Biden may be ensconced in the White House, but he seems to have been paralysed by his predecessor Trump on the foreign policy front. There is literally no room left for manoeuvring either way. Neither can Biden soften up against some adversaries, nor can he toughen up against the rest of them.
At the end of his tenure, Trump was making some really quick decisions. Sanctions on countries like Turkey, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela imply that Joe Biden inherits a rigid legacy without much scope for change. Trump has literally tied Biden’s hands.
Let us start with Iran. Biden is desperate to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, 2015 or what is more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. However, this is easier said than done. Trump’s maximum pressure policy has ravaged the Iranian economy and Tehran will not come to the bargaining table, unless and until some of the American sanctions on Iran are lifted.
Lifting sanctions on Iran could be an unmanageable political risk for the new US President. It is well-known that Iran doesn’t take nuclear deal obligations seriously. As such lifting sanctions and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would tantamount to gifting the Shi’ite weapon its nuclear bomb. Biden is thus stuck on the Iran front.
As for Turkey, Biden did promise that he would make the Turkish President Erdogan pay a heavy price for his misadventures. But what can Biden do now? Right at the twilight of his term, Trump imposed sanctions on Ankara. Trump weaponised the fact that Ankara had purchased the Russian S-400 air defence system. Now, Turkey is already sanctioned.
If Biden goes soft on Turkey, he will end up contradicting himself in a rather unpleasant manner since he promised to act tough on Ankara. On the other hand, US-Turkey ties are already bruised and there is nothing that Biden can practically do to worsen them and claim that he punished an American enemy.
Even apart from West Asia, Trump has left little scope for Biden to get innovative. Biden wants to get tough on Russia and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Throughout his campaign trail, Biden was speaking about following a harsh foreign policy campaign against Moscow and Pyongyang.
But what can Biden do? Trump had already cut North Korea’s economy off from the world. So, there is practically nothing that Biden can do to show that he is acting tougher than Trump. In Moscow’s case too, Trump did impose new sanctions against Russia in December last year. Again, Biden would have been left wondering as to what he can do to show that he is going after Russia.
Finally, Biden has a soft corner for two American adversaries- China and Venezuela. But again, Trump wrapped up his Presidency in such a way that Biden can’t make any changes on this front either.
Trump bamboozled Venezuela with sanctions last month. Now, if Biden decides to lift those sanctions then again, he will face a lot of criticism because the Maduro regime in the Latin American nation is unlikely to mend its ways. As for China, Trump ensured that all doors of a Sino-American rapprochement were shut forever. No matter what the new US President thinks and wants, China is a highly unpopular regime and there is hardly anything that the new US administration can do to change that.
Trump’s landmines have thus started exploding and now Biden finds himself stuck on the foreign policy front. From here on, the new US administration might as well have to run in autopilot as far as diplomacy is concerned.