Why Middle East would welcome a Biden-Putin reset
Variations of the title "Biden must avoid Obama's mistakes" have been a frequent occurrence in many US media outlets recently. Each article focuses on a different angle, ranging from the domestic files of taxation and following a progressive agenda to international files such as policies in the Middle East and Asia. Linking Joe Biden's presidency to Barack Obama's has been a major angle for news organizations across the political landscape.
The pair's friendship beyond politics, as well as their similar visions of domestic and world affairs, have encouraged this view. These titles are interesting as it is not easy to correct the mistakes of a friend or a mentor when taking over his responsibilities, whether in business or politics. It is even more difficult to accept the positive achievements of a foe or someone we disagree with when succeeding him, especially in politics.
This is partly why the Biden administration is being labeled as a third Obama term. However, it might not be so much a third Obama term as an anti-Trump presidency. In the domestic political debate, the focus is on Donald Trump's political threat, with Biden's actions mostly focused on erasing or canceling many of Trump's decisions, rather than continuing Obama's policies, which themselves were inherited from Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter before that. This is maybe two ways of saying the same thing. But in doing this erasing, there is a risk of losing positive points of world stability, especially in the Middle East and Europe.
Trump focused his foreign policy largely on framing China as the biggest threat to the US, even as an "enemy," while trying to re-engage with Russia, but US domestic politics blocked this. And so, as Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are about to meet in Geneva, the key objective does not seem to be to mend relations, but rather to discuss strategic stability and initiate a new security and defense balance of power that both powers can live with in an effort to avoid more clashes.
This applies to the New START nuclear arms limitation agreement, which was extended for five more years at the last minute at the end of January. Signed in 2010, this agreement, which limits the arsenals of Russia and the US, was due to expire on Feb. 5. Negotiations over its extension were largely deadlocked throughout Trump's presidency.
So the focus of the Biden-Putin talks will not be to find common solutions to regional problems, but to discuss rebuilding a new security and military strategic balance. This might include a development of the New START agreement, as well as a replacement to the Open Skies treaty that Trump withdrew the US from last year. Only a week before his Geneva summit with Biden, Putin on Monday signed a law formalizing Russia's withdrawal from the multilateral Open Skies treaty, which allows surveillance flights over military facilities. Some other topics, as reported by the US media, will be Russia's actions in Ukraine, human rights and, most importantly, cyber attacks and microwave radiation attacks that have targeted US personnel across the globe.
There is little hope of a great reset in relations, such as the one that took place during the Obama administration. This saw the US dismantle its missile defence plans for Eastern Europe and sign the New START treaty. This reset was launched during a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Washington in 2009, when the latter was offered a red "reset" button. However, it turned out the word "reset" had been mistranslated to the Russian word for "overload." Through this reset, the US did make some concessions, but it also upped the pressure and challenged Russia in its own backyard, especially through a global agenda that ultimately led to today's unstable situation.
It was quite symbolic of the Obama administration to set the priority for its foreign policy through the promotion of a progressive global agenda, from human rights to climate change. This implied a lack of interest in disengaging from historical geopolitical balances, which translated into an inconsistent and fragile foreign policy. The way America's relations with the Middle East and Europe changed during these years was quite revealing. Although recognizing the great power competition between the two countries, it nevertheless seems that the Biden administration is inclined to try a reset and build positive relations with China, rather than with Russia. This might ultimately have the same outcome as Obama's reset with Russia in 2009.
American allies from Asia to Europe are once again feeling uneasy, as they do not know whether Washington will keep playing its historical strategic role. There is, in that sense, a lot to be said for the Biden administration's view of the Abraham Accords. It is clearly undermining them because they do not fit its view that no peace in the region can happen before a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, the White House fails to mention Iran's role in sabotaging every Arab peace initiative of recent decades. It must be puzzling for the Israelis to see the US administration giving them the cold shoulder while jumping into a new nuclear deal with Iran. This could change the Middle East in many ways.
Although not a topic on the agenda of the Geneva meeting, Europe and the Middle East will be, as we say in Arabic, "the absent which is present." The countries of both regions, as they come out of the coronavirus pandemic, would like to avoid geopolitical instability at all costs. Hence, they are hedging any US disengagement by promoting positive relations with Russia and China. But both regions would welcome a positive reset between Biden and Putin, as it could bring acceptable compromises on many files that affect them and promote strategic stability. For this to happen, what is needed is neither an Obama presidency nor an anti-Trump one, but the empowerment of key regional players.
Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.