AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Over the past few months, the media establishment has been remarkably uninterested in foreign policy. But far from this being a consequence of global events going better, it is seemingly an attempt to hide a number of ticking foreign policy time bombs that could go off before the 2024 election. If they do, it could help trigger a final collapse of the president’s polling, and perhaps, his re-election chances.
Even though the media is not covering it, the slow deterioration of the American position in most regions has continued apace.
What is most striking is the interlinking nature of the problems facing the Biden team. While they clearly have localized problems, the threat posed by Chinese influence in the Middle East is rapidly expanding to threaten America’s position in Europe, while Chinese and Russian economic pressure is creating the prospect of Brazil turning into another Cuba in Latin America.
China Continues its Middle East Takeover
U.S. influence in the Middle East was at its modern apogee in January 2021. The Abraham Accords had seen the U.S. emerge as the key mediator between Israel and the Arab states, the U.S. had secured internal coalition governments in Libya, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and with Soleimani dead, an alliance of anti-Iran forces seemed poised to take control of Iraq.
Since then, things have collapsed. The Iranian regime crushed mass anti-government protests, while a similar protest movement in Israel, encouraged by the Biden administration, crippled Israel’s elected government and neutralized Israel’s power in the region. Petty feuding with Saudi Arabia alienated another key Middle Eastern ally.
China took advantage of the shifting power balance to promote an alternative to the Abraham Accords. In place of an Israeli-Arab rapprochement backed by the U.S., China secured the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the new axis around which the region turned.
From this settlement emerged a strengthened pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad, which expelled the opposition from parliament and changed electoral laws. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad found himself readmitted to the Arab League. Sudan and Ethiopia collapsed into civil war. China has secured the favor of the winner in Ethiopia and seems on course to do the same in Sudan.
The real disaster for the Biden team would be if China can bring Turkey’s recently reelected President Erdogan into this axis. That would give China an alliance stretching from Pakistan, where the U.S. has managed to alienate all parties in political disputes over the last year, to North Africa and Europe itself, with both India and Israel surrounded by Chinese aligned states. Any power that wished to play off China against the U.S. would find itself isolated.
This situation is also one that gives China a stranglehold on any Eurasian oil supplies which were not already under the control of Russia, and therefore the ability to squeeze Europe at will. What will the Biden team do if China cuts off oil to influence the 2024 election? What will they do to ensure China floods the market to lower prices? Will social media even let us know this time?
Europe Goes Rogue
Recent months have seen increasing signs of exhaustion with resistance to Russia and China from Germany and France. Not only has France’s Macron visited Beijing, but he has also suggested that negotiating with Putin may have to take precedence over war crimes trials.
If the Ukrainian offensive stalls, the Biden team needs to be prepared for the public relations threat not of a Chinese peace initiative, which can be safely dismissed, but for a joint Franco-Chinese-Turkish one, which would be much harder to reject out of hand. Accepting it would mean allowing France and Turkey to win the favor of Beijing at the cost of U.S. and Ukrainian interests. Rejecting it would give them cover to defect. Either way it would be a lose-lose for the U.S.
The overwhelming evidence is that Biden’s efforts to “restore” an American partnership with Europe have failed. While the support of Ukraine was a well-earned success, its very success has reduced the need for American involvement.
Had Russian arms performed better, then France and Germany would be more desperate for U.S. involvement, desperate enough to sacrifice their lucrative relations with China. With Russian forces bogged down, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz now seem to believe they have the luxury of selling Ukrainian territory for a restoration of Russian energy supplies on favorable terms, and Chinese investment, without any military threat from a chastened Putin, whom U.S. allies such as Poland will carry the burden of resisting in any case.
This approach is not entirely selfish. There is a coercive element as well. For almost a decade, Turkish President Erdogan has used his ability to either flood Europe with Syrian refugees, or keep them out, to hold E.U. politicians hostage.
With Syria now brought back into the new Chinese-sponsored Saudi-Iranian normalization, Erdogan is, if not working for China, inclined to avoid antagonizing both China and Russia. It is within Erdogan’s interests for the E.U., China, and Russia to come to an arrangement, as it negates the need for him to risk alienating any of the three, and he is now using his leverage to push that end.
The Biden team has no counter, and if they are not careful, Turkey, working with China, will pull Europe out of Biden’s alliances against both Russia and China right from under him.
Brazil Turns Hostile
Europe is not the only place where the Biden administration needs to fear former friends defecting to China.
There is no leader in Latin America who owes more to Joe Biden and his team than Brazil’s President Lula da Silva. It is hard to imagine Lula even having become President of Brazil had Donald Trump won reelection in 2020.
Lula prevailed over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, an ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, by a margin of 51%-49% only after a more than a year and a half of relentless hostility toward Bolsonaro from the Biden administration, which had senior U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, travel to Brazil in order to meet with Brazilian generals and politicians and urge them not to support Bolsonaro.
Sullivan also met with state governors but excluded members of Bolsonaro’s administration from the meeting. U.S. officials warned the military against intervening, and suggested Bolsonaro might try to “deny” a Lula victory, implying that was the only option they would view as legitimate.
How has the Biden administration been rewarded for this support of Lula? By Lula visiting Beijing and pledging a partnership with China to “rebalance the world order,” promising to use the Chinese Yuan in place of the U.S. Dollar in trade, and stating that no one will stand in the way of Sino-Brazilian relations.
Meanwhile, Lula told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that Ukraine and Russia “shared the blame” for the war during a visit in March, and accused the U.S. of “encouraging the war,” prompting White House spokesperson John Kirby to accuse Lula of “parroting Russian propaganda.”
There is a real risk that Brazil is moving away from neutrality toward actual partnership with China. Lula seems to resent Bolsonaro not because he was pro-Trump, but because he was pro-American, and seems unable to distinguish Biden from Trump, which must come as a shock to Democrats who believed all would be forgiven if they opposed Bolsonaro.
With Lula purging the military and civil institutions of Bolsonaro sympathizers under the premise of “defending democracy,” there is a risk Brazil will move in the direction of Venezuela domestically and perhaps even internationally – raising the alarming specter of Chinese military bases in South America’s largest country.
If this were to occur, it is hard to see how Biden could escape the blame, having done so much to bring Lula into office. Bolsonaro himself would be more than happy to make that case to Americans in 2024.
Mexico Weaponizes Migration
Biden’s relations with Mexico’s President Andreas Lopez Obrador have never been easy, but in recent months they have become particularly hostile, with Obrador accusing USAID of actively funding his domestic opponents under the guise of civil society groups. The Mexican president was also outraged when Biden’s Senior Homeland Security Advisor, Elizabeth Sherwood, used a visit to Mexico City ostensibly for the purpose of discussing cooperation on migration, to instead rebuke “democratic backsliding.”
With elections scheduled for July 2024, Obrador can be expected to try to maximize his own leverage in U.S. internal affairs. He will want Biden to beg him to prevent a massive migrant influx before the elections, which ironically requires him to demonstrate what will happen if Biden ignores his concerns. That will involve flooding the border with migrants, much as Belarus did to Poland in the summer of 2021, in order to demonstrate his ability to stop and start the flow at will.
Recent events indicate that Biden has no plan to deal with Mexico other than begging for forgiveness. That is dangerous with an extortionist, more dangerous still if that extortionist’s domestic opponents, feeling abandoned, then decide to resort to their own measures.
Daniel Berman is 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. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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