Biden resumes adult conversations with China and Russia

Like a bolt from the blue, the news has appeared belatedly that the US special envoy to Iran Rob Malley initiated a call with Chinese vice minister Ma Zhaoxu on February 10. Interestingly, the disclosure has come from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which said, "the two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue."

The Biden administration has not yet spoken publicly about the call. But it goes without saying that a seasoned diplomat like Malley would have taken such an initiative involving Beijing only with the approval at the highest level, although he has a mandate to renew multilateral diplomatic efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program.

It is known that Malley contacted interlocutors in the E3 (UK, France and Germany) and the EU no sooner than he assumed charge as special envoy to Iran.

There is every indication that Malley also sought Qatar's help to communicate with Tehran. (See my blog Qatar on mission to break US-Iran stalemate dated Feb. 16, 2021) I had estimated in the blog the high probability that the Biden administration would seek help from China and Russia to prevail upon Iran to exercise self-restraint as the deadline of February 21 draws closer and Iran's domestic law makes it obligatory for Tehran to ask the IAEA inspectors to stop their activities as provided under the safeguards agreed upon in the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.

The Russian foreign ministry has let it be known that John Kerry had contacted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 13. Officially, Kerry holds the position of US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the Biden administration. But it is also a fact that Kerry was the architect of the JCPOA and there is an old friendship between him and Lavrov that dates back to the latter's years as the Russian envoy to the United Nations in New York (1994-2004.)

The Biden Administration is well aware that Russia and China wield considerable influence on Iran and, equally, they were willing to be cooperative and to leverage that influence in response to US requests during President Barack Obama's efforts to negotiate the JCPOA.

Ironically, one side effect of the maximum pressure policy toward Iran pursued by the Trump administration is that Tehran stepped up its strategic communication with Moscow and Beijing to create space to push back at the US pressure.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has paid numerous visits to Russia and China in the most recent years to hold confidential exchanges and finesse a coordinated approach not only on the nuclear issue but on Iran's regional strategies as a whole.

Reports suggest that Iran and China have finalised a 25-year strategic partnership envisaging economic cooperation to the tune of $400 billion, which is veritably an economic lifeline that Beijing is willing to extend to Iran that would make it easier for the latter to withstand Western pressure.

Similarly, Russia and Iran already began discussing arms deals following the removal of UN restrictions on military cooperation with Iran. Russia also has interest in Iran's energy sector and has discussed a far-reaching economic package, including barter trade.

Again, Iran has a preferential trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union since October 2019, which has significantly boosted Iran's exports despite restrictions on banking ties between Iran and other countries due to the US economic blockade — so much so that the Export Guarantee Fund of Iran is presently offering up to $800 million in guarantees for export to the Eurasian Economic Union member states.

By the way, with Russian help, Iran began constructing a second nuclear reactor at its Bushehr power plant in November 2019 – a facility being fuelled by uranium enriched further than the limits outlined in the faltering 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — where the new reactor to be installed (and a third reactor planned to be built thereafter) will each add more than 1,000 megawatts to Iran's power grid.

Clearly, what emerges from the above is that the US' exchanges with Russia and China are motivated by the Biden administration's quiet confidence that the tense relations with these two great powers notwithstanding, Beijing and Moscow will only play a constructive role in addressing the situation around Iran, thanks to their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and reflective of their obligations as responsible UN Security Council members who are strong advocates of the preservation of the JCPOA.

Isn't it fascinating that Malley called the Chinese Vice-Minister Ma (responsible for international organisations and conferences, international economy and arms control affairs) on the same day that Biden held a 2-hour conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping? In fact, the White House readout of the conversation had concluded saying, "President Biden committed to pursuing practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies."

The Xinhua report on the conversation, in turn, highlighted Xi's remark to Biden that the US and China "can deliver more tangible benefits to people in both countries, and make their due contribution to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting world economic recovery and maintaining regional peace and stability." Specifically, Xi proposed consultations on regional and international issues and revival of the mechanisms needed.

The Iran nuclear issue has profound implications for international security. If the US can work with China and Russia to resolve the issue, what is it that prevents the three big powers from expanding such cooperation to global governance and strategic stability?

The time has come for the US to jettison its "unipolar predicament". The Iran issue underscores that reality. Biden has set his eyes on the reconstruction and regeneration of America, alongside, his legacy on the global arena lies in abandoning the path of competition and containment as the leitmotif of his foreign policy.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

Joe Biden unveils 2 big surprises sending a powerful signal he's pivoting to the left

The US president-elect Joe Biden did two spectacular things last week which may rewrite the assumption that his presidency would return America back to the Barack Obama era. One was the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan Biden rolled out Thursday and the other his choice of William Burns, veteran diplomat, to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

Seemingly unrelated, these two things convey a powerful signal that Biden understands that the real pandemic danger in America is social collapse and what is needed is a national policy that prevents societal disintegration — and a foreign policy which reflects that top priority.

