A rather comical picture of the political continuity of the Biden team, which so vehemently criticised his predecessor, is emerging, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Yermakov.
Many pinned their hopes on the election of Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States. Often there was a belief that the mainstream political veteran would “correct” what the “amateur” Donald Trump had done. Supporters of arms control were among those who shared such wishes ... but the new administration has consistently failed to fulfil them, supporting the decisions of Biden’s predecessor.
The Trump administration, in the international arena, is to be remembered primarily for its open confrontation with China and consistent destruction of the treaties that underscored the international security architecture. Let’s leave the Chinese issue to the Sinologists — just note that the meeting in Anchorage in mid-March alone probably made Chinese diplomats miss the Trump days. Then, at least during the most difficult negotiations on a trade agreement, the “amateurs and hawks” of the Republican administration did not turn formal access to the press into an hour-long public skirmish, as did the new array of “professionals from the team of a veteran in international politics”. This is not to mention the outright slap in the face that came in the form of another sanctions list a few days before the meeting.
In any case, the course towards confrontation with China and Russia is a long-term trend in American foreign policy and it would be strange to expect drastic changes under Biden. Regarding relations with Russia, one can even see the light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a personal meeting between the presidents, although expectations of some particular breakthroughs from it can only ensure disappointment. An executive order published on April 15 introduced another national emergency regime, introducing sanctions against Russia and laying the foundations for the convenient introduction of new ones in the future. So there are no reasons for optimism.
The expert community was very much expecting the establishment of order in the field of arms control and international security agreements, especially from the veteran of the American establishment, who participated in issue-related negotiations with the USSR and is associated with the “good old days” of Obama. Before the elections, and especially in the period between them and the inauguration, the specialised editions were filled with laudatory notes and “instructions” for the new administration to correct the mistakes of Trump.
The Trump team managed to sweep away all the arms control agreements. The most serious loss to international security was the scrapping of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which prohibited parties from possessing missiles with a range from 500 to 5,500 km. Soon after the inauguration of President Trump, an information campaign began, accusing Russia of violating its provisions, and in August 2019 the treaty ceased to exist. During official visits and negotiations, the American delegation did not hide the fact that regardless of whether Russia corrects its violations (whether they actually existed), the United States will still be forced to withdraw from the treaty due to the large number of such types of missiles in China, which is not involved in the INF Treaty.
Of course, only the hopelessly naive could expect Biden to make an effort to re-sign the INF Treaty. The American military-industrial complex is already unequivocally counting on new non-nuclear missile systems which will operate in the previously prohibited range. There is a whole bunch of programmes: PrSM, whose announced range “unexpectedly” increased from 499 km to 700-800 km, land-based versions of naval Tomahawks and SM-6, and the ‘main course’ — the LRHW, a high-precision hypersonic missile for use by the Navy and the Army. There is a full-scale financing of these programmes, the first tests have been made, for the US Army these systems are the strategic cornerstone during the “era of confrontation between the great powers”.
The most realistic thing that the new American administration could do is to show an interest in the Russian proposal of a regional moratorium on missile deployment, which would entail the new systems not being deployed against each other, at least in Europe. The Russian proposal also meant Asia, but there the intentions of the Americans are so obvious, open and persistently voiced, that there is nothing to talk about. In any event, after the election, the Biden administration showed no interest in regional restrictions on the deployment of future missile systems. During his first overseas tour, the new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Asia-Pacific region and discussed China’s containment with US allies, including the prospects for deploying new missile systems. Moreover, on April 13, it was announced that two new units will be deployed in Germany: Multi-Domain Task Force-Europe and Theater Fires Command. These semi-experimental units, which are small in number (500 people together), in the future should be responsible precisely for the use of advanced missile systems. In a sense, the United States right now under the new administration has announced the beginning of the process of medium-range missile deployment in Europe — the missiles themselves are not yet available, they will probably arrive in the middle of the decade.
However, if the INF Treaty is a “lost cause”, reasonable hopes were already pinned on the salvation of the Open Skies Treaty (OST). Trump announced a US withdrawal from it as part of the election campaign and largely used populist slogans as a true defender of the Americans: he is withdrawing from the treaty due to the fact that Russia has not only imposed “unfair” restrictions on flights over the Kaliningrad region, but also “uses flights over the United States to collect information about civilian infrastructure in order to develop target designation for non-nuclear precision weapons”. Officially, the process of US withdrawal from the OST ended on November 22, after the presidential elections. After the victory of Biden, who during the election campaign stressed the usefulness of the treaty for international security, and that it should be preserved, the European allies of the United States, very concerned about the prospect of the collapse of the OST, proposed various options for its preservation. For example, to act as if the US hadn’t left it, and give the new president an opportunity to simply void the decision of his predecessor, and not to enter into the treaty again (which would be easier, since as it does not require Congressional approval).
However, their desire turned out to be not strong enough for the US to offer Moscow pleasant and, from a practical point of view, meaningless guarantees — not to transfer the collected information to the United States and to allow flights over American objects on their territories (meaningless, because even the first promise cannot be verified). The fear of provoking a negative reaction from the new American leadership turned out to be stronger. As a result, on January 15, Russia announced the “beginning of the internal procedure” for withdrawing from the OST. In fact, this was an attempt to draw attention to the topic — hints were openly made that the “internal” procedures would be extended until the summer inclusively, while the United States still had time to think about it. Given the experience of the lightning-fast extension of the START Treaty, it is clear that Moscow could be very prompt in resolving its bureaucratic issues, if it wants to.
In response, initially there was silence, and in early April, news appeared in the regional American media, that in May-June the US Air Force was planning to send its OC-135B observation aircraft to the “aviation cemetery”. Next, Defense News reported about a diplomatic note to the Allies, which says that “the return of the United States to the OST would send a wrong signal to Russia”.
And this is not the only decision of the previous administration which was at once point criticised, but ultimately supported by the new one:
A missile technology control regime that restricts the export of advanced missiles and attack UAVs by range and combat load criteria. In the summer of 2020, Trump announced that the United States would no longer comply with UAV restrictions. The move was criticised as undermining an already rather weak agreement. At the end of March it became clear that the Biden administration would keep Trump’s decision in force.
In general, the sale of modern American weapons to countries “violating human rights” was criticised, in particular a large package of weapons, including F-35 fighters, to the UAE. The deal was concluded in the last hours of the Trump administration, after the arrival of Biden it was suspended for rigorous review and assessment ... and approved in mid-April.
One of the first decrees of the new president was to end support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, which was negatively perceived by the public in the United States, especially by the left-leaning audience which is so dear to Democrats. However, in fact, the executive order on the “complete cessation of American support” even in words included significant reservations. It is possible to support defensive operations and operations against terrorists or “pro-Iranian forces”; only “significant” supplies of weapons are prohibited, etc. Months later it is not yet clear from the White House what kind of aid was terminated. The administration ignores even official requests by dozens of Congressmen.
Regarding arms trade, one can recall the International Arms Trade Treaty. The story is quite anecdotal — Trump, at a meeting of the National Rifle Association, announced that he was withdrawing from this treaty, as “We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedoms. And that is why my Administration will never ratify the UN Arms Trade Treaty.” The funny thing is that the Obama administration did not seriously try to ratify the treaty, and in general it could not in any way affect the freedom of American citizens. Nevertheless, despite the calls, the Biden administration has not yet withdrawn the rejection of the signature
In January 2020, Trump lifted the ban on the use of anti-personnel mines by the American armed forces, introduced in 2014, now the military can use them in “exceptional circumstances” at their discretion. The Biden administration, despite criticism of this decision during the election campaign, has kept it in force, at least for the time being.
A rather comical picture of the political continuity of the Biden team, which so vehemently criticised his predecessor, is emerging. Of course, there are exceptions — climate agreements, the WHO, etc. Here the author is not ready, due to limitations in competence, to confidently speak about how sincere the turn was. At least with the Iranian nuclear deal, things have not been easy so far.
Of course, the extension of the START treaty shines as a bright spot in the centre of the arms control agenda, but it seems that the Biden administration simply did not have time to swing — if they had at least a couple of months we could hear repetitions of the tough ultimatums of the previous team. Now the treaty has been extended, but a new dialogue on strategic stability is not being pursued in any hurry, and the political background for it is worse than it was under the previous administration. There is no better illustration of this than Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador to the United States, who for several weeks has been working in Moscow. By the way, at one time he headed the delegation at the START Treaty negotiations.
I would not like all of the above to lead to conspiracy theories about secret puppeteers or the false conclusion that US policy does not change in any way following a change of leadership — history has many examples of the opposite. Rather, I wanted to illustrate that Donald Trump was not at all an insane “enfant terrible” for the US establishment. In many ways, he took long-overdue and desired steps that were difficult for “respectable” politicians to take. But, as we have seen, it is not at all difficult for them to forget about their pre-election criticism of the previous administration. Which, however, is certainly not news.