What Biden’s win could mean for the rest of the world
When Barack Obama won a landslide victory over John McCain in 2008 to ascend to the American presidency, it was a boost for the superpower’s global image. Under 44’s administration, America’s reputation to the rest of the world significantly improved as a result of the President’s willingness to cooperate with not just its allies, but also his administration’s commitment to reinforcing international institutions and preparedness to reach out to rivals.
The same can’t be said for his successor. President Trump’s isolationist and disruptive approach to foreign relations has alienated the United States’ traditional allies in Europe while setting out an anti-globalist, “America First” tone of leadership mirrored across the world. US favorability ratings and trust in the President plummeted globally to levels even lower than that of Bush in his final years of office, plunging even further in 2020 as a result of America’s catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic under Trump.
The United States’ position as a global leader is nowhere near as sturdy as it was four years ago, setting up an immense challenge for Biden’s bid to restore American leadership around the world – one of the former Vice President’s key campaign promises. President Trump’s stronger-than-expected performance in the election also means that the United States won’t fully abandon his foreign policy doctrine just yet, and under a sharply divided Congress, Mr. Biden won’t have the full power to restore the US’ direction to that under Obama any time soon.
So what can the rest of the world expect from the United States now, then? While the President-elect will have to focus largely on domestic issues in his first 100 days in office, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact, Biden is still bound to make some significant changes to American foreign policy in the next few years.
Possibly the most Atlanticist candidate to have been elected to the presidency in over a generation, Mr. Biden prides himself on his Irish heritage and is keen to rebuild the European alliances that President Trump has repeatedly snubbed and undermined throughout the last four years. He welcomes a more united and stronger Europe, unlike President Trump’s overt hostility to the EU, and is a strong backer of NATO. European decision-makers will see the Biden presidency as a golden opportunity not just to repair the transatlantic alliance but to redefine it for the coming decades.
Under President Trump, Germany often found itself in the frontline from 45’s repeated attacks on its European allies as the bloc’s leading power. From obsessing over Berlin’s trade surplus to attacking German military spending and threatening punitive tariffs on German carmakers, President Trump has certainly been a challenging problem high on Angela Merkel’s agenda. On the verge of stepping down from the chancellery next year, she might breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the next President her country will have to work with will be more reliable.
NATO also faces an imminent need for renewal, where its Cold War-based mechanics have rendered it rather outdated for defending against the full spectrum of 21st-century security challenges, many of which are not explicitly military in nature. Can a Biden presidency help achieve this? We don’t know yet, but there’s a much higher chance for that now than it was under President Trump.
As a symbolic gesture to American allies in Europe and the rest of the world, Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as possible to affirm the US’ pledge to environmental protection, which significantly diminished under President Trump. It also looks likely that Biden would look to restore environmental protections and policies put in place under Obama in order to put the US; which accounts for 14% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions; back on track on helping to achieve the Agreement’s aim to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius.
The President-elect is also opposed to Brexit, but he accepts that it’s a done deal. Biden will, however, find it easier to work with the UK if it can avoid a no-deal departure from the European Union that respects existing Irish border agreements. Similar to the stance taken by many American lawmakers, the President-elect worries of any negative impact Brexit may have on the Good Friday Agreement, and as such has made it one of his priorities in terms of European Foreign Policy.
US-Russian relations are today the worst it has been since 1985. Its annexation of Crimea, the launching of an ongoing war in southeastern Ukraine, and support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in the country’s brutal civil war has all but raised tensions in the United States. And that’s not to mention the role Moscow played in interfering with American elections in both 2016 and 2020, all culminating in the two countries being more hostile to each other than ever. While President Trump came in office determined to improve ties with Russia, the rest of the executive branch and the US Congress have pursued tough policies toward Moscow, from imposing sanctions after sanctions to expelling diplomats. Today, the two countries are largely adversaries.
The general consensus is that Biden’s victory will be bad for Russia, as a Democratic administration is expected to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow as punishment for its behavior over the last few years – first and foremost for its interference in the 2016 American presidential elections. Such a view is resonated across the country’s halls of powers, with pro-Kremlin pundits, senior officials, oligarchs, and President Putin himself all fearing what a Biden administration could mean for its regime. As long as Kremlin seeks to undermine Western democratic institutions, antagonism is likely to persist between Washington and Moscow.
However, there is some silver lining in the two countries’ relations. Many officials in the Russian government share a more nuanced view on Biden, that a president not tainted by suspicion of being a Russian asset and is capable of organizing a more orthodox process for bilateral talks on national security – could restore some guardrails to the US-Russia relationship and prevent further deterioration. These guardrails could be to retain some pillars of the arms control regime that is due to expire in early 2021 and agreeing on rules of competition in cyberspace. Biden might somehow be able to enable better relations between the two countries, not just between its two leaders, but we’ll have to see how this plays out.
