Restoring a sense of calm to a world in turmoil: A memo to Joe Biden

Restoring a sense of calm to a world in turmoil: A memo to Joe Biden
Joe Biden, presumptive 2020 Democratic Party US presidential candidate. (Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Daily Maverick has got hold of a confidential memorandum from the Biden transition prep team. While it may still seem like early days – and Biden, of course, has not yet won the job – in reality, it is just over five months before he would, theoretically, hold the most powerful job in the world. Better safe than sorry...


To: The Vice-President

From: The Foreign Policy Transition Team

Cc: The “Usual Suspects”

While it is true the election remains months away, and, thus, the formal, official transition process leading to the inauguration on 20 January 2021 has yet to begin, the task of shaping a foreign policy agenda and articulating that vision already must be moving forward with some real analysis, energy, and enthusiasm. While foreign policy concerns are crucial, for this election, the nation’s voters are, reasonably enough, thoroughly seized by a trio of great domestic issues the Covid pandemic, the consequent economic collapse, and the ongoing protests evolving out of the death of George Floyd and other black citizens at the hands of the nation’s police.

Crucially, these three crises do not exist in isolation, solely within the confines of the nation. Rather, they have enormous international repercussions and connections and that aspect must be articulated as well. Consequently, setting out your foreign policy agenda is a particularly difficult and delicate task to accomplish at this time in the nation’s life. Fortunately, in you as our party’s candidate, you are already deeply versed in international affairs from decades of public service as a senator and vice-president.

You are a candidate who already personally knows many global leaders, and you already have a direct, personal familiarity with many of the world’s trouble spots. Accordingly, one of the most difficult tasks you will face may be in distilling that wealth of knowledge, understanding, and experience into crisp, easy to communicate phrasing for audiences, but in phrasings that do justice to the troublesome reality of the complexities of so many of these issues. This will be critical for your nomination acceptance speech, then on to your campaign “stump” speeches (albeit for a campaign that may be done more via virtual activities than at live rallies), and then, finally, in the heat of those three head-to-head debates scheduled between you and the incumbent president.

Global issues and institutions

There is nothing more important for the country’s future influence on the world than in the reestablishment of US engagement and participation in the global system. Foremost among these efforts must be a clear statement of a Biden administration intention to re-engage with the Paris climate accord and similar international agreements in the pursuit of the health of the planet. Similarly, in this time of the pandemic, there must be a statement of your intent to stay an active member of international bodies such as WHO, even as your administration pledges to work with other nations to reform and strengthen international regimens in dealing with communicable diseases.

Concurrently, you will want to set out an agenda item that says a Biden administration will reinvigorate the US’s partnerships with its traditional allies in Europe and Asia such as via Nato and the US-Japan and US-South Korea and US-Australia joint defence agreements. While many complex issues remain to be addressed, they must be done in the spirit of partnership, rather than through the nearly mindless antagonism, or childish threats and ultimatums we have witnessed for the past four years.

Bilateral Relations


Thanks largely to the current president, US-China relations are at their worst point since the establishment of full diplomatic relations back in 1979. While some of this flows from deep-seated differences and long-term trade issues and security dynamics beyond the reach of any one person, they have been made that much worse by the incumbent president’s needlessly provocative statements and actions that have magnified the differences between the two nations, and made much smaller issues nearly life-and-death global struggles.

The long-term history of an unfavourable trade balance for the US with China must be addressed, but instead of the current blunderbuss approach, via a well co-ordinated national effort to enhance exports to Chinese markets of highly desirable US products, and reducing trade barriers, not raising them. Concurrently, longstanding concerns about a wide range economic/trade issues, including unreasonable pressures on foreign businesses for forced transfers of equity, surreptitious reverse engineering of patented products and illegal copying of copyrighted intellectual property, among others, all must be addressed.

Crucially, these issues must be part of a broad, multi-national discussion and negotiations that bring the full weight of international concerns with Chinese practices to bear on China. But it will not, as is the norm now, be via wildly expressed threats, vitriol, and angry tit-for-tat retribution via sanctions and other means, frequently carried out unilaterally by the US.

Simultaneously, the international security climate between the US and China is also on a downward trajectory, frequently courtesy of the incumbent president’s actions and words. China’s power and influence, including militarily, continues to grow and cannot, absent an unpredicted catastrophe, be ended, but it must be a key goal of a Biden administration to bring those efforts and ambitions much more fully into international norms and practices.

