An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

TP Sreenivasan, Former Ambassador
Mon, 08 Mar 2021
  |  Reading Time: 4 minutes
Reading Time: 4 minutes

President Joe Biden’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” released on March 3, 2021 sounds soft and gentle, but its direction is unambiguous, its action plan is specific, its tone is uncompromising and its determination is steadfast. No harsh words have been used even against the named “competitors,” nor have the allies been praised for past loyalty or support. The highest priority has been given to the pandemic, climate crisis, nuclear proliferation and fourth industrial revolution. Protection and promotion of democracy, strengthening the economic foundations to maintain the leadership of the world and promoting values abroad are also listed as priorities. America is back, diplomacy is back and alliances are back.

Given the general tone and tenor of the guidance, the only reference to India should not disappoint us. But the context and wording may surprise some. “We will deepen our partnership with India and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, to advance shared objectives.” Afghanistan is mentioned in the context of having to end “forever wars,” reaffirming that the US will maintain a robust presence in the Indo-Pacific. Then he goes on to the other regions without any particular order, speaking first about Pacific Island states and then about the European Union and the UK. “We will recommit ourselves to our Transatlantic partnerships, forging a strong, common agenda with the European Union and the United Kingdom on the defining issues of our time.”

China and Russia are mentioned as posing unprecedented challenges. China’s assertiveness and its challenge to a stable international system takes precedence over Russia, which is trying to enhance its power. “The distribution of power across the world is changing, creating new threats. China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive. It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage. Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world”.

Cooperation with China and Russia is not ruled out when it suits the national interests of the US. But America, not China, will set the international agenda. The US will engage with China from a position of confidence and strength. Specifically, climate change, global health, arms control and non-proliferation have been mentioned as possible areas of collaboration.

The Guidance is eloquent in many places on alliances. “We will reaffirm, invest in, and modernize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and our alliances with Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea – which, along with our other global alliances and partnerships, are America’s greatest strategic asset. We will work with allies to share responsibilities equitably, while encouraging them to invest in their own comparative advantages against shared current and future threats”, it says. Then comes the recognition that “our vital national interests compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere. And we will be mindful of both our values and our interests as we engage partner nations”. The Quad has not been mentioned in this context.

Against the backdrop of Trump’s alienation of Canada and Mexico, importance is placed on the closest neighbours in America. “Because the vital national interests of the United States are inextricably bound to the fortunes of our closest neighbours in the Americas, we will expand our engagement and partnerships throughout the Western Hemisphere—and especially with Canada and Mexico—based on principles of mutual respect and equality and a commitment to economic prosperity, security, human rights, and dignity.”

As for the Middle East, the special position of Israel has been reiterated with a reference to “a viable two state solution” with an adverse reference to Iran and the need to end the Yemen war.The United Nations has been brought back to the centre stage as “imperfect, but essential” and a pledge has been made to meet America’s financial obligations in full and on time. Apart from encouraging arms control measures, old and new, Obama’s idea of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security has been restated, for whatever it is worth. There has not been any tangible progress in this area and even the NGOs do not speak of the “Global Zero,” for championing of which one of them won a Nobel Prize.

Diplomacy has been mentioned as the first resort even in the context of addressing Iran’s nuclear programme and North Korea’s nuclear capability. At the same time, the US will not hesitate to use force, if necessary, to defend its interests.

“We are a nation of immigrants”,the Guidance says unequivocally and promises to continue to be a place of refuge for those who seek prosperity and security. It mentions the measures taken already to remove family separation and discriminatory travel bans.

Biden’s trademark theory of a middle class foreign policy is restated in the words, “Our trade and international economic policies must serve all Americans, not just the privileged few. Trade policy must grow the American middle class, create new and better jobs, raise wages, and strengthen communities.” 

The conclusion of the Guidance summarises the situation comprehensively. “This moment is an inflection point. We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. To prevail, we must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people. It will not happen by accident – we have to defend our democracy, strengthen it and renew it….Revitalizing America’s network of alliances, and the partnerships that have made the world safer for all of our peoples.”

President Joe Biden appears to believe in Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy: “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Roosevelt described his style of foreign policy as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” What we see in Biden is all velvet, but behind it is an iron fist, as he has shown in his early actions and clear guidance for the future.



T.P.Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and a member of the National Security Advisory Board and presently the Director General of the Kerala International Centre. He has nearly 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy and has represented India at a number of international conferences organised by the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Nonaligned Movement.  He has chaired several UN Committees and Conferences.

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Debashis Sen

Mar 11, 2021
A great assessment of the US policies on its robust presence in the Indo-Pacific. Could we also have an assessment of how our old friend Russia views these arrangements as, and how it might react vis-a-vis India's North-Western neighborhood given its own aspirations?

Amrit Lal Rawal

Mar 08, 2021
A very correct policy if Joe Biden carries a long stick with a soft speech.

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