Joe Biden returning to ‘no-drama-Obama’ years
‘The US is ready to lead the world again’ is the signal emanating from Washington DC with Obama insiders returning to head the Biden administration. How will it impact India ?
The nightmare for America and for the world is finally coming to an end. Normalcy is slowly returning to the United States, with the lame duck president, Donald Trump, no longer able to prevent an orderly transition to a Joe Biden presidency.
In the end it could be no mean victory, indeed quite convincing, notwithstanding the disturbing fact that Trump still won the confidence of 74 million of the electorate. A seven million and 4% difference in the popular votes and 306 to 232 margin in the all-important electoral college votes testify to the stamp of approval for the president-elect.
He will, though, inherit a world rendered more dangerous by his predecessor, who lobbed lollipops to North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, trusted the Afghan Taliban and has left a quagmire in Iraq. China is riding roughshod in Hong Kong in violation of its treaty promise to Britain, virtually imprisoned millions of its Uighur Muslim minority and is acting belligerent with India.
CNN commented Biden’s “approach to the presidency will be a top-to-bottom repudiation of the behaviour, policies and obsessions of Trump”. Biden and his half-Indian-extraction vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris’ immediate challenge will be to tackle the raging coronavirus in the US, where the death toll could go past 300,000 in the next couple of months; and to revive an economy battered by the epidemic and the restraints it has imposed.
But combating global warming will be front and centre in the duo’s agenda. The US, Biden has pledged, will re-engage with the Paris Agreement on climate change the day he is sworn in on 20 January. To this effect, he named an internationally known face, former secretary of state, John Kerry, as a cabinet rank special presidential envoy. He was at the helm at Foggy Bottom when the Barack Obama administration signed the Paris treaty, subsequently abandoned by Trump.
Following up on his choice of Harris – the first woman vice-president elect, that, too, non-white – he continued with ground-breaking selections for his cabinet.
He named Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-American, as the first Latino secretary of homeland security and Avril Haines as the first woman national intelligence director. A former deputy director of the CIA, she will coordinate work of 17 US intelligence agencies. Interestingly, most in his list contradicted pre-appointment news media speculation.
The big nomination was of course Antony Blinken, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, as secretary of state. He was deputy secretary of state under Obama. An experienced hand, who might have by now learned from his mistaken euphoria about Narendra Modi when he visited India in 2015.
His priority will be to restore the trans-Atlantic alliance with the European Union, which Trump ruptured, and reclaim a proactive position in Asia, considering China’s expansionist designs; examine whether a US troops pull-out from Afghanistan, as committed by Trump, is advisable given the ascendancy of the Taliban; reintroduce strictness against North Korea’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programme, as opposed to the softness of Trump; take a relook at the Iran nuclear deal, to which Trump turned his back at Israel’s behest; and reinstate the US as a member of the World Health Organisation, from which Trump withdrew.
Biden’s pick as national security adviser is Jake Sullivan. He was an aide of Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state in Obama’s first term; thereafter NSA to Biden when he was vice-president to Obama. He is supposed to have played a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear pact.
A majority of the nominees are Washington insiders, tried and tested and capable of coping with the overwhelming circumstances they confront. But all are subject to scrutiny by the Senate before being confirmed in their positions.
In unveiling them, Biden signalled a return to business as usual. “They (the foreign policy and national security team) embody my core beliefs that America is strongest when it works with its allies.” He added: “And it’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Once again, sit at the head of the table.”
There’s wide anticipation there will be a first woman treasury secretary to lift the country out of its steep economic downturn and 10 million unemployment. The name doing the rounds is that of 74-year-old Janet Yellen. An economist, she previously served as head of the US Federal Reserve or central bank and as an adviser to Bill Clinton, when he was president.
It was unclear as to who will become defence secretary. But controversy has been sparked by Kash Patel being chief of staff of the current acting secretary of defence and therefore a key player in the transition process now underway. Patel, whose family migrated from Gujarat to the US via East Africa, is a Trump loyalist who spread despicable conspiracy theories about Biden. His colleagues at the Pentagon are wary of whether he will live up to the cooperative spirit he is mandated to fulfil.
Narendra Modi muddied the waters for India by rather strenuously supporting Trump’s re-election. Even if the Biden administration – in the greater interest of bilateral relations and multilateral commonality – overlooks the extraordinary folly, it is unlikely to turn a blind eye to Modi’s domestic excesses, fascistHindutva and the draconian attitude towards Jammu and Kashmir will be among the topics raised. It is, though, in Washington’s interest to maintain solidarity with New Delhi in respect of the threat India is facing from China in Doklam and Ladakh.
Harris will inevitably be in the loop on India policy, even if not the point person. When Modi terminated J&K’s autonomy – a condition of its accession to India in 1947 – she stated: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world.”
Thereafter, S Jaishankar, Indian external affairs minister, somewhat undiplomatically refused to attend a meeting with US lawmakers because Premila Jayapal, an Indian-origin member of the US House of Representatives and mover of a motion against the Modi regime on its J&K policy, was going to be present. Responding to this, Harris tweeted: “It’s wrong of any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I’m glad her colleagues in the House did too.”
Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, was quoted as saying, “India continues to be very far off the US radar compared with other foreign policy priorities”. It’s an accurate characterisation.