The US is restoring links to other nations, but is Biden’s approach up to expectations?
President Biden has announced a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Antony Blinken has had a confrontational meeting with the Chinese. Henry Kissinger is writing two books. Washington is yet to go for accommodation with Tehran.
The picture could not be clearer. After the chaos engendered by the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton in America’s view of the world beyond its frontiers, Joe Biden is engaged in restoring and reconstructing Washington’s links with nations abroad. And yet, there are the suspicions that the approach may not be quite up to expectations on the part of analysts of diplomacy around the globe.
Where subtlety was necessary in dealing with China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken chose to go no-holds-barred in his negotiations with his Chinese counterpart in Anchorage, Alaska. Diplomacy in modern times — and this we have experienced in our era — is never a matter of being blunt with the adversary.
Where Pompeo and his people had simply no understanding of how foreign policy is shaped and conducted, Blinken’s idea that going tough with Beijing right at the beginning of the Biden administration was an imperative did not help. It left both sides angry. A nuanced approach is needed in dealing with the near-superpower which China is today.
But, yes, toughness is necessary, as in confronting Vladimir Putin over such critical issues as Russian interference in US elections and the ill-treatment to which Alexei Navalny is these days being subjected to Moscow. After four years of being coddled by Trump, President Putin is facing the heat from President Biden. But look at another angle of current American diplomacy. Washington is not helping matters any by placing conditions before Iran prior to there being a return to the nuclear deal.
The Iranian leadership is properly justified in asking that the sanctions put in place by the Trump administration be lifted before the new men in Washington can expect Tehran to return to being part of the deal that was once trumpeted as a triumph for the West. The least Biden and Blinken can do is to not carry the baggage of the diplomatically illiterate administration which preceded theirs. The decades since the fall of the Shah have proved conclusively that the ayatollahs in Iran cannot be browbeaten into submission over geo-political issues. Biden should approach Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s politics from just such a perspective.
American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has by and large been a story of mishandled adventures abroad. While during the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union kept a balance of power, even if precariously at times, there is the larger point of how men like John Foster Dulles took the wrong route to a pursuit of diplomacy. Washington’s refusal to acknowledge the primacy of the Communists in China after 1949 and all the way to 1971 were little more than obduracy, a short-sighted policy of trying to contain communism in Asia.
Failure has been a dominant factor in US foreign policy, with exceptions — the exceptions being the process of détente with Moscow inaugurated by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s. But observe the course the war in Vietnam took, specifically the combination of aerial bombing of North Vietnam and peace negotiations Washington adopted as policy under President Lyndon Johnson, an approach carried forward by the Nixon administration.
First it was Averell Harriman and Xuan Tuy who engaged in Paris in 1968, to be supplanted by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho between 1968 and 1973. Vietnamization was touted as grand strategy by the Nixon White House. In the end, peace was brought about not by any deal across the table but through the storming of Saigon by North Vietnamese soldiers and the Vietcong in April 1975. Diplomacy was nowhere on the scene.
All too often, successive administrations in Washington have had their priorities in foreign policy misplaced. In 1971, the Nixon-Kissinger team naively believed that a negotiated settlement could be reached over the Bangladesh crisis by not exerting pressure on the Yahya Khan junta. It was foreign policy in its ostrich-like form, a refusal to consider the trauma of the Bangalis for what it was. Where Indira Gandhi and Leonid Brezhnev remained clear about the course their diplomacy would need to take — and their approach bore fruit — Richard Nixon, the astute politician, suddenly unable to see the woods for the trees, experienced a massive foreign policy debacle of his presidency.
American diplomacy could not prevent the fall of South Vietnam. It did not prevent the emergence of Bangladesh. And in the Reagan era, US foreign policy opened a new door of conflict by arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The result was unmitigated chaos, a condition made worse by George W Bush in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York.
Every US president since Reagan has been trapped in the hole that America’s Afghan policy has been. Now that Biden wants out by September this year, it is little cause for celebration. It will be a precipitate US withdrawal, along with that by Nato, and will likely see the Taliban marching triumphantly back into Kabul.
The horrors of the Taliban takeover in 1996 have not been forgotten. Abandoning Afghanistan now is once again a rerun of the old tale — that American diplomacy and military intervention have failed.
It all takes one back to Henry Kissinger, who as architect of US foreign policy saw that policy fail spectacularly in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. American encouragement gave General Suharto carte blanche to invade East Timor in 1975, with horrendous results.
American foreign policy, in its narrow parameters, saw the murder of democracy in Chile in 1973, has seen the rise and fall of the Diem brothers in South Vietnam, has supported military rulers in Pakistan subvert moves for democracy, has left Iraq and Libya fractured beyond recognition. l
Dr Kissinger is these days writing two books. One deals with artificial intelligence. The other is his assessment of five leaders, including Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon. Perhaps, in these twilight and hopefully reflective years of his life, he will have some worthwhile advice for Antony Blinken — through that second work in progress?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.