January 19, 2021

Rethinking the World Come January

Guest Opinion
By Jack Segal | Dec. 5, 2020

On Dec. 14, each state’s electors will cast their vote, and on Jan. 6, 2021, Congress will name Joe Biden president of the United States. End of story. Over the next weeks, the Biden transition team will develop its first policies aimed at addressing our most urgent crises. There are many — all shaped by actions taken, and not taken, by the outgoing Trump administration.

The highest priority is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Nov. 30, over 267,000 Americans have died. By Inauguration Day, COVID-19 deaths could reach 392,000, or even go as high as 453,000 deaths if current restrictions (masks, social distancing, capacity limits) are eased. For President Biden, the question will be what action he can take to slow the spread. But more important than any debate about presidential authority is whether the American people, including the U.S. Congress, can muster the courage and empathy needed to work together to win this battle.

The transition to the Biden presidency could offer a turning point, one in which Congress and the new administration could focus on what their predecessors should have already: implementing plans to slow the spread of the virus, support our hospitals and frontline workers, distribute the vaccine without bankrupting our towns and cities, and at the same time, provide a lifeline to our workers and small businesses that are facing economic disaster. There is no “whether” in this list. We must do all these things. It’s not a political game anymore. Lives hang in the balance.

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. back in March, President Trump deflected blame for his administration’s mishandling of the crisis and instead blamed China. (Enter Trump’s “China Virus.”) Can the Biden administration use this disaster as a means to refocus our relationship with China? China, after all, has brought its epidemic under control. Without replicating its Draconian methods, can we learn from what worked there? The global pandemic is one thing we should have collaborated on from day one. 

The pandemic has demonstrated that solving global problems requires diplomacy, and President-elect Biden has put U.S. policy in the hands of experienced global professionals like Tony Blinken, his Secretary of State-designee; Jake Sullivan, his future National Security Advisor; and foreign-service veteran Linda Thomas-Greenfield, soon to be his U.N. Ambassador. All have decades of experience and know each other and the president-elect well. Their selection clearly signals a change of course from Trump’s “America first” approach.

President Biden has said he will resume cooperation with the WHO and other global organizations that are collaborating on a global approach to the pandemic. But the pandemic is just the first among many pressing demands that the Biden team will face. Perhaps the most dangerous challenge comes from Iran, a country that feels under an existential threat from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Early in his administration, President Biden might face Iranian retaliation for the assassination of Iran’s nuclear weapons developer and that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander last January. But Teheran would be wise to wait to see what Mr. Biden has in mind.

The president-elect has given some indication, saying, “I have no illusions about the challenges the regime in Iran poses to America's security interests … But there is a smart way to be tough on Iran.” Biden, it appears, will seek to rejoin our allies in the Iran nuclear deal, but he will also try to pressure Iran over its violations of that deal, its support of terrorism, and its regional adventurism. A new policy toward Iran will surely meet bipartisan resistance in Congress and outright opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

While juggling the Iran dilemma, future Secretary of State Blinken will also need to reconcile the Trump administration’s pro-Israel actions with the Biden administration’s stated goals of working “to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy … as part of a two-state solution ... .”

That will be a tall order. Biden will not want to start his administration with a clash involving Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman.  

Blinken will also need to pick up the pieces of Trump’s erratic policies and repair relationships with skeptical foreign governments. One example: Nothing was accomplished by President Trump’s photo-op meetings with Kim Jong Un.

North Korea is still increasing its nuclear arsenal and has begun to volley threats. Serious talks are needed — perhaps with the assistance of Kim’s only ally, China, which shares U.S. concerns about Pyongyang’s intentions — another potential avenue for cooperation with Beijing. 

Finally, our relationship with Russia. As I’ve written previously, the “New START” strategic arms control agreement is hanging by a thread. The Biden team is already working on those negotiations. But beyond that, Putin’s main goal has always been to weaken Americans’ belief in our own institutions. While it appears that his latest efforts were skillfully thwarted by U.S. Cyber Command, Putin is keenly aware that, due to President Trump’s own rhetoric, millions of Americans today believe that the 2020 election was "rigged.” Mercifully, on Jan. 20, the Biden presidency begins, and the world will see that our elections were free and fair, and our Constitution has survived. 

Jack Segal is a retired senior U.S. and NATO official. He teaches online at Northwest Michigan College and at Norwich University.

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