International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. After the presidential elections in the US, which took place on 3 November 2020, IFIMES analyzed the foreign policy of the new US administration with respect to Europe, the Middle East and Western Balkans. We bring the most important and interesting excerpts from the analysis titled “2020 United States of America: Foreign Policy of the New US Administration for Europe, Middle East and Western Balkans.”
Joseph Biden (D) is a veteran of the political scene in the United States of America. Over half a century he held senior positions in the American political life starting from the Senate all the way to the position of the US Vice President, for two mandates (2009-2017). According to still unofficial results, Biden won the American presidential elections, held on 3 November 2020 and will become the 46th US President. After two unsuccessful attempts of candidacy for the US presidential elections in 1988 and 2008, in November 2020, Biden crowned his long journey to the top of the political pyramid with the victory against President Donald Trump (R). Biden's victory, which marks a historical milestone for the US and the world, comes after four years of presidential mandate of Donald Trump, which was filled with political conflicts and confusion.
When he moves to the White House on 20 January 2021 as the 46th US President, Biden will face a number of extraordinary circumstances and challenges which no US president has faced so far. Specifically, Covid-19 pandemic, poor prospects of the US economy, an ideologically polarized nation divided between “blue” and “red” states, combined with major international challenges ranging from disrupted transatlantic relations, aggressive policy and attempts by Russia and China to dislodge the United States from its traditional interest zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The US is getting, maybe for the first time in its history, a president experienced in international relations and policy. During his mandate in the Senate, Biden specialized in foreign affairs and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009.
The number one challenge for the new US president will be the Covid-19 pandemic, which had plunged the country that has with the biggest number of Nobel Prize winners in the field of medicine into an unprecedented medical crisis, in terms of the spreading of the epidemic and the mortality rate. The US is on the infamous top position on the global list of countries by the number of covid-19 cases and the mortality rate. Furthermore, there are also direct accusations against President Trump regarding his incompetence to adequately face and respond to the epidemic and its consequences.
There are “gloomy” statistics which indicate that the US is suffering the biggest economic losses since the Great Depression period from the thirties of the last century. The economic decline in the second quarter of this year amounted to 31.4%. In April 2020 the unemployment rate was 14.7%, and is higher than it was in the period of great recession from 2007 to 2009, when it did not exceed 10%. It is assessed that 40 million jobs were lost this year. All this led to the loss of all positive results achieved in the two years of Trumps rule prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden strongly believes that Trump's administration has also weakened the credibility and influence of the US in the world. The most dangerous element in this context is Trump's departure from democratic values that give America power and make it a unique nation. This challenges is combined with other challenges, which are related to climate change, populism and nationalism.
Biden's vision is divided into three main parts. The first one is related to the requirement to restore democracy at home, the second is related to economic security of the US, because it is a synonym for national security, and the third is focused on his comprehensive vision of what the new foreign policy of official Washington should be.
Biden strongly believes that Trump's administration had led the nation in the direction in which it was to give up its global leading role, which the US have acquired after World War II. If the US continue to surrender its global responsibility, one of the following two things will happen: either Russia and China will replace the US in a way that will be detrimental to US vital national interests and values, or nobody will fill the void and chaos will emerge. However, none of these two options is good for the US.
Before he declared victory in the race to the White House, the newly elected President Joseph Biden promised that he shall restore US leadership and bring together democratic allies of the US. One way or another his foreign policy will have to deal with the problematic world inherited from Donald Trump's era.
Early this year, Biden wrote in the Foreign Affairs magazine: “By nearly every measure, the credibility and influence of the United States in the world have diminished since President Barack Obama and I left office.” He promised to make sure that America will lead the world again.
While in some global issues, i.e. climate changes, democracy and health care, Biden will probably abandon Trump's approach, in some other issues there will be no major changes in the US approach.
Joseph Biden promised that when he formally takes over the presidency in January 2021, he will work to return the US to the Paris climate agreement, from which the US withdrew by decision of President Trump.