In May 2018, President Trump walked out of the US-Iran nuclear deal, calling it a “horrible, one-sided deal” that should have never been made, and reimposed tough sanctions on the country. Such a “maximum pressure” policy was targeted to punish the autocratic Iranian regime, but instead, it mostly hurt Iranian society and its people. The country fell into a deep recession, pushing millions into poverty while its repressive regime remains intact. Many Iranians are now laughing at Trump, with some saying their own regime could never match the President’s success at undermining democracy after seeing 45 disputing the results on Twitter and in post-election press conferences. Iranians also rejoiced when Biden was declared President-elect, expressing hope that the former VP would restore, or at least aim to restore normal economic relations.
The country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, indicated that his government was ready for talks, although in a manner that protects Iranian pride. It will likely approach discussions with the United States much more cautiously and nationalistic than it did under Obama, as Rouhani will now have to work with a conservative, Principalist-dominated polity to secure a deal that “does not bring shame” to Iran. Biden has made it clear that he wants to rejoin the agreement, but the US Senate might make this harder if it goes to the Republicans – which is likely at this moment.
Nonetheless, Iran’s expanding nuclear program might be the US, as well as Europe’s number one threat to regional, if not global security that the President-elect will need to deal with – so this comes high on the priority list. Biden’s also facing a time crunch because of Iran’s presidential elections in June, which could give power to hardliners that will be much more difficult to negotiate with. A new Biden administration will need to work fast to agree on a new approach to Iran with the nuclear deal’s European signatories – the UK, France, and Germany.
While Israel had always been on top of the United States’ foreign policy priorities throughout the Trump administration, its position on the list will undoubtedly slip down under President-elect Biden. With a pandemic, a struggling economy and deep social divides demanding attention from Mr. Biden during his first 100 days and his administration’s foreign policy being likely to put greater emphasis on resolving tensions with China and Russia, addressing climate change and repairing the trans-Atlantic alliance, Israel may find its special treatment expiring in no time.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also likely to find himself on the short end of the stick from Biden’s victory, where his doting relationship with President Trump has enabled the increasingly unpopular leader to continue expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank or even annex them. Evidently, Palestinians were relieved to see Trump’s defeat, whom they see as a common “enemy of the people,” while remaining cautious about what Biden could mean for their future. While the President-elect has promised to return to a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in contrast to Trump’s favoritism toward Israel, many are skeptical of whether the new President will actually help deliver a viable two-state solution.
Biden could, however, choose to take an approach similar to that of which Trump had done over the last few months with Bahrain and the UAE, that is to pursue the normalization of diplomatic ties between Arab states like Morocco, Oman, or Saudi Arabia with Israel, in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. It seems to be working rather well so far, depending on who you ask.
China and East Asia
American allies in East Asia have grown comfortable with Trump’s tough approach to China, and are undoubtedly anxious about a Biden victory. The President-elect has a serious credibility problem in Asia, where many allies such as Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam are cautious at the possibility of an uncomfortable return to an Obama-style approach to foreign policy in the region that is unfocused and soft towards Beijing.
In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden laid out four priorities for his administration, including tackling COVID-19 and promoting racial justice. Nowhere was managing “the China problem,” a vital concern among Asian foreign policy elites mentioned, raising alarm bells for officials across the region. Over the last few years, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy as a rising power has been combated by actions from the Trump administration that do deserve some praise. From taking a tougher stance on the South China Sea to imposing sanctions over Beijing’s new security law in Hong Kong, President Trump’s toughness on China has proven to solidify the US’ image as a “guardian” to regional stability – something Mr. Biden may find difficult to live up to.
Biden’s presidency may risk the return of an approach many across the region characterized as lacking the political will to manage and contain Chinese power, where the priority was to always engage with China, not to compete with it. Trump’s Asian strategy may have been poorly implemented, “but it was fundamentally correct” – as said in the words of officials from Tokyo. However, the President-elect’s stance on China has become far tougher than Obama ever did. Having called Xi Jinping a “thug” in one Democratic presidential debate earlier this year and calling the country “an authoritarian dictatorship” in another, Biden now argues that China can no longer be reformed, rather believing that the United States must out-compete its Asian rival. Despite this, many Asian officials could dismiss Biden’s claims, as many believe the President-elect may be another “only talk, no action” leader similar to how they viewed Obama. We’ll have to see how it goes.
And don’t expect further talks with North Korea any time soon. Kim must now adjust to a man his propaganda services once condemned as a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death,” while there’s nothing short of Biden’s criticism on the North Korean leader. Biden has, however, endorsed a slower approach built from working-level meetings and said he would be willing to further tighten sanctions on North Korea until it takes concrete denuclearization steps. Meanwhile, North Korea prefers a summit-driven process similar to that in Singapore and Hanoi, which gives the country a better chance of getting instant concessions that would otherwise be rejected by lower-level diplomats. Under Biden, this disagreement on approach is here to stay.
