Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Joe Biden rightly understands that climate change is a political and practical necessity. As one of the world’s biggest polluters, the United States must show global leadership in tackling the emissions and supply chain issues that threaten the future of the planet.
Progressives in his party have channelled this into the Green New Deal agenda, which packages together carbon emission reductions and green infrastructure jobs.
It reflects the growing importance of climate change on the political agenda in contemporary politics. Where all things green were once a fringe issues for protestors, they have now become a pivotal plank of transatlantic foreign policy.
It is no coincidence that the White House is putting huge stock into this week’s climate summit, just as Downing Street channels vast amounts of energy and resource into making a success of COP26 in Glasgow.
In the back of both minds will be the need to present a simple message to the world after concerns of international regression (Brexit and Trump respectively) from the world stage: we are back.
But by getting caught up in promises to achieve net zero carbon emissions and putting electric vehicle chargers on every lamppost in the country, do the Unites States and United Kingdom risk taking their eyes off immediate foreign policy imperatives staring right at them?
With the intersection between climate change policy and foreign policy growing by the day, the White House has sought to remain on top of international affairs. Simultaneously, the question of who speaks for the United States abroad typifies the lack of clarity around what the President wants to prioritise. Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, is, by definition, the voice of the US on foreign soil. But while Blinken talks troops and tanks, John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, flies to world capitals to chat carbon capture and coal.
American obfuscation opens a new frontier for ambitious rivals – notably China and Russia. When gaps appear in international affairs, both are quick to fill them. It explains the Belt & Road Initiative, vast Chinese infrastructure investment across the African continent, and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Writing about the White House’s unilateral decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, William Hague wrote: ‘Slowly, inexorably, and tragically, we can expect that flank [Afghanistan] to be exposed once again.’ Exposed flanks tend to be seized upon.
Putin flexes his muscles again
Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea put it at the centre of international affairs on the world stage. Biden and Blinken have a new Russia-shaped headache approaching.
With the further US retreat from the Middle East, Vladimir Putin senses a chance to pivot away from being the object of western sanctions towards being the subject of international security and diplomacy.
Biden has promised him a future summit, giving him the stature on the world stage he craves. Putin, so often a despotic master-tactician on the world stage, senses a weakness in US foreign policy. It is hard to believe that Biden failed to consider the weight of his words when he recently agreed that Putin is a “killer”. It followed a decision to sanction seven senior Russian officials over the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
The Ukraine border is once again a critical frontier. Leaked documents have revealed that Russia has been holding last-minute military exercises near commercial shipping lanes in the Black Sea. Much as the blocking of the Suez Canal strangled global trade, more locally those Black Sea shipping lanes are a vital artery for Ukraine’s economy. The leaked document assesses that the total area of Russian military exercises takes up 27 per cent of the Black Sea.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, has said “the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever” would take only “a spark” to set off a confrontation. Despite this, the US intelligence community discounts the likelihood of conflict. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2021 annual threat assessment said that “Russia does not want a direct conflict with US forces”.
Turkish diplomatic sources reported that the US called off deploying two war ships to the Black Sea – for now – in what would have been a serious escalation of tensions. Instead, an upcoming Biden-Putin summit will provide the setting for talks. International diplomacy might be how Joe Biden secures political victories, by being diplomatic and getting to know his opposite number, but Putin’s cutthroat approach means he will continue to assassinate, break laws and tread ever harder on his neighbours’ toes.
Biden’s administration’s grasp of the green agenda deserves high praise, especially given the damage his predecessor did to the United States’ reputation as a global leader in climate science and protecting the planet for future generations. A defence and security review in the UK revealed a pivot towards more innovative and agile foreign and defence policy.
But Putin’s latest actions prove that often international affairs are still conducted in the language of troops and tanks. For as long as he continues to provoke, the United States and its allies around the world will need to come up with a plan to counter his ambitions. Focussing on ‘building back better’ and a green economic recovery after the pandemic could quickly be replaced by more pressing issues.