He also pledged to restore full US membership in the World Health Organization, (WHO), which Trump ended on 6 July 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biden has announced that in the first year of his mandate in the White House, he will organize a “democracy summit”in order to improve the image of the US, reaffirm his commitment to multilateralism, which had been brought into question over the last four years, and mend the relations with the Western allies, which fell victims to Trump's policy.
Clément Beaune, French Minister for European Affairs, who is close to French PresidentEmmanuel Macron, said in a Twitter message, “It's a mistake to believe that everything changes — Europe must above all count on itself.”Therefore, some of the trends of Trump’s policy- such as pressure on the EU with respect to defense, strong stances on transatlantic trade and confrontation with China- will condition in the same or another (modified) way.
Europe itself is divided on Trump. Specifically, populist leaders in Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, strongly support Trump's policy. At the same time, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša (SDS/EPP), who is belatedly trying to “Trumpize” Slovenia, went a step further and even posted an “early” tweet congratulating Trump. Former Trump's advisor Steve Bannon has praised to such an extent the hardline anti-immigrant policy of Viktor Orban, such as the building of border fences, that he even called Orban “Trump before Trump”. On the other side, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša is already called “Trump after Trump“. The Višegrad group of countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and its satellites such as Slovenia, and partly Croatia and Bulgaria, which do not have much in common with the EU values (rule of law, human rights and civic freedoms) and the American understanding of democracy, will also be a challenge for Biden. The Hungarian money, with which Orban funds his satellites in the region, is essential “shady” Russian money.
In his campaign Biden criticized Trump's foreign policy and referred to Hungary in that context. “You see what is happening from Belarus through Poland and Hungary and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world. Our current president (Trump) supports all thugs in the world,” said Biden.
Biden's victory “can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe”, said former President of the European Council Donald Tusk (EPP).
"Trump was good for the Orban government, President Biden will be good for Hungary," said Budapest’s liberal mayor Gergely Karácsony.
The EU will have to find a solution so that the countries that do not wish to follow the EU legal order, rule of law and European values withdraw from membership in the EU or get excluded from EU membership, because the frequent blockades and conditioning of the EU by individual member countries impede efficient functioning and the much-needed positioning of the EU in the global world.
Apart from the two contrasting styles and different tactics used, there is no difference between Donald Trump and Joseph Biden when it comes to important issues.
Unlike in the “Convention nationale” and parliamentary system, in the US presidential system the President represents American policy. He does not model it, but contributes to it. Sovereign institutions such as security and intelligence services, the Congress, the Senate and the lobbies, all model American policy. Hence, no radical change on strategic issues is to be expected.
Thequestion to be asked: Will the US return to the nuclear agreement in its genuine form signed during Obama's administration in 2015? Will Iran –US reconciliation, indications of which emerged during President Obama's mandate, occur? Will Biden nullify Trump's decision and restore the relations with Iran back to normal, as if nothing had happened? It is safe to say that nothing of the kind will happen in that form.
Biden stated that the return to the agreement would be “a starting point for follow-on negotiations” and which Washington, will work, together with the allies, to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern. “If Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interest and our troops,” Biden wrote on the CNN website in September 2020.
Joseph Biden promised to talk about the 2015 agreement, which Washington accepted at the time when he was the US Vice President, if Iran moves back into compliance with the signed agreement. Diplomats and analysts are skeptical on this issue and believe that nothing will probably happen overnight because skeptical opponents will expect additional obligations from both sides. The return to harmonization of the agreement will be neither quick nor easy for any of the two sides.
Biden will be forced to engage in long rounds of negotiations with the US Congress, in order to persuade it to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran, which would not be an easy undertaking because of the balance of powers. However, both Republicans and Democrats are almost united on the issue of US policy towards Iran. It is expected that this time Iran will insist on a formally binding agreement that would be ratified by Congress (which was not the case with the 2015 agreement), so that withdrawal from the agreement would not be a simple process for any future US president.
