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  • UCL Diplomacy Society

Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles of Diplomacy in the New Biden Administration by Anouska Jha

The annual duty of the Kanji Proficiency Society in Japan is to publish a ‘word of the year’ to harness the global zeitgeist of international affairs; this year’s word for the US is ‘constraint’. With the ascendance of the Biden-Harris Administration this year, in an era of fierce global competition from China and Russia, the emergence of a new ‘status anxiety’ and the rise of populist ideology, we can certainly say that the United States of America is now working under the passionate gaze of constraints and obstacles that have challenged its powers. However, honing into the policies of Biden’s emphasis on a new era of diplomacy starting in 2021, this article seeks to provide an alternative dimension to the notion of constraint. It not only refers to external forces but reflects the challenge of a kind of internal constraint that suffocates the diplomatic capacities of the USA. In order to explore this supposition, this article will discuss the connotations of Biden’s speech on diplomacy on February 4th 2021, and how American policy should overcome both its inner and outer ‘constraints’ to truly bring Biden’s diplomatic agenda into fruition.

‘We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values...That’s the grounding wire of our global policy — our global power. That’s our inexhaustible source of strength. That’s America’s abiding advantage’.-

Joe Biden’s remarks on 4th Feb in U.S. Department of State Headquarters Harry S. Truman Building Washington, D.C. 2:45 P.M. EST.

What Biden has conveyed through the rhetoric of his speech is the hope of rekindling the spirit of the US, engineering his foreign policy in such a way to reflect what the nation deemed as intrinsic to its agenda in 1774, in the meeting of the US colonies in the First Continental Congress- calculated policies to promote cordial international relations, multi-lateral governance and transnational institutionalised cooperation. Subsequently, Biden reveals his new initiatives to demonstrate the new diplomatic trajectory that delineates from the protectionist doctrines of the 2016-20 Trump Administration. This includes, for example, the addressing of the military coup in Burma and the confronting of China’s economic and humanitarian injustices, yet ‘being ready to work with Beijing when it is in America’s interests to do so’. Moreover, progress has also already been made by extending the New START Treaty with Russia to safeguard nuclear stability, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and restoring the refugee administration programme. Evidently, the new Administration has adopted a more holistic and multilateral commitment to diplomatic relations to counter the ‘America First’ isolationist slogan of Trump’s agenda, with David Miliband, who heads the International Rescue Committee, regarding Biden’s policy as “a vital first step”.

‘Investing in our diplomacy isn’t something we do just because it’s the right thing to do for the world. We do it in order to live in peace, security, and prosperity. We do it because it’s in our own naked self-interest.’ Biden, 4th February 2021.

Biden’s assertion here points to the often neglected core of diplomacy; national security and self-preservation achieved through the means of international cooperation. Hence, this ‘new era of diplomacy’ is not only a matter of rekindling the spirit of American foreign policy but perhaps also the apparent spirit of ‘the West’. Michael Kimmage’s ‘The Abandonment of the West’ argues that after the 1970s and during the Obama Administration, the concept of the ‘west’ was displaced by the ‘Post-Columbian republic’ to describe the growing affluence of American power in particular. However, it states that after the ascendance of Trump, and the rise of authoritarian aggression across multiple nations, the ‘west’ is making a comeback and is popular even within the Biden Administration. Therefore, the claims that Biden’s diplomacy agenda reinforces the nature of the ‘free world and ‘community of democracy’ has its faults, especially when looking at his emphasis on the advantages of diplomacy on America’s ‘naked self-interest’. Additionally, these descriptions dismiss the fact that the US often cannot be categorised under such universal terms- its history and civilisational character, spanning its earliest conceptions in the 18th century to the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks, place the country in a unique position in the realms of globalisation. In essence, its foreign policy can be seen as nationalism with a cosmopolitan face, Biden’s speech subtly reinforces this.

Going back to the notion of ‘constraint’, it is vital that we turn to the internal machinations of American politics. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruling of the Medellin v Texas case stated that the President cannot obligate states to comply with treaties of international commitment, and they can only be implemented if Congress enacts separate legislation or if the treaty itself is self-executing'. As of 2021, only two human rights treaties (which targets the prohibition of genocide and criminal/civil torture) have been altered under government policies. Hence, the Biden-Harriss administration’s biggest challenge in this ’new era’ of diplomacy will be to resolve such national conflicts, overcoming a resistant federal judiciary and bringing back the trust of the American people in UN organisations. In particular, the remarks on the refugee admissions programme will be a true test of Biden’s strategic competency. Under Trump’s presidency, the entry of Syrian refugees was suspended and a further banning of 11 countries, many from the Middle East and Africa. The Biden administration has revoked this, however with the consistent pulling out of treaties in recent years, along with the increasing rise of authoritarianism on geopolitical borders, Biden must tackle diplomacy from the centre-outwards in order to ensure the success of his policy.

Following the 2020 American elections, there is a floating sentiment that the new Administration will emerge as the torchbearers of diplomacy. Yet this cannot be achieved through legal positivism but rather through reconstructing national ideology. Biden’s next steps, which should be the establishment of national human rights institutions, increased funding of UN agencies and adoption of multi-lateral trade and integration with Asian, African and Latin American countries, will assuredly begin to target the rebuilding of this invaluable trust of the American people. Therefore, Biden’s speech is certainly a provision of hope in the global theatre; however, what Biden seems to bypass in his remarks is that the ‘constraints’ to diplomacy do not derive from global affairs but are rooted in the evolution of popular national perceptions. Consequently, the Biden-Harriss administration must embark on a two-way voyage to address their diplomatic agenda, and reassert America’s international stature.


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