AMAC Exclusive By: Daniel Roman
If there was one thing the Trump Administration brought to American Foreign Policy, it was an energy and willingness to confront hard choices that had been lacking during the latter days of the Bush administration and throughout the Obama years. President Trump learned in the private sector the need to make tradeoffs and that to achieve gains it is sometimes necessary to reassess commitments, as he sought to do in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
The Biden Administration’s approach is different. The Biden approach to hard realities has been to ignore them. When it comes not just to Russia, but also Iran, Latin America, Europe, even arguably Afghanistan, Biden has sought to pretend problems do not exist. Sadly, the world does not work that way, and events have a bad habit of breaking in. Joe Biden may want to confine himself to discussing “happy things,” as he said when asked about Afghanistan, but the reality is that international crises, if left unmanaged, are likely to get worse rather than better. Here are just a few trouble spots that under Biden are being ignored, and could easily explode overnight.
The Middle East
If anything, the Iranian regime has become more provocative since Biden took office, recently hijacking a ship off the coast of the UAE. This sort of international piracy was likely a test of American will in the region, and the lack of any response does not mean the release of the ship represents a success for Biden. Rather, Iran has successfully shown that the U.S. does not care enough to respond to hijackings, meaning that future escalation of hostilities appears likely.
Indeed, Iran seems to have been forgotten half a year after Biden took office with plans to restore the Nuclear Deal. The Iranian regime has shown little interest in resuming the deal, and why should it? Biden has shown little interest in imposing any sort of consequences on the regime for its reckless actions.
Regardless of one’s view of whether there should be negotiations with Iran (even President Trump favored them in some form if Iran was serious), it is obvious that this Iranian government is not serious about these talks, and never was. An Iranian nuclear crisis could well be on the way.
The Lebanese state has been in decay for a long-time but is now rapidly moving toward collapse. Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group responsible for much of the violence in the region, is also the most powerful political party in the country. Last year, an explosion likely involving weapons being smuggled by Hezbollah devastated a large area of downtown Beirut. The state is functionally bankrupt, unable to pay the army, much less the police or civil servants, and there has been no functioning cabinet for months. Conditions in the country are rapidly creating a second refugee crisis (along with Syria) as the remaining middle-class citizens of Lebanon pay exorbitant fees for European visas. The transformation of Lebanon into a failed state threatens to extend the axis of anarchy which has stretched from Iraq through Syria, and now through Lebanon to the Mediterranean coast.
The West has repeatedly blocked Israel from destroying Hezbollah, something that is unlikely to change under the current administration. If Biden continues to ignore the rapidly worsening situation in Lebanon, the chaos that has already decimated Iraq and Syria could soon consume Lebanon as well, threatening U.S. forces in the region and America’s top Middle East ally, Israel.
Russia and Eastern Europe
Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, lived rent-free in the heads of Democrats, much of the mainstream media, and large segments of the intelligence community for the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since Joe Biden was sworn in, there has hardly been any notice given to Russia or its President.
Vladimir Putin has used the respite to crush what remains of Russian democracy and pluralism. Already a farce, Russia’s electoral system has proven too dangerous for Putin and his allies as long as any alternative candidates are allowed on the ballot. In 2019, a twenty-something living in his parents’ basement with Stalin posters on his wall managed to upset Putin’s candidate for governor of a major Far Eastern state. The experience taught Putin that if voters have the choice to vote for someone other than his chosen candidates, they will. So from now on, Putin will not give them that choice. Russian opposition activist Alexander Navalny languishes in prison, potentially near death, while his political foundation which exposes corruption has been labeled an “extremist organization” on par with ISIS, and everyone who has associated it is now at risk of prosecution, not to mention barred from running for office.
In short, it appears that Putin fears little from the Biden administration, and the consequences of that could be disastrous.
Putin has not limited his crackdown on dissent to Russia itself. In addition to his longstanding aggression within Ukraine, he has backed what is now Europe’s most dangerous rogue regime in Belarus.
Termed Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus is virtually a caricature of the bad guys from a 1990s videogame. Its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been in power since 1994. He dresses in full military regalia covered in dozens of medals. His security service is even still called the KGB.
Under Lukashenko’s leadership, Belarus openly flouts international law, pushing the limits on the traditional definition of “rogue state”. In May, his agents forced the landing of a Ryan Air flight traveling between Athens and Vilnius – the capitals of two European Union member states – to kidnap a blogger who had criticized him. The Belarussian Olympic Committee, led by Lukashenko’s son Viktor, recently attempted to kidnap one of their own athletes after she posted critical statements on Instagram. Then, in a stunning assault on human decency, a 26-year old opposition activist was found hanging from a tree in Kiev last week after having been brutally beaten.
Sanctions, whether economic or being banned from the Olympics, have clearly failed to move Lukashenko. Belarus is no longer merely a rogue state, but an international terrorist group operating as a state. If Biden is unable to come up with a coherent policy, Lukashenko is likely to extend his behavior to attack targets in the United States including even non-Belarussians who insult him.
