Armed Forces protecting Taiwan is a serious challenge. The country is both a foothold limiting the activity of China and a sort of litmus paper indicating if it is a strong enough actor to regain control over the island.
The economic rivalry between the USA and China is ongoing not only in Asia but also in Africa. However, it seems that Americans have given up on this region.
Africa is not the economic center of the world and it is not where the main rivalry between the USA and its adversaries will take place. However, what happens in that region shows us exactly the kind of era we are now entering. Many American analysts emphasize that the post-Cold War period is over, and we have now entered the era of a new cold war. World powers can’t directly declare war against one another, so they compete in the Third World. That’s why China has developed an impressive network of influence in Africa. The Chinese offer economic and humanitarian help without setting conditions typical for the West. The underlying aim of this expansion, though, is economic subordination to Beijing’s interests and activity of Chinese intelligence that serves those interests. So far, President Biden’s administration hasn’t directly and openly spoken out on the issue of Africa, but it is said that the USA has to make every effort to stop China’s economic, political and military expansion.
India is more and more often put in the role of the USA’s ally and a natural counterbalance to China.
India has been perceived as a counterbalance to China’s activity since Obama’s presidency. The USA has turned a blind eye to this state’s nuclear program, which is an exceptional situation, as America usually tries to persuade other countries to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to abide by it. At the same time, the US-India alliance is a natural consequence of border disputes between New Delhi and Beijing. India didn’t sign last year’s world’s biggest multilateral economic agreement with China, which shows its potential for cooperation with the USA. A certain kind of asset in the American relations with India is also the person of Kamala Harris, the US Vice President, who has Indian roots.
Since we have mentioned nuclear plans, we should emphasize that Iran’s nuclear program seems quite a significant issue now. Current relations between Washington and Tehran are very bad. Is it still possible to change this course?
American policy towards Iran answers the question about President Biden’s priorities in foreign policy. He emphasizes: first – diplomacy, second – economic instruments, third – intelligence, and only then military instruments, as the last resort. In the case of Iran, this is the attitude we can expect, although returning to the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 will be very hard. This situation shows how wrong it is to think that President Biden’s policy will be a return to that implemented during President Obama’s term. Currently, also due to some moves made by Iran, such agreements are much less beneficial to the USA. Not without significance is also the internal situation in Iran, where we have an ongoing clash between those who support softening and those who are for exacerbating relations with the USA. Americans will undoubtedly take action, but I wouldn’t expect military intervention in Iran, all the more since Washington is continually aiming at reducing military presence in the Middle East.
Will the USA continue to limit its contingents in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Decisions to reduce the military presence in the Middle East and in Europe were already taken during President Obama’s second term. It turned out to have been a mistake. In his speech at the Department of Defense, President Biden emphasized he will withdraw forces from the Middle East, but not at any cost. The operation must be executed in a way that will not allow for the return of terrorists. Therefore, training programs for local allies will also continue to be organized, as well as joint operations against terrorists. It is worth noting that on the third day of President Biden’s term there was a talk between the US National Security Advisor and his counterpart from Afghanistan. They discussed the question of the agreement between the USA and the Taliban, signed by Donald Trump’s administration. An assigned review will verify to what extent the Taliban have given up supporting terrorist networks and limited their scale of violence.
American connections in the Middle East extend outside Iraq and Afghanistan, though. Let’s focus for a moment on Israel. President Biden has been putting off making contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Does this mean he will focus on other allies in the region, for example Saudi Arabia?
I would definitely avoid putting forward such a thesis. True, the Democratic Party has a significant left-wing fraction which sees Israel as a state that violates human rights and occupies territories inhabited by Palestinians. Despite his condemn for its colonization policy and some historical disputes, President Biden nevertheless perceives Israel as a strategic ally. He has publicly ensured he will also continue to provide military support to Israel, both technological and in the form of financial transfers. We need to remember that at the end of President Obama’s second term, the relations between the USA and Israel dramatically worsened, mainly due to the critical attitude towards Prime Minister Netanyahu. At that time, Joe Biden was the vice president, so the current, rather cold, attitude should not come as a surprise. It doesn’t mean, however, that the USA will change its strategic ally.
It is hard not to get the impression that Americans are standing somewhere in between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Donald Trump’s administration tried to reduce these divergence.
President Trump’s administration unquestionably supported Israel, while also trying to normalize its relations with the Arab world, and build a coalition against Iran. However, Biden’s position is that the USA can’t waste too many resources towards the Middle East policy due to other priorities. The attitude results, among other things, from the fact that for the first time since the 1930s the USA has been dealing with a growing pressure of massive internal crises: I’m talking about the crisis in healthcare and economy, racial conflicts, but also about delegitimization of certain political institutions. Let’s return, however, to the Middle East policy. One of the visions of the Democratic Party has been based since the 1970s on the goal of achieving balance between the local powers, which would consequently keep one another in check. This, however, will not happen, since we can expect that during Biden’s term Israel and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia, will be favored, and the attitude towards Iran will be critical, but it will take a less extreme form.
It is impossible to talk about the Middle East without mentioning the fourth local power, Turkey.
