Some prominent establishment figures think the new US president will follow in the footsteps of the Trump administration.
For decades, foreign policy and international relations experts have furiously debated two general approaches: realpolitik versus idealism.
While some have argued the importance of taking an ideological stance, others defend the merits of realpolitik in a world of chaos and uncontrolled forces.
James F Jeffrey, a former top US diplomat, who recently served as both Special Representative for Syria and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS under the outgoing Trump administration, is a strong defender of realpolitik.
Unlike many others, Jeffrey also defends Trump’s foreign policy very strongly due to its transactional nature. He even thinks the incoming Joe Biden administration should follow it, particularly across the Middle East.
“If [U.S. allies in the Middle East] had to pick somebody else to come, it would be Joe Biden,” Jeffrey said during an interview in November.
“I can’t predict how Joe Biden would act [but] of all of his decisions that I was involved in, and there were many, he is more of a transactional guy by his nature,” said the experienced American diplomat, who has worked for seven different US administrations in the past.
Some other foreign policy experts like David Ottaway, a Middle East fellow at Wilson Center, a US think tank, also think similar to Jeffrey.
“Biden seems likely to follow President Trump’s policy of reducing US involvement to a minimum in the Middle East’s 'forever wars'. He seems certain to support Israel’s push to find more peace partners among the Arab states after its breakthrough agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan,” Ottaway said during an event at Wilson Center in December.
But will Biden really follow the transactional policy Trump embraced?
Matthew Bryza, another former top American diplomat, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, agrees that the Trump administration has pursued a transactional foreign policy.
“I pretty much agree with Ambassador Jeffrey that the Trump administration has followed a transactional foreign policy in the Middle East,” Bryza tells TRT World.
“We see that in particular with the recent Abraham Accords or let’s say in the case of Morocco. In exchange for Morocco committing to normalise relations with Israel, the Trump administration recognises the government of Morocco's control over Western Sahara, which is a policy that was from my understanding decided without any interagency consultation or systematic thought,” Bryza says.
The Abraham Accords refer to ‘normalisation deals’ between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.
But on the subject of Biden following a transactional policy, Bryza differs from Jeffrey.
“I don’t believe President Biden will follow a similar transactional approach. Maybe Ambassador Jeffrey really meant that he does not see big changes overall in the US policy in the Middle East under Biden compared to Trump,” Bryza said.
“But I’d doubt Ambassador Jeffrey would think that Biden would follow a transactional foreign policy,” he adds.
Instead, Bryza envisions a number of changes under Biden.
What will Biden do?
According to Bryza, Biden will “completely drop the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan”, the ‘deal of the century’, “which was heavily weighted toward Israel against Palestinians.”
The so-called deal of the century laid the groundwork for the recently signed Abraham Accords.
The American diplomat also thinks that the Biden administration will have a much more democracy and human rights focused approach toward Saudi Arabia, which means Washington’s “relations will get more difficult with Saudi Arabia.” But Biden’s democracy-first approach will not be based on an understanding of widespread “democratic reform”, he adds.
As a result, it will be difficult for Riyadh to purchase US weapons to use them in the Yemen civil war against the Houthis, Bryza says. The Trump administration recently designated Iran-backed Houthis as a terror group. But Bryza thinks that decision will be reversed by Biden.
“Biden will reverse Trump’s designation of the Houthi rebels as terrorists because that designation President Trump implemented - again a part of his transactional policy - to please the United Arab Emirates and help it convince to normalise relations with Israel,” Bryza says.
Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a terror group prevents the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Yemen, particularly areas under Houthi control. Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, is experiencing what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
But some Trump policies like moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords will remain, Bryza says. Biden’s Secretary of State pick, Antony Blinken, has already signaled that Washington will not change Trump’s Jerusalem stance during a Senate hearing for his confirmation.
“We will see a more systematic approach and more strategic approach toward foreign policy rather than Trump did with individual transactions. One deal with this country. One deal with that country. But no overall strategic vision,” Bryza says.
“The Biden administration will have a strategic vision.”
Biden’s toughest task: Iran
When it comes to Iran, the changes a Biden might want to bring will not be so easy, Bryza observes.
In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from former President Barack Obama’s landmark internationally approved nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Iran. With the agreement, Obama pursued a policy where Iran’s nuclear abilities could be kept in check by international bodies, bringing Tehran back into the international system.
But with the US withdrawal from the deal, which was not followed by the other international partners (China, France, Russia, the UK and Germany), Iran has also stopped complying with some regulations as retaliation for Washington's violation of the deal, leading to an awkward political situation.
Bryza thinks it will be difficult for both Washington and Tehran to recommit to the nuclear deal due to domestic political dynamics within both countries.
“Politically, it would be difficult inside Iran to get Iran to recommit to living up the principles of the JCPOA. It will also be difficult given the American politics as well to get the political approval back to the JCPOA because politics shifted since the Obama administration,” Bryza views.
In the US, there is now “a sharper focus on Iran’s nefarious behaviour and support for [Lebanon's] Hezbollah and [Shia] militias in Iraq,” the diplomat observes.
“It won’t be easy for Biden to get the US back in the JCPOA. But he will try,” he says.
“He will certainly not continue the maximum pressure policy over Iran, which’s Trump’s policy.”