If Biden crafts an Obama 2.0 foreign policy, the result will be a world where illiberalism and tyranny prosper.

In comparison to the administration of Donald Trump, it’s not going to be difficult for Joe Biden to look good in any policy area of his incoming presidency.

Such is the nature of politics on the popular level.  Trump was so bad, the logic goes, that anything Biden does is an improvement.

But, while it’s of course true that Trump represented a unique evil in US politics, much of his foreign policy was merely a continuation of the Obama-Biden administration’s second term.  Of course, there were key differences, such as Trump’s direct embrace of Russia, his rescinding of the Iran nuclear deal, the Ukraine scandal, a generally more bombastic tone in favour of long-standing authoritarian US allies and a lukewarm approach to NATO.  

These policy positions differed from that of Obama and the differences are notable, but rarely did they dramatically change the realities on the ground, from Kiev to Damascus.

No one would deny that Trump, by his very point of existence as the US president, served as a torch-bearer for illiberalism and authoritarianism in particularly the Western world.  This is why Biden’s victory is objectively good.

But was there really a major difference in hard foreign policy between Trump and Obama?

Obama 2.0?

If you look at key foreign policy areas such as Syria, you would have to suggest not. Trump essentially continued the Obama Doctrine of focusing solely on ISIS (Daesh), while allowing Russia and Assad carte blanche to carry out genocidal war.

Though nothing should be taken for granted, Biden’s cabinet nominations, in turn, would point to his foreign policy being Obama 2.0.

If one looks at the appointment of the likes of Samantha Power to lead the US Agency of International Development and to the top level of the National Security Council, one sees a dismal continuity with Obama.

Perhaps second only to Obama himself, Samantha Power embodies the liberal hand wringing and cognitive dissonance that accompanied the dark realism of the Obama Doctrine in areas such as Syria.

Power had risen to the top level of US politics on the back of a Pulitzer-winning vision of ‘genocide prevention’, covering as she did the genocides of the Yugoslav wars and becoming the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy Centre.

She went from these legitimately noble positions to, as Obama’s Ambassador to the UN, denying and justifying what amounted to the tacit US acceptance of genocide in Syria.

In a subsequent book about her time in the Obama administration, Power certainly paints a picture of her supporting US action against the atrocities in Syria in the face of Obama’s indifference. But she never quite explains why she then took part in Obama’s attempts to downplay and deflect from Assad’s mass murder of civilians in order to focus solely on Daesh.

Power, like Obama and Biden, can’t explain why the genocide of Yazidis by Daesh warranted a decisive global response, but not Assad, Iran and Putin’s genocidal war in Syria. She never accounts for why the US cuts in the paltry aid to those Syrians resisting Assad-Iran’s war or its abandonment of a non-sectarian policy in the Iraqi fight against Daesh coincided with Obama’s ‘legacy deal’ with Iran.

This sums up the foreign policy of Obamaism and, I fear, it could very well come to define that of Joe Biden. Appointments such as Power to foreign policy posts, as well as a host of other mid-level Obama-era figures, would give an early indication of this being the case.

Syria dilemma

It’s fair to say that Syria probably won’t be high on the agenda of Biden, but this, even for those concerned only with ‘counter-terrorism’ and not state terrorism, could end up with a repetition of recent history.

Daesh within Assad’s rump state is making an unprecedented comeback. The Salafi-jihadists, far from being defeated, are fuelled by a traumatised population navigating a genocidal landscape of a decade of war, sectarian collective punishment, brutal foreign occupation, Covid-19 and starvation and extreme poverty caused by an economic crisis exacerbated by Assad’s kleptocracy.

They are fuelled by the failure of Obama and Biden to address the root causes of the Daesh phenomenon when they had such a great opportunity to do so.

In other words, if the US wants to avert Daesh 2.0, Biden must think beyond Obama 2.0, recognising that the old Obama policy of disengagement in Assad’s Syria is a path towards ruination.

And with Assad and Russia still seeking to conquer Idlib, the last liberated area of Syria, the human cost and political ramifications of overseeing – as Obama and Trump both did – the ethnic cleansing and destruction of this area could be huge.

The same could be said beyond the particular threat posed by Daesh. If Biden does craft an Obama 2.0 foreign policy, the net result will be a world where illiberalism and tyranny prosper.

Swimming against the illiberal tide

Biden himself has said that he will put democracy ‘front and centre’ of US foreign policy, but isn’t that what every US president says?  Though US support for some of the worst tyrannies and human rights abusers on earth has always been a damaging injustice, in the age of rising global authoritarianism and the emergence of multiple uncontested genocides it acquires an even more destructive quality.

Though left-liberal isolationists scream about ‘World War 3’ at the mere suggestion of the US confronting the two great global patrons of illiberalism, China and Russia, Biden has the opportunity to forge his own international democratic patronage that would damage the world order of authoritarianism without military escalation.

The starting point in this would be to get serious about emboldening democracy in the world, such as by rescinding US support for its tyrannical allies, whether it’s Sisi’s Egypt, Al Saud or annexationist Israel. He could join NATO ally Turkey in concretely attempting to stop the genocidal conquest of Idlib.

If Biden can drag himself out from the gutter of left and right-wing forms of political realism, he could change the world by simply taking human rights seriously.

The rise of Trump was the far-right expression of a general post-9/11 isolationist turn against ‘interventionism’, one that reimagined foreign policy as some kind of elitist fancy.  Obama represented a more nuanced liberal-left variety of the same phenomenon.

Given the Democrats have come to at least superficially embrace Trumpian scepticism of free trade agreements, if Biden goes down the foreign policy path of Obama 2.0, he’s going down the path of watered-down Trumpism.

Gone, of course, will be the fascistic ‘America First’ varnish used by Trump to give his own unique gleam to Obama-esque isolationism and realism. While we’ve seen Biden aim strong rhetoric against Saudi and Sisi, it remains to be seen if Biden will significantly alter the trajectory that he and Obama set the US upon.

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