By Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
President Joe Biden on Friday set forth before a virtual Munich Security Conference (MSC) the parameters of a new US foreign policy anchored in the transatlantic alliance. As friends and partners of both America and Europe, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has supported this alliance as its most important security partner. As a major oil-producing region, the Gulf relies on strong demand from Europe and the US, which together account for about 40 percent of the world economy and more than 35 percent of global oil demand. Healing the rift between them is certainly welcome, as are the calls for a return to a robust rules-based world order. The GCC opposes beggar-thy-neighbor trade wars, which have weakened the global economic recovery and subsequently the demand for energy, which is the backbone of the GCC economy.
While the need to revive US-European ties is understandable, the speech raised some questions. Could this new pendulum swing create frictions with countries outside the alliance and alienate US partners? Could the rekindled alliance’s rhetoric about China and Russia fuel a burgeoning cold war? Is the emphasis on transatlantic “shared values” excluding the rest of the world? Is the US going to be consistent in its renewed advocacy of human rights and a rules-based world order?
As a veteran MSC participant, Biden reminded his audience that he had delivered the first foreign policy address of the Obama administration in 2009, thus reassuring them that his foreign policy represents a return to the familiar status quo ante. His theme was “America is back,” stressing that the transatlantic alliance is “the strong foundation on which our collective security and our shared prosperity are built. The partnership between Europe and the United States… is and must remain the cornerstone of all that we hope to accomplish in the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century.”
Seeking to dispel doubts among NATO allies, Biden reassured them that the US will “keep faith with Article 5. It’s a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow.” While the US is undergoing a “thorough review” of its force posture around the world, Biden has halted the withdrawal of American troops from Germany and lifted the cap imposed by former President Donald Trump on the number of US forces able to be based there.
The president said he was not “pitting East against West” or that he wanted a conflict, adding: “We cannot and must not return to the… rigid blocs of the Cold War.” However, his comments about China and Russia appeared uncompromising. “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China,” he said, adding: “Competition with China is going to be stiff.” He challenged Beijing’s “economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system,” referring to the need for Chinese companies to “disclose corporate governance structures and abide by rules to deter corruption and monopolistic practices.” The president also suggested that: “We must shape the rules that will govern the advance of technology and the norms of behavior in cyberspace, artificial intelligence, biotechnology so that they are used to lift people up, not used to pin them down.”
Biden also advocated unity to “meet the threat from Russia,” citing Moscow’s attempts to weaken the transatlantic alliance and “weaponize” corruption in an effort to “undermine our system of governance.”
Most of the world, especially small countries such as those in the Middle East and the Gulf, welcome the return to a rules-based global order with a strengthening of the UN and its specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization (WTO), UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, which were singled out for criticism by the previous administration. Instead of a trade war with China, how about strengthening the WTO to deal with US concerns? Similarly, to combat cyberattacks and cybercrimes, the US and its partners could develop a stronger system of international governance of cyberspace. To meet extraterritorial adventures and claims, the International Court of Justice could be empowered to automatically adjudicate on them.
When discussing human rights and democratic principles, Biden set the bar quite high when he talked about “shared democratic values… where every voice matters, where the rights of all are protected and the rule of law is upheld.” However, he repeatedly referred to those ideals as “shared values” between Europe and the US, giving the impression that they are Western concepts, thus inadvertently supporting those who conveniently dismiss them as alien constructs.
Biden could have been more inclusive by referencing the international system of human rights, which has been developed collectively over the years and possesses reliable mechanisms to monitor compliance and adjudicate complaints. He could have referred to the “Universal” Declaration of Human Rights, the “International” Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the “International” Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, to name the three instruments that represent the bedrock of the global human rights system.
The president also raised expectations that the new administration will be consistent and break with the past by avoiding double standards. Will it be consistent in its advocacy of those values or only where it is politically convenient? For example, will the new administration take Iran to task for subverting the political systems in Iraq and Yemen? Or for recruiting, arming and funding terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon? Or for committing unspeakable horrors in Syria? The same questions may be asked about the troubles in Myanmar, Kashmir, the Central African Republic and Palestine. In other words, will the new administration be truly even-handed and avoid double standards instead of being selective?
For consistency’s sake, while rightly lamenting American right-wing populism and criticizing Russia and China’s conduct, Biden could have also chided Europe for its slide toward racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and extremism.
So, while Biden’s speech at Munich was reassuring to Europe, another speech is called for to reassure America’s non-European partners and reaffirm the country’s commitment to universal values and institutions.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1