Verify Installation

An interview with Dr Jean-Marc Rickli on the Biden's administration defense priorities.

By Philippe Mottaz - The Geneva Observer

January 19, 2021


What will be the defense priorities of the new US administration?

JMR: There are a couple of issues that will require their immediate attention. The first will be the New START arms control treaty with Russia which expires on February 5. Its expiration would end decades of control and limits on strategic weapons on both sides. Biden has expressed he was favorable to its extension.

One can also expect the Biden administration to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty that the Trump administration quit, but the matter is complicated in the light of Moscow’s announcement a few days ago to exit it. But the big question is the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The problem is that the situation has dramatically changed since Trump pulled out of the agreement in 2018. The Iranians have hardened their position ever since. They have restarted their uranium-enrichment program. Hard-liners and conservatives are getting the upper hand in Iran over moderates. In addition, the Biden team has indicated that the US might want to broaden the scope of the agreement, which is a non-starter for Teheran.

Dr Jean-Marc Rickli, Head of Global Risk and Resilience, GCSP. Photo ©Quotidien Jurassien

What could be the way forward?

JMR: I think it might possibly involve a lessening of the “maximum pressure” policy imposed by the Trump administration to offer some economic incentive to Iran. One can also expect a significant change in the dynamics in the region as the Biden administration will not continue supporting the anti-Iran coalition that Trump has built with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The fact that Joe Biden selected Lloyd Austin, former head of CENTCOM as Secretary of Defense indicates the importance the new administration places on the Middle East, with the objective of also thwarting Russia’s influence in the region while keeping the jihadist movements in check. Given the cost of the coronavirus crisis, one could imagine that the US will resort to surrogates on the ground supported by US special forces in order to reduce the American footprint in existing conflict zones. For instance, one could imagine that the Biden administration will re-engage with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so as to continue fighting ISIS while at the same time maintaining the north of Syria out of control of the Assad regime and Russia. This would also increase the US bargaining power towards Turkey that has proved a difficult ally in the last few years. Biden even called Erdogan an autocrat.

Should we expect a complete break with the Trump administration’s defense policy?

JMR: On many fronts, yes. I see a return to a different kind of engagement with allies, in Europe and elsewhere. The NATO bashing will stop even if the objective of having European allies contribute a higher share of their budget to the alliance will probably continue.

The biggest question is China, it’s the elephant in the room. Considering the growing assertiveness of Chinese diplomacy during the Coronavirus crisis as well as China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and attitudes towards Hong Kong and Taiwan, I expect the US position towards China to remain confrontational. Ouvertures to Taiwan for the sake of provocation, for instance might stop, but the US posture will remain confrontational, although I don’t expect it to escalate to a military confrontation. The escalation that we witnessed last year might soften up but there is a real risk that we might see a technological decoupling between the USA and China.

Will the US defense budget increase or decrease? Will it be adjusted to reflect new priorities?

JMR: The US defense budget is quite resilient. I do, however, see closer ties to be developed with the private sector and Sillicon Valley, to monitor the developments in AI and robotics, and other emerging technologies in general, and to find ways to militarize these technologies. The cooperation with the private sector is likely to deepen though this presidency will have to tackle the growing influence of the GAFAM and the US government position on trust. One can also expect increased investment in cybersecurity considering the extent of the recent espionage operation likely committed by Russia in the Solarwind hack. And I think a major change in terms of national security strategy will be the integration of climate change into the national security formulation. This will require a multilateral approach to deal with such a risk.

Dr Jean-Marc Rickli is Head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

His latest book published by Georgetown University Press is entitled Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the Twenty-first Century.

His most recent research paper is here.