Iran remains the most important US security challenge in the Middle East, not just because of its secret and persistent intent to develop nuclear weapons, but also because of its adversary policy towards the interests and allies of the US. Specifically, Iran’s policy towards Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as its destructive influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the entire Middle East.
Joseph Biden has excellent relations with Israel ever since he was in the Senate and served as the US Vice President.
“I am a Zionist. You don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” Joseph Biden said in April 2007, before he was elected Vice President candidate at the 2008 presidential elections.
Israelis have a favorable regard for Trump and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly supported Trump. Nevertheless, after Trump's defeat, the media emphasizes that the US policy and Congress are on the side of Israel, regardless of who is in the White House. However, some media outlets warn that the wise Biden is not Trump and that Israel should get prepared for his four year mandate. Israeli Channel 12 TV channel went a step further and noted: Israel has to change the way in which it acts after Biden’s victory, because Trump’s era is over.
Biden's administration will not withdraw US's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, nor will it withdraw the US embassy from Jerusalem. Both of these issues are of major importance to Israel.
The perspectives of US policy in the region will be focused on US national security, which takes into account Israeli interests, but does not perceive US security from the Israeli perspective. This is the main difference between Biden and Trump, and will be the basis of the policy for the Middle East.
Trump's achievements with respect to brokering of peace agreements between a number of Arab states and Israel this year have definitely created a new political situation and reality. It is not expected that the new administration will neglect these new facts.
Biden will not be Trump. That is certain. However, he shall not compromise the achievements made by Trump. These achievements are historical for the US as the peace mediator, which has succeeded where others have not.
The US policytowards US’s most loyal Arab allies will not undergo radical changes. Biden wishes to remodel the relations with the allies in the Gulf, and particularly with Saudi Arabia, on new basis.
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and the Saudi state media have openly sided with Trump in the election campaign, because he led a foreign policy in an informal way based on personal relations. It was easy to bypass the US State Department and Pentagon, when Prince MBS could send a WhatsApp message to President's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner.
The case of the assassination of the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has shocked the US public, Congress and the international public. His body was dismembered in the Saudi Consular Office in Istanbul on 2 October 2018. Assessments made by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed involvement of the Crown Prince in this crime. Despite numerous evidence provided by US intelligence agencies, particularly after the visit of the CIA Director Gina Haspel to Turkey on 18 October 2019 and her briefing to the Congress on 4 December 2018, President Trump only mildly and indirectly criticized the orderer of this heinous act.
On the anniversary of the assassination of reporter Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October 2020, Biden pledged that, if he wins, he shall re-asses the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, end the military support to the devastating war led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms.”
Biden's arrival to the White House will hinder the process of transfer of the throne from King Salman to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, particularly after the court in Washington has sent summons on 29 October 2020 to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and nine more Saudis within the investigation pertaining to the lawsuit initiated by a former Saudi intelligence agent Saad Al-Jabri before the US court, accusing the Crown Prince MBS and a number of persons associated with him for an attempt on his life from May 2020 on the territory of Canada.
The US-Turkish partnership, which has existed for decades already between the two countries particularly within the framework of the NATO alliance, has faced serious challenges during Trump's administration because of the disagreements on the policy towards Syria, close connections between Ankara and Moscow, Turkish procurement of S-400 anti-rocket systems from Russia, Turkish ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, US accusations regarding the Turkish national bank and the human rights and civic freedoms situation in Turkey.
Several days after Turkey had received Russian S-400 anti-rocket defense systems in July 2019, senior security officials in the administration of US President Donald Trump unanimously agreed on the necessity for Washington to decide on introduction of sanctions to Turkey, its NATO partner.