In addition, one of the greatest hopes the tech world has for Biden is that he will reverse; or at least slow; the decoupling of American and Chinese supply chains. Since the Trump administration added Huawei to a trade blacklist last year, American suppliers to the Chinese tech giant have lost billions of dollars in revenue. This year, the administration’s broader crackdown on Chinese tech companies, including TikTok has threatened to damage the American technology sector even further, as Silicon Valley fears that worsening tensions could lead to retaliation from Beijing, creating more difficulties for their cross-border businesses. Biden will likely remain tough on China with trade, but his administration will possibly be more strategic in terms of laying out an approach to China that does not cause damage to American companies.
The South Asian giant is one of the few countries – including Israel, the Philippines, and Poland – where a majority of people surveyed expressed confidence in Trump. There can be several reasons for this. First, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to build a public rapport with 45, through high-profile joint events in Houston, Texas, and in Ahmedabad, Gurajat. Second, policies such as Trump’s Muslim travel ban may have found a sympathetic audience in India, which had grown increasingly intolerant towards Muslims under Modi. And third, Trump’s anti-China stance is considerably popular in India, which has had bitter skirmishes along its northern border with the PLA.
Many Indians may find Biden’s victory as threatening. However, not much may change under a Biden administration. For all the hype placed around Modi’s supposed chemistry with Trump, the media had said similar things about the Indian’s PM relationship with Obama during his presidency. Evidently, Modi has shown he can build relations with both Republican and Democratic leaders.
The broader trend remains that the US-Indian relationship has progressed – in terms of defense, intelligence-sharing, trade & intellectual exchange – over the last two decades regardless of a red or blue administration, making India one of the few foreign-policy issues with clear bipartisan agreement in Washington.
Historically, it hasn’t really mattered for Africa whether Democrats or Republicans are in the White House. US-Africa foreign policy has always been much less clear in comparison to the superpower’s position in other parts of the world, instead revolving around more general issues the continent struggles with such as promoting human rights and economic development. The US has also actively seek to counter Chinese and Russian influence on the continent, which has dramatically expanded over the last few years through aggressive investment initiatives into Africa from the two.
President Trump has never visited a county in sub-Saharan Africa since he assumed office in 2017, leaving many Africans to believe that the President had effectively ignored, if not insulted it. In addition, many African countries have greatly benefited from their participation in, and adherence to international institutions and multilateralism in the 21st century, that of which President Trump has actively seek to undermine. For example, the Trump administration has consistently withheld funding contributions from UN agencies, many of which have large programs in Africa. President Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement was also interpreted as an unfriendly, if not hostile act to many Africans, whose continent is most vulnerable to climate change and least resilient.
As no previous administration have developed a coherent African policy, Biden has an opportunity, and should work on developing a constructive foreign policy that strives for more cooperation with nations on the fastest-growing continent in the world. Should he take a clearer stance on Africa, Biden will most likely focus on promoting democratic principles and common values of freedom to a greater extent than his predecessor, and will also most likely react more against human rights abuses taking place on the continent. Africa is becoming an important partner for international trade and investment, if not a significant actor in global politics, so it might be time America starts treating it like one.
Similar to Africa, Trump had mostly ignored the region. As President, he has only visited it once, and that was because the rotating presidency of the G20 dictated that Argentina host its 2018 summit. When he does, however, it’s usually something to support his nationalistic, “America First” perspective. For example, in 2019, the President threatened to impose a 5% tariff on Mexico unless its authorities prevent immigrants from illegally crossing into the US. While this was suspended, it does give a relatively clear idea of Trump’s attitude on the region. He had been mainly concerned with attempting to stop the flow of refugees and migrants, which mostly come from Central America, to cross the US’ southern border. Such an approach has largely ignored the possibility of seeking ways to improve living conditions in the region so that people wouldn’t find it necessary to flee.
Biden, however, has deep experience in the region and has committed himself towards finding joint solutions on issues in the region as part of a more welcoming foreign policy towards Latin America. Unlike the Trump campaign website, which does not offer any policy proposals on the region, Biden laid out a detailed plan for Central America that is only made more credible by how it builds on previous programs enacted during his time as VP, and before that, as Senator. The President-elect promises to provide $4 billion to Central America to boost the rule of law, tackle corruption, promote poverty reduction, and stimulate private sector investment in the region. And after that, this might be the direction for what US foreign policy will look like in the rest of Latin America. It’s likely to be a win-win approach that’ll be much better than Trump’s zero-sum view of the world, but we’ll have to see how that plays out.
Sources | Foreign Policy, The New York Times, Financial Times, Voice of America, BBC, Atlantic Council, Euronews, Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post, Nikkei