2021-02-07 06:15:03 | The Observer view on Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech | Joe Biden
His intentions had been repeatedly trailed in advance. Yet Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech as president, delivered appropriately at the state department, the home base of American diplomacy, was still a breath of fresh air. The main headlines were an end to US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and a brisk warning to Russia that its easy ride under Donald Trump was over. But the speech also marked a broader policy shift.
Gone were Trump’s trademark “America First” slogans and the ugly isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia that frequently underpinned them. Biden said he was sending “a clear message to the world that America is back”. By this, he meant recommitment to multilateralism, to alliances such as Nato, to UN agencies such as the World Health Organization and to international agreements such as the Paris climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal.
It would be facile to apply terms such as the “Biden doctrine” to what was essentially a restatement, or reassertion, of longstanding American policy objectives after a four-year hiatus. Yet at the same time, the speech was more than a mere touch on the tiller. It signalled a significant change in the means the US will employ to achieve those objectives. Biden’s way is the diplomatic way, not the way of war, arms sales, punishment, tantrums, stunts and threats.
All this is very welcome. Yet like every president, Biden will be judged by deeds, not words. The relief among UN agencies and aid workers that he has, in effect, called time on the Yemen war is palpable. After the Saudis and the UAE launched their air campaign in 2014 against the country’s Iran-linked Ansar Allah (Houthi) rebels, Yemenis died in their tens of thousands and were plunged into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
David Miliband, who heads the International Rescue Committee, applauded Biden’s actions as “a vital first step”. He said “the shift from a failed war strategy towards a comprehensive diplomatic approach cannot come a moment too soon”. Among other measures, Biden has paused arms sales to Riyadh, halted US military support and appointed a peace envoy.
Biden should go further – by immediately resuming, and preferably boosting, US humanitarian aid to areas controlled by the rebels, where 80% of Yemenis live. Trump’s last-minute designation of the Houthis as a global terrorist organisation, which impedes relief work and economic reconstruction, was rescinded on Friday. In addition, the US should back an independent inquiry into war crimes committed by all parties to the war.
Biden’s Yemen démarche, though not unexpected, will jolt Riyadh, other Gulf capitals and Israel – for it reflects a wider shift in tone and substance after Trump’s unstinting, unwise political indulgences. He pledged to continue to help US regional allies defend themselves against Iran. And he has made no move, yet, to reopen nuclear-related negotiations or build bridges to Tehran.
But this may be coming, as is publication of a classified CIA report into the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, which is expected to implicate the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, also want to revive the Palestine-Israel two-state solution that Trump and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did their best to bury. In short, a period of increasingly strained relations is in prospect.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, if it restores balance and perspective to the conduct of Middle Eastern affairs. Likewise, Biden’s tough words for Vladimir Putin – “the days of the US rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over” – were an overdue corrective. Putin’s jailing last week of the courageous opposition activist Alexei Navalny was but his latest, egregious affront to justice, freedom and democracy. Biden is right to take him on. What he may ultimately achieve is less certain.
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