The US State Department referred its recommendations to the US National Security Council and called on them to urgently impose sanctions against individuals and entities in Turkey, whereas these measures were to be enforced as soon as President Donald Trump approves them. However, the President did not approve them and did not agree with his closest advisors because of the friendly and special relations he has with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Namely, Trump had publicly praised Erdogan and his leadership style, as well as described him as a “friend” and “brilliant leader”.
It is expected that Biden, who described Erdogan last December as a „despot“, will take a stronger stance on Turkey, particularly with respect to human rights and democratic norms. During the campaign Biden suggested that Washington should support the opposition in Turkey, so that it could defeat Erdogan. This angered Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin, who posted a twit in which he described Biden's words as “based on pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy.”
One of Biden's first foreign policy steps will be reestablishment of Washington's commitment to US allies in NATO, which was weakened during Trump's era by skepticism regarding the relevance and role of the NATO alliance. Hence, Biden will try to cooperate with Turkey within the NATO framework in order to distance Ankara from Moscow.
Political changes in the Western Balkans begun in North Macedonia in 2017. The success of Macedonian Prime Minster Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and his government is proof that changes are possible. Another testimony of this is the Washington agreement between the official Belgrade and Priština, signed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti. The central issue in the region is finalization of the political dialogue between official Belgrade and Priština, which is mediated by the EU, with the signing of a legally binding agreement. Serbian President Vučić has played an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
An important impetus to the changes in the Western Balkans was also the fall of the 31-years-long regime of Milo Đukanović (DPS). The results of local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, held on 15 November 2020, also show that changes are possible. This was evident in the entity of Republika Srpska were the regime of Milorad Dodik (SNSD) was defeated in Banja Luka, which is the largest city in the RS, as well as in Bijeljina and three important economic centers (Derventa, Modriča and Brod). Political changes also took place in Sarajevo where Bakir Izetbegović's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) was defeated. The results of local elections will lead to a new wave of political changes and represent a prelude to tectonic political changes expected at general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022. A point of concern is the situation in Albania, which is extremely polarized and at the verge of a civil war. Namely, it is only thanks to the multiyear political experience and political wisdom of Albanian President Ilir Meta that the civil war has been avoided.
Analysts believe that the arrival of new US administration headed by President Joseph Biden is the key element for political changes in the Western Balkans, and particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new US administration in collaboration with the EU has to seek new political leaders who will lead the country to necessary political changes, which will ultimately result in prosperity of Western Balkan countries. Majority of current political leaders in the Western Balkans cannot be partners to the new US administration for comprehensive political changes. Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have the political will or strong institutions for the fight against crime and corruption, which is why BiH will need assistance from US security- intelligence agencies, similar to the one provided to Italy after World War II in the showdown with the mafia. The current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is similar to the one in Italy after WWII. In this respect, it is important to investigate and establish the origin of property of numerous senior officials. Namely, without strong US engagement nothing will function.
The encouraging fact is that in his conversation with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the newly elected US President Joseph Biden touched upon the Western Balkans as well. In addition to putting politicians who undermine peace, stability and social order on the „black list“ of the US administration, the success of changes will also require a more radical US approach to the proponents of retrograde and outdated policies, (international) crime and corruption. A point of concern in this respect is the fact that some international representatives in BiH act together with proponents of crime and corruption in specific states and that with such international representatives it will not be possible to conduct comprehensive changes.
Although specific countries in the region present themselves as US allies, and even purchase US weapons and F-16 aircrafts, i.e Bulgaria, the reality is different. Namely, Bulgaria still closely cooperates with Russia, as well as international criminal organizations. Such states block progress and activities of the EU. An example are the Višegrad Group member states. Currently, Hungary and Poland are blocking the EU budget, which is earmarked for assistance for mitigation of consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and are obviously acting in someone else’s interest. Specifically, not in the interests of the EU or the US, but their opponents.
