This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole.
Domestic issues, particularly the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and racial tensions, were the priorities for the media and the electorate this year. Foreign policy took a backseat in the election, despite having a long-lasting impact on trade and other cooperative actions. And whilst analysts have already painted a picture of how a Biden Administration would act on the world stage, it is important to look back on what has already happened this year that will impact future policy decisions.
The US kicked the year off by assassinating Major General Qasem Soleimani, a prominent commander within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Tensions between the US and Iran were already elevated, and this incident only stimulated further escalation – with rockets and drones being hurled from either side.
Whilst officials in Tehran made sure to avoid conventional war by holding off on extensive retaliation, Iran has a history of biding its time and tactically striking back long after the initial incident.
Recently, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with the family of the late general and gave a reminder that “revenge will be taken on those who ordered the murder and those who carried it out”. With there being no intention of letting tensions settle, the US will have to either placate Iran with concessions or pacify them by threat of force.
Next door, after 18 years in Afghanistan, the US signed a deal with the Taliban to steadily bring an end to American military presence in the war-torn country. After initiating the conflict with the goal of eradicating the perpetrators of 9/11 and toppling the Taliban regime, the US have found themselves having to negotiate with the enemy after a botched counterinsurgency effort and fruitless stability operation.
“It is not the duty of U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of. We are not the policemen of the world” remarked Trump in his address to West Point graduates this June.
Under the deal, a complete withdrawal of US troops must be achieved by the end of April 2021 and sanctions against the Taliban lifted. In exchange, the Taliban must not permit al-Qaeda or other extremist groups to operate in their territory and must restart negotiations with the Afghan government.
However, whilst the Americans have clearly outlined the process by which they will achieve their commitments, Taliban commitments are merely aspirational with no way to enforce or measure progress.
With President Donald Trump on the way out, and an incoming Biden administration expected to take a soft approach, existing threats for the US to re-enter Afghanistan if the agreement is broken have now fallen flat. This crisis will be the first to be addressed by the incoming secretary of state.
Amidst all this, COVID-19 shook the world with widespread outbreaks early this year. On 29 May, President Trump declared that the US would cease funding and membership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing the agency of allowing the rapid spread of the virus whilst protecting China. This is a significant move, with the US accounting for an estimated 15% of WHO funding.
In his announcement, Trump made it clear that – upon the termination of its membership – the US will be “redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs.” The withdrawal will be effective as of July 6 next year, and whilst the US is seeking “credible and transparent partners”, none have been identified as of yet.
When asked to weigh in on the accusations against the WHO, CDC Director Robert Redfield suggested that the “post-mortem” should be conducted once the pandemic has been contained.
Evidently, the future of US foreign policy will include either repairing ties with the WHO – and thus China – or finding new global health partners to help bring an end to the current crisis, prevent future pandemics, and contain other serious diseases.
The US-China rivalry exists not only in the realm of health cooperation but across all aspects of international relations. Trump ended the US’ long-standing policy of economically kowtowing to China in the hopes of encouraging the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take a more gentle approach to rule.
Intending to usurp the throne for the world’s largest economic and military force, China poses a threat to the dominance of the US on the world stage. Such a threat is the reason behind the Trump administration’s goal of subduing their influence through the sanctioning of Chinese companies – citing human rights abuses – and strengthening regional alliances.
Trump’s shake-up of US-China policy has long been supported by Asian pro-democracy leaders, human rights campaigners who are now worried about Biden’s aim of returning to standard operating procedure.
This year has been full of surprises, not least the flowering friendship between Israel and several Arab states. Whilst Obama felt peace would never be achieved, this has become a feather in Trump’s cap. Instead of trying to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Trump geared Israeli, Arab, and American policies towards a common enemy: Iran. By giving the appearance of acting tough against the Islamic regime, a path to regional peace has been paved.
However, this current progress relies on keeping sustained pressure on Iran and supporting Israel – both of which Biden has been against. With the intention of reconciling with Iran by re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) – or Iran nuclear deal Biden will only put further strain on his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the Islamic republic.
2020 has seen many policy decisions that have the potential to shape the future of US international relations. Yet, with a new administration on the way in, there is a partisan desire to reverse course. The best-case scenario is that the successes of the Trump administration will be built upon, and in the worst-case, the influence of China will expand and peace in the Middle East will falter.
When President Jimmy Carter’s legacy of vacillating leadership when faced with the threat of the Soviet Union was called into question by opponent Ronald Reagan, the future president echoed the words of Founding Father George Washington: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Ali Goldman is an Editor at Backbench