One particularly troublesome area of potential conflict is a growing effort by China to extend its military perimeter deeply into the vast reaches of the South China Sea and all the atolls and islets within it, which, despite its name, is largely international waters. The possibilities for military confrontations grows the longer and more thoroughly China adds military facilities and armament there athwart a major international sea lane, and so another key mission for the next administration must be to bring such expansion to a halt.

Concurrently, growing Chinese restrictions on civil liberties in Hong Kong, and the already harsh restrictions on the populations of Xinjiang and Tibet must be vigorously rejected, as is the Chinese insistence that foreigners and foreign governments have no right to comment on or criticise any domestic actions whatsoever by Chinese security or judicial bodies. 

Finally, a Biden administration will want to make it clear it strongly supports traditional US allies such as South Korea and Japan, among others, in assertively rejecting Chinese threats and demands towards them. In tandem with that, while the US does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Biden administration will want to stress its support for the vibrant democracy on that island, even as China and Taiwan try to work towards reconciliation.

As a recent op-ed in The Economist argued, “Another president [besides Donald Trump] might formulate a grand vision for how to engage China under such conditions. These hawks have Mr Trump. His disregard for democratic allies and the cause of human rights, and his personal affinity for Mr Xi, make him singularly ill-suited to lead a contest with China over global values. He has gripes with China, over trade and covid-19, but these are not rooted in principle. His eyes are on what can get him re-elected.

“That sets up a combustible dynamic in the months ahead. As the election approaches, Mr Trump could be persuaded to take more dramatic action say, financial sanctions on Chinese banks in Hong Kong, or a military display of support for Taiwan. A mishap or misunderstanding could prove perilous. It is right to want to chart a more robust course in Sino-American relations but it would also be wise to beware the tyranny of small things.”

According to recent US polling reported by Pew, a growing number of Americans increasingly distrust China and Chinese behaviours. Taking these circumstances together, effectively guiding the US-China relationship will likely be the most important challenge for the US in the first half of the 21st century.


Even as the US-China relationship has become increasingly fraught both from principle and due to the incumbent president’s personality and personal grievances, US-Russian relations have also become a mix of personality and deeper issues. It has become almost unfathomable the level to which the incumbent president has demonstrated a perverse kind of public subservience to his Russian counterpart, even refusing to accept the united judgment of the country’s intelligence community about Russian actions that have included Russia’s interference in the US’s 2016 election. But also on the table have been Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan through its reported bounties on the remaining US military personnel there, and reported advanced weapons transfers to Taliban fighters. There is also Russia’s military backing for the Syrian regime’s continuing assault on its own population; and its ongoing military support for eastern Ukrainian separatists, among others.

Clearly, a new approach must be constructed from the deepening wreckage of the current relationship. A Biden administration policy towards Russia must be premised on a more effective, coherent, consistent statement of US positions and principles in all forums and discussions with Russian leaders. Moreover, it must be made clear to Russian authorities that continuing non-adherence to international norms will have real, as opposed to merely symbolic, consequences. But also crucial to this effort will need to be reestablishing the primacy of the Nato alliance as both a bulwark against the possibilities of security threats and, more positively, as a way to advance common interests vis-a-vis Russia.

This will not produce an immediate change in temperature, but the current trend line is clearly untenable and should certainly be unacceptable to most Americans. Making that point without directly calling the incumbent president a visibly compromised leader will be an interesting challenge.

Latin America

Here the confusion and negative consequences of the incumbent president’s policies are manifestly visible. From Venezuela to Cuba, to would-be immigrants from Central America, to the fantasy of the Mexican-paid for wall between the US and its southern neighbour, the initiatives of the current administration’s policies have generated little more than failure and confusion.

Nevertheless, these nations are our nearest neighbours and countries with whom we should have effective, productive, co-operative ties that focus on addressing the continued poverty of too many of the region’s residents — circumstances that help fuel so many other social, political and economic challenges. While a return to the heady days of the Kennedy administration’s “Alliance for Progress” is impractical, there is a pressing need to find mutually supportive ways to make real progress against that poverty and deprivation, especially with the current realities of the Covid pandemic as an emergency backdrop.

Concurrently, we must find ways to rebuild relationships with even troublesome regimes such as Venezuela and Cuba. Economic opportunities for both sides are real, but they remain stymied by political decisions. Among other things, we must find a way for the countries of the hemisphere to agree domestic interference in each other’s politics must remain beyond the pale, even as we must be unstinting in our advocacy and pursuit of increased democratic practice in every nation where their political circumstances now limit it.