Biden's advisors had let it be known back in October that if elected, even without waiting until Inauguration Day, he would right away provide an immediate fiscal relief the American economy needs and directed and targeted to middle-class and lower-class families, to the smallest businesses instead of just the big corporations that have the best connections to big banks, since "families need to put food on the table to pay their electricity bills, to keep roofs over their heads."

Biden has kept his word. His spending proposal sets aside $400 billion to address the coronavirus; $1 trillion in direct relief to families and individuals; and $440 billion to help communities and businesses hit the hardest by the pandemic. The proposal envisages:

  • Topping up the $600 cash relief passed by Congress last month with $1400 payments additionally;
  • Hike in unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week through September;
  • Fourteen weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave;
  • Raise in national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums;
  • $160 billion earmarked for a broad range of programs, including coronavirus vaccination, testing, therapeutics, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, etc.;
  • $ 170 billion for schools;
  • Billions of dollars earmarked for underserved populations (eg., African-Americans), including health services on tribal lands;
  • Billions of dollars more for helping long-term care workers and who have borne the brunt of the pandemic (and who are disproportionately Blacks.)

It is an unabashedly progressive agenda that the left has been trying to advance for decades — and, arguably, the bulk of them do not even have anything to do with the health emergency as such but are social welfare measures.

Interestingly, Biden is not seeking to raise everybody's taxes to pay for this, but instead proposes to pay for this plan with a series of tax increases on the wealthy, including taxing capital gains as regular income and increasing the marginal tax rate for top earners to almost 40% which he'd announce in spring as a second long-term broader recovery package to "build back" the economy.

The writings of the renowned Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović come to mind. Milanović is famous for his work on income distribution, inequality and poverty. Formerly chief economist at the World Bank and currently teaching at the London School of Economics and the New York City University, his latest work Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System that Rules the World figured in the Foreign Affairs list of Best Books and earned him acclaim as one among the top 50 thinkers in the year 2020.

Milanović wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs last year in March noticing the lengthening shadows of the pandemic stealthily advancing in America at that time. With extraordinary prescience, he forewarned that "the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off."

"Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry… If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate. Thus the main (perhaps even the sole) objective of economic policy today should be to prevent social breakdown. Advanced societies must not allow economics, particularly the fortunes of financial markets, to blind them to the fact that the most important role economic policy can play now is to keep social bonds strong under this extraordinary pressure."


On the eve of Biden's address on Thursday, he announced that Ambassador William Burns will be the Director of the CIA in his administration. It is an unusual choice. Indeed, it is not unusual for an "outsider" to head the CIA. During the past quarter century, out of the ten CIA directors, seven came from "outside" — a smattering of generals and a string of politicians. Yet in CIA's 73-year history, this will be the first time that the agency is going to be led by a career diplomat.

Biden has made an optimal choice. Burns is widely praised as a "titan of the foreign-policy world" and also happens to belong to that breed of diplomats who believe that diplomacy and espionage are two sides of the same coin. In his wonderful book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal, Burns wrote that in foreign policy, diplomats ought to "harness all the tools of American statecraft—from the soft power of ideas, culture, and public diplomacy, to…intelligence-gathering and covert action".

Interestingly, Burns disavows the so-called "militarisation" of foreign policy. When asked about it in an interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns estimated that "time and time again, we've seen how over-reliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand. Time and time again, we've fallen into the trap of overusing—or prematurely using—force. That comes at much greater cost in American blood and treasure, and tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought."

Without doubt, the choice of Burns is emblematic of where Biden is headed in the conduct of foreign policy. Biden sees Burns as eminently qualified to reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power while charioting the intelligence community to devote more attention to its mission of complementing diplomacy.

Burns is also a rare diplomat-intellectual with a mind of his own — who believes that active coordination with China and Russia is necessary to address global challenges to US foreign policy, who derisively looks at the Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy against Iran being a spectacular failure, who maintains that NATO's post-cold war expansion was a grave mistake that derailed relations with Russia, and who strongly argues for arms control talks with Russia in mutual interests.

In the interview with the Foreign Service Journal, Burns spoke about the directions of US foreign policy in the contemporary world situation. He said: "The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. To put it bluntly, America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. That's not meant to be a declinist argument. In fact, I'm still bullish about America's place in the century unfolding before us. We can't turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world's pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely."

Biden's choice of Burns as CIA director underscores his intention to put diplomacy first in the US foreign policies. It also means engagement, based on the realistic understanding that the US can no longer impose its will on other countries.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift in power and influence from West to East. Biden reposes confidence in Burns to lead the intelligence community into a brave new world where the post-cold war "unipolar moment" has vanished forever.

Fundamentally, Biden's expectation would be that the US foreign and security policies will reflect his national strategy, "which not only begins at home, in a strong political and economic system, but ends there, too, in more jobs, more prosperity, a healthier environment and better security" — to borrow Burns' words.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter. M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.