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Joe Biden is inaugurated. And the work begins.
Welcome back to another issue of Blunt Reentry.
I’m writing this on the eve of the 21st of January. Joe Biden was inaugurated as the forty-sixth president of the United States. There’s a new administration in Washington and there’s just so much to be done—not just to undo the damage of the last four years, but to build a better, more just world.
2020 was my first presidential election in the United States (indeed, my first time ever casting a vote for any head-of-government or head-of-state office anywhere). So it was particularly gratifying to see Biden seated behind the Resolute Desk this evening, signing several executive orders that happen to comport with my own policy preferences. Among these were orders to rescind Trump’s Muslim ban and to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. Fresh out of four years emphasizing the potential of the awesome power of the American presidency to be used for self-enrichment and injustice, it was good to be reminded that this power can effectuate immediate positive change.
On a separate note, I somewhat jokingly asked followers on Twitter what they’d be doing with the “excess cognitive capacity” that’ll come from not having to think about the scandal-ridden Trump administration. I was surprised to get quite a few thoughtful responses; apparently this is a real issue! I’d be curious to hear from you all on this count. (Special thoughts with friends and colleagues in Asia, who’ll be spared the horror of waking up to a sea of horrifying push alerts from the United States while they sleep.)
I won’t ramble on about this day; there’s already far too much commentary out there. I would, however, recommend reading Biden’s inaugural remarks if you missed them. The rest of this issue will focus on a few other issues that are on my mind.
Strategy and Knowing What Doesn’t Matter
My friend James Crabtree has a recent piece for Nikkei where he makes the case that the Biden administration must not “let the Indian Ocean slip away” (well, those are words from Nikkei’s headline, but his argument is along those lines—the Indian Ocean Region, or IOR, matters). I was struck by Aaron Connelly’s response to James’ argument (click the tweet to see Aaron’s follow-on thoughts).
Aaron voices something that’s been gnawing at me for the last few years insofar as the Indo-Pacific discourse has been concerned. For those of you with longer memories, the impulse to add “Indo” to the Pacific has been long-simmering in certain strategic circles in the United States and elsewhere—primarily among analysts focusing on South Asia and India. I won’t delve into the somewhat complicated history of the Indo-Pacific concept and its variants (for instance, in Japan and India), but broadly speaking, this was meant to be a recognizing the Indian Ocean—the only major ocean not contiguous to the U.S. homeland—was a lacuna in U.S. strategic planning and needed to be addressed.
But in recent years, there’s a sense that the pendulum may have quickly started to swing too far toward over-emphasizing the IOR. Don’t get me wrong: the IOR isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the primary fulcrum for the United States’ interests in Asia today. Reasoning about strategy realistically—with a cognizance of resource constraints, in particular—requires prioritization. The Indo-Pacific is simply far too large that failing to do so is a serious mistake. That’s partly why I’ve admired the clarity that certain strategic documents from other countries bring to this question. For instance, India’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy is quite straightforward about “primary” and “secondary” areas of interest. Americans should feel similarly free to make clear that while the IOR isn’t meaningless, other parts of this region—the Western Pacific and Southern Pacific, in particular—matter a lot more. We have to know what things matter more than others.
There’s also the matter of incentives. As Biden takes office, there’s a strong appetite to have U.S. allies and partners step up to the plate on providing for a common regional security architecture—and this goes further than the old 2016-era “principled security network” notion. In the IOR, the U.S. has made a, in my view, good bet that India can and should be able to serve as the primary net security provider. New Delhi, however, hasn’t quite made this work insofar as its own budgeting and procurement is concerned. India has and continues to face its primary security challenges along its northern land borders, even as it has one of the longest traditions in Asia of expeditionary naval operations (the Indian Navy has decades of experience in carrier operations, for instance). In this environment, signaling that the U.S. is willing to pick up the slack in the IOR creates the wrong incentives; in fact, clarity from Washington that the IOR is “secondary” to the Pacific should be a welcome reality check.
