Opinion: The whole world is watching Biden as he takes charge

From Day One, President-elect Joe Biden has a tall order — to rebuild around the world the shattered image of America that Donald Trump had cultivated from his first day, four long years ago. At its core, this involves a restoration of the most critical underpinnings of America’s national security and the world’s well-being that Trump and his minions sought to dismantle, with increasing intensity through the final days and hours of his presidency.

And this process can, and indeed must, begin the very moment Biden takes his hand off the Bible after swearing to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

Some of these first day priorities he will be in a position to accomplish through a series of executive orders, drafted and teed up on his desk for his first hours.
But his most difficult task will be to convince the growing band of skeptics around the world — most of whom want so desperately to embrace an America that may be long gone — that the Biden years are not simply a golden interregnum as America takes a respite before again plunging ever more deeply into a toxic maelstrom of conservatism, isolationism and self-interest. “Day One, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying, ‘We’re back,’ “ he told KPNX in Phoenix last summer. “We’re back, and you can count on us again.”

So what else should be on Biden’s Day One priorities list?

To begin, there’s reversing a series of Trump withdrawals: return to the Paris Climate Accords; return to the World Health Organization and restore the $90 million in funding the US owes. Both of these are unquestionably flawed, but they can be better reformed from within than without.
Equally, the United States needs to either find its way back into or find some way of restoring several treaties Trump bolted out of with little real understanding of the consequences. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty were both victims of Trump’s ill-considered ire. Just last week, Russia joined the US in withdrawing from the Open Skies accord, which allows unfettered overflights of military sites by observation aircraft. About the only major East-West arms treaty still left is the New START agreement, set to expire next month and which needs desperately to be re-upped to prevent a new, unchecked nuclear arms race.
The world watches Washington with horror

Then there’s a succession of ongoing flashpoints or endemic crises that Biden, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will need urgently to confront, but with a host of immediate obstacles that outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hardly hesitated to strew in their path.

Iran has already been doing its best to wait out the new administration in Washington and see what new directions it might be prepared to take. The ayatollahs seem to have shown some restraint in allowing the first anniversary of the assassination of their military hero Gen. Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, — ordered by Trump — to go largely unmarked. But a day after the anniversary, Iran did announce with some fanfare it would begin enriching uranium to 20% concentration — a clear breach of the nuclear treaty known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action from which Trump withdrew and Biden has pledged to revive and re-enter. (After the killing of Soleimani, Iran announced that it wouldn’t restrict itself to the plan.) Waiting in the wings is an expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile program, which Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria must be on the table to deal with early-on. Already, Iran has threatened to expel international nuclear inspectors if sanctions aren’t lifted by February 21.
Pompeo has further not improved the atmosphere awaiting the Biden team, announcing a host of sanctions against Iran’s military-industrial complex last week, against its shipping industry and against institutions controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AIi Khamenei and his associates, who Pompeo described as “Iran’s corrupt leaders.” And he announced with little evidence that Iran had allowed al-Qaeda to set up its headquarters in Tehran, then slapped on more sanctions.

All these moves are obstacles to building the kind of trust that Biden and his team must assemble if they are going to be able to return to the JCPOA agreement designed to restrain Iran’s dash toward a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Trump’s interim Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced — with apparent pride — that the Pentagon has completed the reduction to 2,500 of American troop levels from Afghanistan and Iraq each, to the lowest levels in two decades. Whether this might embolden the Taliban or Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq remains to be seen.

Then there are China and Russia. Both are at once immediately pressing — and long-term problems. The Biden team will need to develop a long-term strategy in dealing with China. To do so, they will need to understand and accept China’s principal need — recognition that it is a dominant world power in virtually every respect. No doubt this means the United States cannot hope to compete and emerge victorious on its own.

“Trying to compete one-on-one with China is a much more difficult prospect than trying to build partnerships with allies and like-minded states around the world to compete against them together,” Michèle Flournoy, a foreign policy and defense veteran of the Obama presidency, told me in a recent interview. In a host of areas, from technology to Indo-Pacific security, to economics and trade, China will continue to grow and pose an ever-increasing threat at every turn. “What we want to try to do is figure out early in the game is how do we compete successfully with China in those areas without ending up in a war between two nuclear powers,” Flournoy said. And then, six days before the inauguration, along came Pompeo with new visa restriction and sanctions against Chinese communist party members and corporations designed only to inflame relations.
The big question over sanctions also hovers over America’s dealings with Russia, and especially Vladimir Putin. It took more than a month for Putin to recognize Biden’s victory. But Biden does not seem to have much appetite for the “reset” in relations with Russia that marked the early days of the Obama presidency. Which is not to say that eventually business might not be done. For the moment, however, it may best to monitor Putin’s response. Will Russia continue buzzing US ships in international waters, infiltrating troops and materiel into eastern Ukraine, assassinating political opponents at home and abroad? As Ambassador Kurt Volker, deeply involved for years in east-west issues, told me in an interview last week, Biden needs to tell Putin early on that, “If you persist in this we will keep up the counter pressure on you, but you need to signal that you’re willing to actually come to the table with us. For once, it’s not on the US or the West to reset our policies. It’s time for Russia to rethink its policies.”
Seizing Putin-opponent Alexei Navalny at the Moscow airport Sunday on his return from Germany did not seem to be any move in that direction.
And lastly, there is North Korea. Already, dictator Kim Jong Un has thrown down the gauntlet. Last week, he gave a surprise preview of a massive pipeline of advanced new weaponry — military drones, a nuclear-powered submarine, smaller and lighter missiles with greater range and multiple warheads. Without neighboring China and Russia on board, not to mention a Europe that is more immediately focused on Iran, there are few possible restraints on Kim’s actions. After all, he’s already wrung the principal benefit of global recognition as an “equal” of an American president out of his ill-conceived summits with Trump.

Inherent in so many of these challenges is the restoration of alliances and partnerships with many of America’s natural friends and allies, particularly in Europe. Which brings us full-circle to Biden’s overwhelming need to re-establish a global or at least Western order led by a newly rational and globalist America.

Gone must be “America First.” Welcome, “America One Among Many” — erasing as quickly as possible a host of toxic red lines that were the hallmark of the Trump years.

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