Joe Biden is a young President. He has only just completed his first hundred days in his new post, a period which is a sort of yardstick in political history. The “Flight of the Eagle” had stopped at Waterloo, whilst, after a somewhat hesitant start, Joe Biden is ending the first phase of his journey at a breakneck pace. The new United States President is also a beginner taking his first steps, and one never knows whether a loyal and even brilliant second-in-command will ever become a genuine number one. What impressions can therefore be drawn from his first statements and decisions? What guidelines and even persistent trends are emerging at the beginning of his presidential term?
If we look only at the early days, these were somewhat hesitant and slow. The first press conference came late, literally, since the President stumbled as he boarded Air Force One, and he also departed from diplomatic norms in the way he referred to his Russian counterpart.
While it had been predicted that the presidency, at least initially, would seek to build consensus inside the US and also promote international cooperation, especially with traditional allies, this was not the exact blueprint it started with. Indeed, one should always beware “transitional popes” who can do the unexpected and indeed the chief executive has already declared that he is considering running for a second term.
As usually happens, very early in his term, the new president was tested on his reaction capabilities and his credibility was ensured when he responded to attacks on US forces in Iraq with strikes on pro-Iranian elements in Syria. In this instance, there was no other possibility, and indeed our transatlantic solidarity will very clearly continue to be expressed in such situations, and will, above all, be unwavering on the sensitive issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. As President Macron solemnly declared before Congress during his State visit to the United States under the previous administration: “Iran shall never possess any nuclear weapons. Not now, not in five years, not in 10 years, never.”
The first tensions with Russia at the very beginning of his term cannot be explained by a single inappropriate word, whatever people might think. On the domestic front, it may have been a matter of the newly elected president taking a firm stand by wrong-footing his predecessor in a sphere where the latter had appeared to be much less keen to do so.
Externally, it is perhaps surprising for an America wishing to reassert its leadership to take on what is now deemed a weakened power to obtain what can be described as easy wins. The goal of competing with the new challenger in the world order has been delayed or delegated, although it is safe to predict that it will happen.
The term used by President Biden is surprising coming after all from a man of his generation who knows all too well the reality of American military interventions since the 1960s and one of whose sons, now deceased, fought in Afghanistan. Since the present-day realities, whatever they may be, also highlight those of a not so distant past.
There was the 1963 assassination, purportedly ordered by a military junta, in Saigon of the Diem brothers, one of whom was the President of South Vietnam, a few weeks before the 22 November tragedy in Dallas; the massive military engagement in Vietnam, with its known trail of atrocities, under Lyndon Johnson’s presidency; the Iraq war of two Presidents, father and son, little more than ten years apart; the indiscriminate carpet-bombing in 1991 – despite its video-game appearance – preceding the 2003 invasion followed by sanctions causing a humanitarian tragedy while ultimately reinforcing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship; and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s efforts to end the Vietnam War – which led to the 1973 Paris Agreement. But before this final episode, it was the unprecedented massive bombing of the North in order to break the back of the Vietnamese and the attempt to secretly destroy, by every possible means including deforestation, the Cambodian section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that led historian William Shawcross to write his famous book (“Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia”, 1979). It is a long list following a relentless power-based approach, and to it we could add a list of the horrors of the colonial wars and proxy conflicts occurring against the backdrop of the confrontation between the two blocs during the Cold War.
It was therefore understandable for President Obama not to want to follow the ‘Washington manual’, a sort of unwritten doctrine on resorting to military capabilities imposed on every US president, and in the end to reject in 2013 the use of chemical weapons in Syria, thus avoiding the risk of a new military operation, even though he had been elected to end interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Biden may continue this policy. The final withdrawal from Afghanistan – after US troops had been there for 20 years and 2,300 had died in the conflict – negotiated by the previous administration for 1 May has now been scheduled for 11 September, this meaning that a loop has been closed and also leaving the possibility of a more orderly withdrawal including the allies in line with the principle: “In together, Out together.
Joe Biden has begun with a sort of classicist approach, demonstrating harmony and restraint, and following recognized Democratic Party tradition. He will be helped in his task by a first-rate very experienced foreign policy dream team, the like of which perhaps no previous administration has ever known, with John Kerry, Antony Blinken, William Burns and including Robert Malley as US Iran envoy for the Middle East, who had already served under Bill Clinton, and, of course, Vice President Kamala Harris, whose job includes important tasks of external representation.
This classicism, undermined by the Reagan administration long before Donald Trump, has already led to a return to multilateral diplomacy. Using executive orders, the US immediately rejoined the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement. The new President and his team have displayed a talent for building sorts of “issue-based coalitions” in the fight against Covid: the United States is now in a position to export vaccines on a massive scale to parts of the world where they are sorely needed. Even before the health situation in India significantly deteriorated, it had been decided that the United States and Japan would finance Indian production of vaccines and Australia ensure the logistics of distribution covering the Asian and Pacific areas. Regardless of the obvious underlying interests, including economic ones, such responsiveness and ingenuity in such a short space of time can only be admired. “Classicism” may not mean a return to the good old “duopoly” of the Soviet era, but it does mean safeguarding a substantial, constructive dialogue between the United States and Russia in politico-military matters, which is in fact in Washington’s interest. Joe Biden thus decided to extend for five years the New Start Treaty, still the only strategic arms treaty between the two countries.
The outcome of the presidential election in the United States has given rise to fairly widespread relief in Europe, and many European leaders have noted the change in tone and method in transatlantic contacts. As Realpolitik remains dominant in relations between States, still dominated by their interests, there is still a need to remain cautious. The German Chancellor, who had been among the first to welcome Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, had at the same time called for greater European responsibility in the political and military sphere.