Bulgaria is a typical “case state”. Although an EU and NATO member, not just that now it would not meet even half of the conditions for membership in the EU, but it also does not cultivate high democratic standards, which are binding for NATO members. Bulgaria is stuck in the vicious circle of “politics-crime-mafia.” The fact that the Bulgarian government headed by Boyko Borissov is controlled by the mafia, as Bulgarian President Rumen Radev had stated, gives reason for concern. The question to be asked is does the mafia participate in the decision-making process and the blockades at the EU level?
For already a year France and its President Emmanuel Macron have been slowing down the progress on the Western Balkans, because in October 2018 they blocked the beginning of the talks of the EU with North Macedonia and Albania by requesting adoption of a new methodology in the accession process for candidate countries. While the new EU methodology does not bring any new additional value, such obstructions for integration into the EU have encourage the forces in the Western Balkans that wish to change the geopolitical orientation of Western Balkan countries, that is to turn away their respective countries from the West.
The Bulgarian blockade of the beginning of talks with North Macedonia on membership in the EU indicates that the EU does not have control over the integration and processes within the EU. A point of concern is that Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), which is currently chairing the EU Council, did not have the influence or the strength to eliminate the Bulgarian blockade of North Macedonia. EU needs thorough reforms and legal order which would eliminate all those who wish to use obstructions and blockades to impede the necessary development and progress of the EU, which already lags behind global processes and is paying a high price for that.
It is important that the establishment of the “Mini Schengen”, as the most important regional initiative, enjoys strong support of US administration. Bearing in mind that in its recent history the region experienced bloody conflicts, it is important that in their legal systems the states have laws that ban denial of genocide and holocaust, as it would be the correct civilized way to face the past.
The EU has to be more decisive and speedily integrate Western Balkan countries into the EU, as otherwise other spheres of interest will integrate them and then the Western Balkans will be lost for the EU forever.
JosephBiden will take the office of the US President under unprecedented internal divisions in the US and at the time when the main US rivals have become significantly stronger and cannot be easily stopped. Particularly the aggressive penetration of China and Russia in Asia, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, which means that he will have to face difficult foreign policy challenges. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives (218 D/202 R), will allow Biden to have flexibility to quickly and efficiently work on foreign policy issues. This however does not apply for the Senate where for the time being the Republicans have a majority (46 D/ 50 R).
The new American administration will face a divided Europe where populist leaders in Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, undermine the EU from within, while the transatlantic alliance is rather shaken.
Biden and his team are well familiar with the Middle East, and will understand, just like the previous administrations, that deterioration of relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey does not suit America interests. You cannot chose who will sit on the other side of the table, particularly not when you are trying to achieve consensus on Iran, resolve the war in Syria and further the peace process between Israel and Palestinians.
It is expected that the newly elected US president Joseph Biden will follow some kind of modified Obama's policy towards the Gulf states, which will be focused on preservation of foundations of security and stability in the region without allowing use of force (as in the case of Qatar) and on calling for steps towards democracy and promotion of human rights and civic freedoms, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Biden will definitely not seek new friends by quoting President John Kennedy (D) (1961-1963) when he said “The presidency is not a very good place to make new friends. I am going to keep my old friends.”
The Middle East has great expectations from new US president Biden because of the reduced role of the UN and Europe in the Arab world. Former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre (1995-2001) said: “If America is doing well, the world is doing well, and if America is not doing well, then the world is not doing well. “
That is why without the engagement of the US there can be no enduring peace, stability and prosperity in the Balkans, because a significant part of political structures in the region have strong connections with and are in the service of some other interests- interests of US rivals. During Trump's administration the US departed from democratic values that give America the power and make it a unique nation. Hence, hard work to return to the true democratic values that America cherishes will follow.
Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels/Ankara/Belgrade, 24 November 2020
 IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia,has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.
 Why America Must Lead Again https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again .
 Joseph Biden: There's a smarter way to be tough on Iran https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fcnn_latest+%28RSS%3A+CNN+-+Most+Recent%29