A lot of this may come off as me generally being down on the IOR, but again: this is not the case. I tried to be clear about this in my response to Aaron:
There’s plenty of space to do things that make sense in the IOR. But if we’re to adapt a sensible approach to the Indo-Pacific that is right-sized for a resource-constrained U.S., already stretched too thin in Asia, we’ll have to be clear about what things matter more than others.
What I’m Watching
Two matters on the nuclear policy front have my attention as the Biden administration hits the ground. The first is New START. The treaty expires on February 5 if not extended. The good news is both the Russian government and Biden have stated they favor extension. The Russians took the inauguration as an opportunity to execute a communications push, indicating to the Biden team that their old offer for an unconditional five-year extension—with no immediate talks on follow-on agreements or additions—was very much on the table.
As of midnight on the 20th, we’ve no clarity from Biden or his advisers about how or when the administration may move on this, but my hope is that they’ll make this no more painful than it needs to be and simply take the five-year extension deal. I don’t see much merit in arguments that pressing for a shorter one-year extension will grant “leverage” to then turn on the Russians for follow-on agreements. (Here’s the official statement, in Russian, released by the Russian foreign ministry on Wednesday—h/t to Dmitry Stefanovich for sharing.)
Similarly, we’re off to the races on the Iran front. Like with New START, there’s not much to report, but we do have an official statement, courtesy of Jen Psaki, Biden’s White House press secretary, on the administration’s general approach.
“The president has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed,” Psaki said in a briefing.
“We would expect that some of his earlier conversations with foreign counterparts and foreign leaders will be with partners and allies and you would certainly anticipate that this would be part of the discussions,” Psaki added.
Add to that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s opening bid for the Biden administration, released before the inauguration:
“The ball is in the U.S. court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact,” Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting.
“Today, we expect the incoming U.S. administration to return to the rule of law and commit themselves, and if they can, in the next four years, to remove all the black spots of the previous four years,” he said.
As things stand, we’re not looking at the JCPOA just falling back into place—indeed, few analysts, if any, would have expected that. Psaki’s statement includes the crucial point on “follow-on diplomacy,” noting that the more capacious agenda concerning Iran (militias, ballistic missiles, regional activity) will not hold up a return to the JCPOA. This also comports with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s earlier reported comments that Iran’s missile arsenal would be a matter that could be taken up subsequent to the JCPOA’s restoration.
My views on the JCPOA are pretty simple: compliance-for-compliance makes sense. The original bargain was built off Iran accepting verifiable, wide-ranging restrictions on its civil nuclear program in exchange for relief from U.S., EU, and UN sanctions. The Trump administration shattered that bargain and Iran, in response, has carried out a graduated steps of moves that violate the technical constraints that were placed on its program. If Biden were to restore the U.S. side of the bargain, Iran can roll back many of the reversible steps it has taken so far (including some recent steps that are of far greater proliferation concern). Basically, just take the deal as it was—we won’t get a better one. As my Carnegie colleague James Acton writes, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Keep an Eye On This
The Quad is at it again—this time with the Canadians in tow. (I call this the Quad + 1.)
I’m expecting similar Quad + X engagements throughout this year. (Side note: it’s interesting to see Kono Taro, Japan’s former defense minister, continue to share defense-related news on social media. He clearly misses the portfolio.)
Finally, you may have heard that China announced wide-ranging sanctions on officials from the outgoing administration, including Mike Pompeo. Bill Bishop’s analysis is on the mark here, I think. What I’d add is that this is unlikely to meaningfully deter anyone working China policy for Biden. Where it may have greater effect, however, is on some folks in smaller, non-aligned states (think Southeast Asia, for instance) and smaller U.S.-allied states (New Zealand, for instance). China hasn’t been particularly robust in following up on its sanctions designations (see the earlier sanctions on certain U.S. lawmakers), however, so we’ll have to see what this means in practice. For instance, reading the Chinese MFA’s announcement, one leaves with the sense that no organization that seeks to conduct any business in China or with Chinese institutions could hire or host these designated individuals. If there’s enforcement, we’d likely see serious blowback and contagion to various aspects of the U.S.-China economic relationship. I’d suspect the U.S. would be far more willing to weather the consequences there than China might be.