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Throughout most of Donald Trump’s term in office, foreign policy has been linked to an unprecedented degree not just to U.S. domestic politics, but to the personal political agenda of the president. U.S. policy toward Ukraine in particular has been politicized like never before once former vice president Joe Biden emerged as a leading candidate for the 2020 presidential election, and Trump’s egregious personal manipulation of U.S. policy toward Ukraine became the reason for his impeachment in the House of Representatives. This series of events, which continues at the time of writing with the publication of sensational allegations of malfeasance by the former vice president’s son Hunter based on highly suspicious sources, has had a debilitating effect on U.S. policy, including the removal of experienced senior career officials and the breakdown of the normal policymaking process.
Should there be a Biden administration on January 20, 2021, this will change. The former vice president has a long history of involvement in U.S. policy toward Ukraine and has surrounded himself with experienced staff, and there is every reason to expect that at least as far as the executive branch is concerned, the issue will be depoliticized and handed over to career professionals at the State Department and other U.S. government agencies. This does not mean, however, that the issue of Ukraine and policy toward it will disappear from U.S. politics. There is every reason to expect that it will be pursued by Republicans in the legislative branch, by Trump-friendly media, and by Trump himself and his supporters. Accusations of mishandling the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, continue to dog former secretary of state Hillary Clinton nearly a decade later.
With respect to the substance of U.S. policy toward Ukraine on Biden’s future watch, it is likely to return to the pattern established during the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations. Policymaking will be restored to a handful of senior political appointees and career professionals in U.S. government agencies, and the interagency process will resume its normal functions of developing and coordinating policy. Prior to Trump’s hijacking of it, U.S. policy toward Ukraine had been remarkably consistent across Democratic and Republican administrations and enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the legislative branch. Support for reforms, institutionalization of democratic governance and rule of law, and integration in the Euro-Atlantic political and security structures have been the fundamentals of that policy since 1991. Support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity was added following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. This will not change in the event of a Biden administration.
Support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO will remain part of U.S. policy, but considering the divisive nature of that idea within the alliance itself and the poor prospects of it happening in the foreseeable future, the issue is unlikely to be given high priority. Much more likely is the possibility of a stepped-up bilateral program of defense cooperation and assistance to Ukraine in reforming and upgrading its armed forces.
It is possible, even likely, that a senior official will be designated as the overseer of all Ukraine policy, including U.S. participation in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, considering the lack of prospects for resolution, or even modest progress on this issue, it appears unlikely that the new administration will commit to it a great deal of political capital or the energy of its senior leaders. More likely, its focus here will be on practical steps for managing the tense standoff along the line of contact, humanitarian assistance, and policy coordination with European allies who appear to be just as pessimistic about the current situation and its outlook.
Biden has said little about foreign policy during the campaign, which has unfolded against the backdrop of a major domestic crisis in the United States. Clearly, he intends to repair the damage done to U.S. standing in the world on Trump’s watch. He has announced a plan to convene a league of democracies and mobilize them to pursue common objectives based on a commitment to shared values. Something like this has been tried by previous administrations with little practical effect. This may be an appealing slogan after the “what have you done for me lately” approach to foreign policy of the Trump administration, but its longevity as the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy appears highly doubtful.
The new coronavirus pandemic, its disastrous effect on society, economic reconstruction, healthcare, and a host of other domestic issues will preoccupy the new administration and leave little time to deal with foreign policy challenges. Of the latter, the relationship with China will be at the top of the list owing to its importance to the U.S. economy and security interests in the Asia-Pacific.
The top tier of the new administration’s foreign policy agenda will probably include repairing the damage done by Trump to U.S. relations with traditional European allies, dealing with Iran’s WMD program, and extending the New START Treaty with Russia. A handful of other issues, such as the pullback from and residual presence in Afghanistan, relations with Turkey, and the U.S. military presence in Syria, will have to be addressed as well. Ukraine will not be a priority, barring a sudden escalation of fighting in the Donbas or some other emergency.
The same logic applies to Belarus. Despite its position between Russia and NATO, relations with “the last dictator in Europe” have been on ice for much of the past three decades. Lukashenko’s post-2014 pivot toward the West in search of a counterbalance to Russia had, in some corners of the policy community in Washington, prompted hopes of shifting the geopolitical orientation of Belarus toward the West. The protests in Belarus have caught everyone on both sides of the Atlantic by surprise. Washington, like Brussels, has little in its toolkit for dealing with the standoff in Minsk, other than statements condemning the regime, sanctions, and moral support for the opposition.
This is unlikely to change for the remainder of the Trump administration. Even if there is a new team in Washington after January 20, the critical factor driving its policy will be the actual developments in Belarus. If Lukashenko cracks down on protests more aggressively, and especially if he gets support from Russia, there will be more sanctions and more condemnation, but little else. If protests subside, U.S. policy will return to the pre-2014 pattern of having a token relationship with Minsk, but little beyond that.
Even in the unlikely event of a Maidan-like uprising in Minsk, it is hard to imagine the United States becoming more involved. The importance of Belarus as the bridge and barrier between Russia and NATO in the current tense standoff and the existence of a union treaty between Moscow and Minsk will likely give pause to even the most ardent proponents of rolling back the new Iron Curtain in Washington and a handful of European capitals for fear of provoking Russia to invade its troublesome neighbor.
This may not sound like much, and some may be tempted to conclude that plus ca change… But in policymaking, style and process matter. Neither is a guarantee of success, but the alternative—bad style and broken process—is a prerequisite for failure.
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