During the last few years, Turkey’s foreign policy has changed dramatically. The internal situation in this country is worsening, so President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to draw attention away from that by pursuing expansive foreign policy. In a very short period of time, Ankara has become a side in the conflicts in Syria, the South Caucasus, in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and in North Africa. Turkey thinks that in the new cold war it doesn’t have to serve its hitherto main ally, which gives it more room for maneuver. At the same time, the USA isn’t taking any radical steps towards this country as it doesn’t want to lose an ally. We need to keep in mind that Turkey is a NATO member state. It has a strong army and an American military base on its territory.
Here, it seems only natural to ask about the future development of NATO.
NATO, outside the EU and bilateral agreements, is a natural platform for relations between the USA and Europe, and most experts would probably agree that these are the most important relations. Despite his harsh rhetoric, this is where Donald Trump continued the policy of his predecessors, including Obama’s administration. A good example might be the speech of the US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who already in 2011 in Brussels demanded from European members of NATO to increase their expenditure on armed forces. In this respect, Trump’s activities brought some positive effects. We now have about ten member states with defense budget on the level required by NATO, i.e. 2% GDP or more. Donald Trump also continued NATO’s out-of-area engagement policy, reaching back to the times of Balkan wars in the 1990s. The Balkans or Afghanistan are not, however, the biggest challenge for the USA now. It is the rivalry with China, and this was the direction towards which Trump tried to navigate the Alliance. However, President Biden softened the hitherto binding standpoint. In the first week after taking office, he made a call to NATO General Secretary, and declared that he would keep his commitments arising from Article 5. He remarked that the USA counted on the cooperation with NATO in the Middle East, but also mentioned the role of the Alliance in the fight with the pandemic or climate change. However, the most important question for Poland is the suspension of the decision to withdraw one-third of the US troops from Germany, and commissioning a review of its soundness. It seems that ultimately the number of withdrawn troops will be smaller or the decision will be cancelled altogether.
How will these decisions translate into protecting NATO’s eastern flank?
The very term ‘NATO’s eastern flank’ is misleading, as the east is NATO’s most important front. This is where the Alliance faces its main adversary, who has enough military potential to break the defense line of individual NATO member states if they don’t act together. That’s why I expect continuation of American military presence. In Poland, this presence is associated with Donald Trump’s administration, but the first steps in this direction were taken already during Obama’s second term as president. We must admit Donald Trump made good decisions on increasing the US military presence in Poland, but he did not start from scratch. As the vice president, Joe Biden also shaped this policy and I doubt he will undermine it now. What’s more, some experts claim the American contingent in Poland and the Balkan States may be increased during Joe Biden’s term. Here, we are touching upon the subject of the third special sector review on the relations with Russia. Americans are aware that, at the time being, the US Armed Forces in Europe function as a deterrent only, and are not used for defense.
I would like you to elaborate on the subject of Russia, but in the context of agreements on reducing nuclear arsenals and work on medium and short-range missiles. Can we expect changes for the better in that respect?
Demounting the solutions developed at the end of the Cold War period might terrify, because usually building up arsenals means increased possibility of war. This, however, results from the fact that the Russian Federation violates such agreements and keeps developing particular armament systems. Prolonging the New START Treaty is, however, a natural step. President Trump didn’t exclude maintaining this agreement either, but he demanded additional verification of the disarmament process and including China in the treaty. This second criterion is a total abstraction, as it is the USA and Russia who hold 90% of the world nuclear arsenal, and China is in no way a partner to such an agreement. President Biden is also considering signing an agreement regarding that matter with Beijing, but he wants it to be separate from Russia. What remains an open issue is the development of medium-range missiles, hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite weapons. There is a race going on in each of these areas and there is no certainty that the USA will want an agreement with Russia regarding all of them, as the development of such systems works for the benefit of the USA in the event of a possible confrontation with the People’s Republic of China. There is also another issue. Joe Biden is under big pressure of the Democratic Party’s left-wing fraction, who think excessive spending on defense is draining the budget of resources that should finance building national infrastructure, for example transport.
Several years ago, the Arctic was a defense-related subject bordering on fantasy. The region remains important, but we live in times when Americans intensively develop their military potential in outer space. Are these activities simply a propaganda game or is there anything more to them?
The hitherto operations of the USA in space have not gone as far as to authorize the creation of a separate branch of the armed forces, but Joe Biden will continue to undertake activities in this area. In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in the capabilities of Russia and China to conduct operations in this field. For example, Russians specialize in sending out devices imitating space debris, which enter orbits in the vicinity of American military satellites with a task to destroy them in the event of a confrontation. The US Armed Forces depend on technologies that use reconnaissance systems located in outer space, and these threats are taken into consideration in the process of their transformation. It was mentioned by the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who puts emphasis on the capability to conduct operations on many levels simultaneously, including cyberspace and outer space.
Lloyd Austin is also said to think in a way referred to as strategic patience. It consists in setting long-term goals, and not worrying about temporary failures that are inevitable in the process of executing important tasks. That’s why we can expect that Austin, as the Secretary of Defense, will support development of new technologies that will give the USA advantage over other states.
Tomasz Pugacewicz PhD, is an expert at the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations of the Jagiellonian University. He specializes in theories and actual decision-making mechanisms in the USA’s foreign and security policy, as well as in transatlantic relations.
autor zdjęć: Cavan-Images / Shutterstock, arch. Tomasza Pugacewicza