Russia was not necessarily the ultimate target of the new President’s sweeping language against it. As a matter of fact, Europe may also feel more concerned because relations with Moscow are very contentious and there is disagreement even within several of the continent’s states, even the larger ones. Washington could even need to act unilaterally before forming new groups for other battles. At the same time, NATO is discussing a collective strategy towards China. And the UK, keen to reassume the role of the most loyal second-in-command, has made statements about doubling its nuclear warheads, which have provoked an immediate reaction from Moscow. The revival, so to speak, of an arms race in the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who had drained Soviet coffers with his Star Wars programme, can only give rise to nightmarish visions. For Europe, and it is important to stress that this does not just apply to Germany, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project may be affected by these developments and the spectre of extra-territorial laws will once again shake up the continent.
There are many areas in which Joe Biden will have to innovate, although he will no doubt decide in many circumstances “On new ideas let usmake ancient verses. The same applies to China and the global economy, both huge challenges?
In his first steps, the new President has seemed to rely on his democratic DNA, which incorporates “values diplomacy”. He has clearly dissociated himself from his predecessor, whose mistakes he had already criticized (“It is the moment we began to lose our legitimacy around the world”). The so-called “Khashoggi Ban” – imposing sanctions on 76 Saudis, with, admittedly, the exception of the Crown Prince – was in line with this; similarly, in the Navalny case, sanctions were imposed on Russian officials, but not on President Putin. The recognition, on the 24 April anniversary of the Armenian genocide, long awaited by an entire community, but nevertheless deemed bold beyond it, may send a strong message to authoritarian regimes towards which the United States has sometimes turned a blind eye for reasons of strategic interest.
Asia – and especially China – will naturally be the number one topic on the international agenda for many years to come. President Biden has been careful not to provoke the first skirmishes. So far it has been the new Secretary of State’s task to talk about China. He began to do so by defending human rights, affirming the continuity of American policy (“violations that threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability”. The Sino-American Foreign Ministers and national security advisers meeting in Alaska was a heavily publicised dialogue of the deaf, with each side airing its grievances. The new administration has been firm on Hong Kong, attentive and critical on the treatment of the Uighurs and particularly vigilant on Taiwan, whose “lock” it forms in the South China Sea is of major strategic importance.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign dignity to visit President Biden in Washington and here there was no difference with Donald Trump who had welcomed Shinzo Abe who was the first to rush to the United States. The South Korean President is expected to visit this month. But Joe Biden’s approach will not be the same as his predecessor’s. The aim will be to work with allies, to build coalitions, in a way to begin by weaving a web, perhaps as James Baker did so successfully with George Bush Sr before the Gulf War. In principle, therefore, there is no likelihood of a spectacular showdown with President Xi being initiated from Washington.
Domestically, particularly on the economic front, Joe Biden quickly turned out to be bold with a massive Keynesian stimulus programme, i.e. a break with every theory and practice since the Reagan era, which has led him to be dubbed a revolutionary. The presentation to Congress, on the eve of the Hundred Days, confirmed and amplified these first policies: on top of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act, especially intended for sole practitioners, small partnerships and companies which had suffered from Covid – comparable in terms of the sums involved to the 1960s space programme in response to the 1957 Sputnik launch or, at least in spirit, to the 1930s New Deal – have come the American Jobs Plan ($2.3 trillion) for remodelling the infrastructure and American Families Plan ($1.8 trillion) designed to reduce social inequalities and the racial divide; inter alia, this involves modernising schools and introducing federal maternity leave. This last measure, which seems self-evident when looked at in the light of social policies common in Europe, marks a radical change and constitutes a real revolution. It will not, however, be enough for Joe Biden to have stated such ambitions, as account will have to be taken of Republican opposition, in the form, first, of filibustering in Congress.
As well as a brief but intense Covid vaccination campaign – which appears to be showing early results – the US has seen an indisputable recovery highlighted by 6.4% annualised first quarter GDP growth compared to 1.6% over the same period the previous year.
Historian Jon Meacham, said to have become an influential speechwriter for Joe Biden, has questioned the meaning of the presidential office, quoting President Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of J.F. Kennedy’s assassination. His question “What the hell is the presidency for?” was in fact more an expression of determination to accomplish “big things”, in this case – something new for him – to complete the Civil Rights Act initiated by Kennedy. This sudden change for President Biden, shocked by the tragedy, had only been matched in American history by Lincoln’s conversion in a single year between 1861 and 1862 to a determination to abolish slavery.
Joe Biden is now presented in the guise of a Roosevelt, or a little more modestly as a General Eisenhower, still pretty flattering. When it comes to a policy of massive investment, like those of Johnson, the discreet, pragmatic Senator from Delaware had already learned a lot from the 2007-2008 crisis when he was responsible for the Obama Recovery Plan. Some people in Europe – as if struck by a kind of “mental Covid” – are already worried about the effects of this policy, coming on top of Chinese investments in the high-tech sector, whereas these challenges, which are also opportunities, should be incentives to undertake and innovate. The world of the future will certainly be one of stiff competition.
Whatever Benjamin Constant or Chateaubriand may have written, the Hundred Days marked as much an eventual downfall as the return of a King, i.e. both a restoration and a genuine entry into a new century. The Ball of the World of the Future, to which we will all be invited, will be the Debs’ ball. It will look like a gigantic dance floor on which everyone will want to be seen making progress, but in reality it will be more of a narrow ridge path offering mind-boggling and fascinating prospects. We will have to be nimble-footed, like Joe Biden, who today is providing a rousing demonstration…