China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau
Macau has always been Hong Kong’s awkward and lesser-known sibling. A Portuguese enclave, it returned to Chinese rule in 1999. Unlike Hong Kong, which had a vibrant civil society, Macau’s economy and government were dominated by the gambling industry and the oligarchs who controlled it. Pro-democracy representatives were always a small minority of Macau’s elected assembly. In the 2017 elections, they held only 4 of 33 seats.
Four seats appears to be four too many for Beijing, which, hot on the heels of the crackdown in Hong Kong, has all but banned any pro-democracy candidates from running in Macau’s election. There was no protest movement in Macau, no pretense of secessionism. This was all about there being no space for dissent anywhere under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
Coming almost simultaneously with a crackdown on private education, it is clear that the current CCP is not concerned either with Islamic separatism (the Uighurs) or Hong Kong nationalism, but with pluralism anywhere—within the party or without, pro-Chinese or not.
China is not opening. It is likely to close further. Biden needs to be prepared for Beijing to crack down hard on Western businesses, Westerners in China, and whatever media or other presence remains. It is likely that within a year or two the story will not be Hong Kong citizens being arrested on “national security” charges, but American journalists and college students disappearing in the dead of night—which could precipitate a true crisis between the two great powers.
More worrying, still, the Chinese Communist Party has always operated under the belief that the prerequisite to any external conflict is internal unity. This is a lesson steeped in the party’s own history, when the Nationalist Regime of Chang Kai-Shek embarked on a war with Japan without first eliminating the CCP. The consistency of the CCP’s actions – in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, in Macau, even against foreign educational companies – indicates that these are not isolated responses to local challenges but a general effort at “housecleaning.” That Xi Jinping has decided to eliminate residues of pluralism everywhere within China’s political sphere indicates he is planning an external confrontation.
That is ominous for Taiwan, and a Biden Administration which remains asleep to the threat China poses.
South America’s largest nation has not had a good year. At more than 560,000 deaths, Brazil has the second-highest official death toll from COVID-19 anywhere in the world. (India and China likely have higher actual numbers.) The government’s response to the virus has also fallen victim to the polarization which has seen Brazil’s last three presidents jailed, impeached, and jailed respectively.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President, is not responsible for this polarization, no matter what liberal critics may say, but he has done little to resolve it. His tenure has seen familial and personal drama erode the already fragmented nature of Brazilian politics, where 23 parties are represented in the Congress. Bolsonaro has gone through three health ministers over the course of the year, including one who seems to have embezzled contracts for vaccines in a manner which left many blaming the administration for shortages.
The real problem will come with next year’s election. Bolsonaro’s numbers have fallen such that he would stand a good chance of losing a fair election to a centrist or rival center-right candidate. However, his likely challenger appears to be Lula De Silva, a former president with links to the far left who was jailed for corruption. In Latin America, this extreme division is a recipe for fraud, and ensures that both sides will allege it regardless. In fact, they both already have. Bolsonaro has begun questioning the independence of the voting machines, while the opposition has begun alleging that the President plans to cancel the elections or stage a coup.
Biden is almost certainly going to find himself faced with a disputed election which will feature credible accusations of fraud on both sides. If Biden’s trademark indecisiveness characterizes his response to this potential crisis, it could destabilize the entire region, spelling disaster for the United States inside our own hemisphere.
Peru’s disputed election has already been covered by AMAC Newsline, but the incoming “government” appointed by radical leftist President Pedro Castillo is already facing a likely no-confidence vote from the Congress, risking a constitutional crisis. The Americas Quarterly has even asked whether Castillo’s Presidency “is already doomed.”
Castillo’s nominee for Prime Minister, Guido Bellido, is under criminal investigation for his support of the terrorist Shining Path guerrilla group. Furthermore, and somewhat ironically for the left, Bellido is an outspoken homophobe who jokes on Twitter about Che Guevarra’s belief that gulags can make “men” out of “homosexuals”. The minister of Labor is also linked to terrorists, while Pedro Francke, the left-wing economist and follower of Thomas Pickety who acted as a front-man for Castillo during the campaign in order to convince the world and electorate that Castillo was a Peruvian Bernie Sanders, was initially excluded entirely, having served his purpose as a useful idiot. If there was any doubt about this, it was made clear when the Secretary General of Castillo’s Peru Libre party took to Twitter calling Francke a representative of the discredited establishment.
Congress can reject this cabinet, but that may be exactly what Castillo wants. If Congress rejects two proposed governments, the President can dissolve it and call new Congressional elections, an ironic legacy of the reforms made by the father of Castillo’s recent opponent, Keiko Fujimori, in the 1990s. Castillo does not control Congress but may feel if he can get rid of it he can use the power of the executive to “engineer” a majority. Right now Castillo seems determined to prove the worst case scenarios right.
From Peru to Lebanon, from Brazil to Belarus, and from Iran to Macau, the world is rife with burgeoning crises to which the hapless Biden administration seems totally ill-prepared to respond. Any one of them could blow up and change the direction of his administration overnight.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics