Thiruvananthapuram, Jan 20: Fr Alexander Kurien was appointed as the Deputy Associate Administrator, a member of the US government Senior Executive Services (SES I), for the Office of Government-Wide Policy in September 2014. He is responsible for developing and implementing effective government-wide policies and guidance to provide a structured framework for agencies to achieve economical and effective management processes for government asset.
Kurien joined the US Department of State in 1998 as the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning of all United States Government Embassies and Consulates across the world. He has travelled to 147 countries. He has served five US Presidents and he spoke to IANS on the current transition of power in the United States.
Q: What will be the key areas of focus for the Biden administration?
A: The newly elected US President Joe Biden is facing a global health crisis and worsening economic conditions in the US. He is swiftly pushing forward a legislative package aimed at coronavirus recovery and a burst of executive orders designed to signal an immediate break from President Trump.
President Biden is planning to return the United States to the Paris climate accords, and repeal the ban on US entry for citizens of some majority-Muslim countries. The new president will launch a 10-day governing sprint that will include executive actions to help schools reopen, expand coronavirus testing and establish clearer public health standards. President Biden will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward.
Biden frequently talks about the need to use the first 100 days, which have typically been a honeymoon period for new presidents, to make significant progress on the challenges facing the country.
Based on my years of expertise in Washington, I expect the pace of change to be fast at the beginning with early activity in the form of presidential directives, approximately 10 plus executive orders to be signed on January 20 right after the inauguration and significant leadership turnover at most federal agencies, launching the Biden administration’s policy agenda focused on Covid-19, the economy, climate change and racial inequality.
With the latest election wins in Georgia, the US Senate is evenly split, 50-50, between Democratic and Republican senators. Vice President Kamala Harris will cast any tie-breaking votes. With this, Democrats will have control of the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate — for the first time since President Barack Obama’s first term. This is going to significantly assist President Biden and Vice President Harris to expeditiously implement their administration’s priorities and changes to their foreign policies.
Q: What will be the key priorities of the new US President?
A: On COVID-19, free testing for Americans, ramped-up personal protective equipment (PPE) production while ensuring future American manufacturing of PPE, and “equitable” vaccination. Controlling the pandemic and mitigating its accompanying economic fallout are the top priorities for the new administration, and the rest of Biden’s policy and governing agenda will ultimately depend on whether the country can successfully emerge from the health and economic impacts of the virus.
President Biden will formalise the formation of the transition’s COVID-19 advisory board, a “team of leading public health experts who will advise” and inform his administration’s response. My office will be assisting the President in legally formalizing this advisory board.
Biden is expected to push for Congressional action on additional stimulus in the amount of $1.9 trillion to provide relief or other response legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But any loftier initiatives will have to be put on hold; more than 400,000 people in the US have died and unless the virus is slowed down through various actions, the death toll is expected to reach 1 million by January 2022 from coronavirus, with nearly 11 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits.
The plan includes $400 billion plus to be used for the vaccines to slow the virus’ spread and reopening schools, $20 billion toward a national vaccination program, $50 billion for testing and contact tracing and $30 billion for supplies and protective equipment. He is also seeking money to provide paid sick leave to encourage people to stay home if they are feeling ill, and he called for hiring 100,000 public health workers, nearly tripling the current number.
President Biden believes that climate change is the number one issue facing humanity. Biden may call for a clean energy revolution that would reach a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. Biden supports the pursuit of new technologies to benefit the environment and create American jobs, improve the nation’s infrastructure and allow the US to export technologies. His action will most probably include: 1) Rejoin the Paris climate accord and urge its signers to increase their domestic climate targets, 2) Call to move to 100 per cent clean energy and zero-emission vehicles in the federal transportation fleet, 3) Roll back Trump executive orders such as those permitting new coal leases on public lands, eliminating flood standards for federal infrastructure projects.
On immigration, President Biden is expected to announce a legislation package to provide a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the United States illegally. This really does represent a historic shift from Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda that recognises that all of the undocumented immigrants that are currently in the United States should be placed on a path to citizenship.
