US President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with House Democrats from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on March 3, 2021, in Washington, DC. AFP/Brendan Smialowski
Still in its first one hundred-day probation period, the Joe Biden administration has let the world stop and take note of the shift in the US foreign policy.
Last month, in a major foreign policy speech designed to restore order and global faith in the US, President Biden sent a strong signal to the international community that they would see a different America on his watch. His message was “America is back” with you.
It certainly does appear in stark contrast to the foreign policy of the previous Trump administration which followed an America-First foreign policy and ditched multilateralism.
Under the Trump administration, the US abandoned its allies and asked them to pay more for the protection the US granted them through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Accord, the United Nations Human Rights Council and distanced itself from the World Health Organisation while millions across the world were being afflicted with the COVID-19 pandemic. The US also withdrew from humanitarian relief programmes such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that is taking care of the displaced Palestinian people.
Not only that. In defiance of international opinion and international law, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and Syria’s Golan Heights as part of Israel. Disregarding pleas from allies, the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Then in a preposterous move, the Trump administration slapped sanction on International Criminal Court prosecutors, for they had decided to pursue war crimes US soldiers are said to have committed in Afghanistan. The Trump administration’s wrongdoings and bad policy decisions are too many to list.
The new president has already proved that he is different. He is not an isolationist to abandon America’s allies. Human Rights are once again part of the US foreign policy. Climate Change, which Trump denied as a Chinese hoax, is now a specialised subject with Cabinet status, while the WHO is being assured of US cooperation in its effort to eliminate the pandemic. There is some movement in finding a face-saving entry for the US to return to the Iran nuclear deal.
With regard to the Myanmar crisis, regarded as the Biden administration’s first foreign policy challenge, the US has imposed sanctions on the military leaders. Last month, in an address to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expounded the administration’s human rights policy, announcing that the US wanted to return to the council and declaring that the US “encourages the Council to support resolutions addressing issues of concern…, including ongoing human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, the lack of accountability for past atrocities in Sri Lanka, and the need for further investigation into the situation in South Sudan.”
Yesterday, at the behest of the US, the United Nations Security Council was to take up war crimes in the Tigray region in Ethiopia following a CNN investigation.
The Biden administration has also become highly vocal about Russia’s persecution of opposition politicians and China’s inhuman treatment of its Uighur population in the Xinjiang province.
Commendable indeed. But it is not a big deal if the US takes to task or shames a rival power or a weak nation on human rights. The real litmus test will be in areas where human rights issues are in conflict with the US political agenda. Two such areas are the US stance on Israel’s human rights violations and the US policy towards the ICC. Signs have already emerged that the Biden administration has compromised its policy with regard to the two areas of concern. The Biden administration has indicated that it is unlikely to digress from the Trump administration’s egregious policy of further victimizing the Palestinian people and it would not attempt to undo Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
The Biden administration’s Israeli policy is an area of concern for the human rights community. If, just as the previous US administrations, the present administration tolerates, encourages or defends Israel’s human rights violations in the Palestinian territories, then its human rights commitment is politically coated. We saw this political bias when on Wednesday the State Department made its position clear with regard to ICC’s decision to open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel.
Secretary of State Blinken tweeted, “The United States firmly opposes an @IntlCrimCourt investigation into the Palestinian Situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.”
Commenting on the ICC’s Israeli move, the State Department revealed that it was still weighing whether to maintain the Trump administration’s sanctions against the ICC. These are not good signs.
It may appear as a human rights course correction when the Biden administration this week released a highly classified US intelligence report that implicated Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the gruesome killing and disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist was killed when he came to obtain consular services at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.
The release of the report is indeed a welcome move, for it happened despite Saudi Arabia being a staunch US ally, despite the US facing the risk of losing Saudi contracts worth 450 billion dollars and despite the fears that US rivals Russia and China and even allies such as Britain and France could take advantage of the dispute and grab the contracts.
But only if the report’s release is followed up with punitive sanctions against those involved in the Khashoggi murder, can the human rights community conclude that the Biden administration is serious about its human rights commitments.
If a country approaches human rights issues on a selective basis, then its commitment to human rights is largely an image boosting exercise. Judging by the US foreign policy in the past one hundred years or so, the US is unlikely to sacrifice its national interest goals at the altar of human rights. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous remark, apocryphal or otherwise, aptly describes the US human rights policy throughout the years irrespective of whether Democrats or Republicans were in control. When in 1939, Roosevelt was asked for a policy response to human rights violations being committed by Nicaragua’s ruthless dictator Anastasio Somoza, especially targeting the communists, the US president is said to have remarked, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Whether Roosevelt really made this statement or not, the undeniable truth is that US governments have been supporting big-time human rights violators across the world to protect and promote its national-interest-driven agendas aimed at establishing its military dominance of the world and enabling Corporate America to plunder the resources that belong to the people of other countries. Will Biden be different?