The Middle East, South Asia and Africa

These regions represent yet more demonstrations of the failure and incompetence of the current administration. First and foremost, a Biden administration would re-engage with its former partners in the six-party negotiation for the Iran nuclear accord to rejoin the agreement. It may well be that further terms and conditions are needed or desired, but simultaneously that may also open opportunities for an enhanced agreement that addresses in some way the now-separate issues of Iran’s missile developments or its participation in other regional conflicts. Crucially, keeping Iran in full compliance with the accord must be a key goal for a new administration.

Simultaneously, the Trump administration’s dangerously destabilising, one-sided support for the Netanyahu government’s maximalist goals needs to be dialled back to a more responsible position of support for the legitimate security of Israel, but in the context of a renewal of real efforts to reach a broader accommodation with other actors in the area. Concurrently, the new administration will also begin to advocate real efforts to bring the varied humanitarian and security crises to real conclusions in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon, in addition to real efforts towards further democratisation in nations such as Iraq. Moreover, while the US-Saudi Arabian partnership politically and economically reaches back many decades, it must be brought home to Saudi authorities its government must conform to generally accepted norms of international behaviour directed towards dissidents and opponents.

Further, a Biden administration will continue to build a solid relationship with India as a partner across economic ties and regional security relations, but with a consistent understanding that such a partnership can only grow deeper to the extent India’s own domestic democracy is strong.

(Note: Because of the sweeping avoidance of any real Africa strategy by the incumbent administration, and the frequent denigration of the countries and people of the continent, the way is wide open for a Biden administration to establish a new response to this vast region and its equally vast economic and trade potential as well as a number of critically important security concerns. Accordingly, Biden administration relations with this region deserves a separate paper which will be forthcoming before the convention.)

Natural resources and information

In tandem with a Biden administration’s embrace of the Paris Climate Accord, much more can be done to support the shift of global energy consumption towards renewable energy sources through international research and development partnerships. Similarly, a new administration will work co-operatively with others to improve global recycling efforts. In addition, the new administration will put significant effort in focusing on the management of the impact of new technologies, as well as the effects of a growing global dependence and interaction with information technology such as the 4IR and globally spanning information services. This is nearly a wide-open field for a Biden campaign.

The bureaucratic backbone and soft power

The time is long past for a renewal of the nation’s foreign policy infrastructure. The current administration’s misuse of the country’s foreign policy machinery needs to be supplanted by a return to the kind of diplomatic behaviour and language that usually was practiced by previous administrations.

Moreover, the content of the nation’s diplomacy must take into positive cognisance the country’s diverse population, interests, and connections, rather than simply being a reflection of stereotypical interests. For the first time in history, foreign populations and governments are expressing their pity or even horror at US governmental behaviour and that of its leadership. That must change, but it will take time and much effort to repair that reputation with allies and adversaries alike.

A concrete effort must begin to bring together the increasingly discordant voices of the US government overseas. This will mean creation of a new agency whose task will be to ensure the government’s voice is clear and strong, consistent with the principles of an open government; but that it will simultaneously tackle all the surreptitious efforts by others to spread falsehoods and mistruths about the US, and its people and policies.

Concurrently, the Biden administration will build better, co-operative (but not controlling) relations with the many creators of eagerly consumed US content abroad. This component of the nation’s “soft power” has been one of its most potent forces globally. Accordingly, a key task for a new administration will be to ensure such materials gain open access to markets abroad, without having to worry about intellectual property theft.

* * *

There are many other topics to be described, and the ones noted above will obviously need still more analysis, but these preliminary notes should help you begin to focus your thinking strategically for the coming speeches and debates. Most especially, it should help guide your thinking through how best to distinguish your own language from that of the incumbent and his supporters who will attempt to skew discussion about foreign policy into simplistic binaries. In response, your task will be to demonstrate that behind every reference to an issue you make lies a whole lifetime of thinking about that challenge, rather than the flip, nearly mindless responses we have sadly gotten used to from the incumbent president.

Additional papers will also be forthcoming on defence and security, domestic policy, economic and budget policy, as well as immediate responses to the current tripartite crisis facing the country (the Biden 100 days countdown), and the key staffing decisions you will be making for the future of the country. DM


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