President Biden will liberalise immigration to the US, welcoming immigrants. This could be game-changing for Indian-Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by Trump’s H-1B visa ban and Green Card suspension. At present, the total annual cap on Green Cards available for Indians is 20,000, leading to wait times that stretch across decades.
Q: What will be President Biden’s policy towards China?
A: The new President is likely to continue a “tough on China” policy. It is possible that President Biden could seek a more multilateral approach to confronting China, but the overall tone and direction of China policy is not expected to change. Tariffs, nearshoring and strict limitations on outbound and inbound investments, particularly around critical supply chains and technology, will likely continue for the near term. We expect continued advancement of policies that focus on US capital market access and investor protection. This includes scrutiny of Chinese companies listed in the US and the financing of US economic activity domestically in addition to the technology and data controls mentioned above.
Racial equity – Police violence, COVID-19, and climate change are all life-and-death issues which have a grave, disparate impact on people of color. There are undoubtedly racist policies which facilitate these racial impacts and that need to be replaced with antiracist policies. Ensuring access for people of colour to jobs, homeownership, higher education, retirement savings, and other necessities.
Q: What will be the new US President and his team’s moves towards India?
A: Although President Donald Trump deeply damaged the United States at home and many of its interests abroad, US-India relations surprisingly thrived during his tenure. While India suffered some economic pain, bilateral strategic ties prospered as Trump’s administration gave India pride of place in US national security thinking, offered it previously unavailable advanced military equipment, and supported it comprehensively in its crises with Pakistan and China. President Biden’s approach to US-India trade disputes is unclear. India seeks reinstatement of its privileged access as a developing country to the US market.
Vice President Kamala Harris, being the first woman as well as the first Asian/African-American Vice-President, will make a positive impact on the US-Indian partnership. India’s strong alliance with United States is really based on bipartisan support. Former President Barack Obama and Biden clearly “values a strong India-US strategic partnership. Biden promised that he will stand with India and confronting the threats it faces in its own region and along its borders; expanding greater two-way trade that opens markets and grows the middle class in both our countries; taking on big global challenges together like climate change and global health security and strengthening our democracies where diversity is our mutual strength.
Q: After President Bush and President Clinton, US policies toward Pakistan has been one of love-hate.Your comment?
A: This is pure speculation on my part. Post 9/11, Pakistan became an important ally of the US in the war on terror, receiving military and civilian aid. But the alliance has since soured with Washington repeatedly accusing Pakistan of supporting and harboring terrorists and with Islamabad cozying up with Beijing in recent years. Pakistan can anticipate some relief when it comes to aid money that President Donald Trump suspended in 2018 over Islamabad’s failure to take action against militant groups. Pakistan can also expect to have more functioning, coordinated, and enhanced cooperation on military training programmes under Biden. Islamabad can expect to get appreciation from the Biden administration for its cooperation in the Afghan peace process. It is likely that Pakistan will attempt to keep the Afghan peace process at the forefront of its cooperation with the US under Biden.
Q: All said and done, Donald Trump will go down in history as the only US president who did not send his troops to any foreign land. Will there be a reversal?
A: The US has about 3,000 troops in Iraq to fend off terrorist threats like ISIS, protect American facilities including its embassy, and more. Former President Barack Obama also moved to end US involvement there in 2011, but challenges like the rise of ISIS and continued anti-US activities by Iranian-backed militias in the country kept the US militarily engaged. President Trump clearly took actions to reduce the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Trump did not end any wars, but he has moved on from the endless-wars mindset.
President Biden seems to have come closer to Trump’s view on this. “It’s past time to end the forever wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure and staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power,” President Biden said in early 2020.
Q: You are a priest and a high ranking US official. How are you juggling both the jobs? What was your experience in having served five US Presidents?
A: I am a senior priest of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Indian Orthodox Church) and hail from Pallipad, Kerala. I came to the US as a young immigrant after high school at the age of 16. I am leading a well-balanced spiritual and secular life. In addition to the day-to-day priestly responsibilities, I began my journey in the private sector as a senior management consultant for 14 years before joining the US Department of State as the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning, the first person of Indian origin to ever sit in the chair from 1978 to 2014.