If, as polls strongly suggest, the US presidential election on 3 November produces a victory for Joe Biden, many of the country’s international allies will breathe a huge sigh of relief. As president, Donald Trump has been unpredictable, unreliable and undiplomatic. His “America first” mantra has aligned him less with democratic partners than with strongmen autocrats, for whom he has displayed an alarming affinity.
Biden represents the very opposite. As a former head of the Senate foreign relations committee and an internationally focused vice-president under Barack Obama, his foreign policy instincts are familiar and reassuring. It is a contrast that Biden himself has been only too happy to draw. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners,” he said last year. In an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine he wrote of “rebuilding confidence in our leadership” and the need to “renew our core values”. His foreign-policy slogan is “Restoring American leadership”.
Renew, restore, rebuild… the Democratic candidate’s language seems riddled with expressions of fealty to pre-existing arrangements and norms, promising a break with the aberration of the Trump presidency and a return to the established ways of the past.
In some ways that would be the reality too. Under Biden, the US would rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organisation; it would once more stand up to authoritarians such as Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin; it would seek to mend old friendships with the world’s liberal democrats by convening a global summit on democracy in its first year. Gone would be the thuggish style: the shoving of other leaders out of the way at summits, the Twitter rants at longstanding allies, the ignorance and bullying.
And yet the world may also be struck by unexpected notes of continuity. Certain aspects of Trump’s foreign policy might well outlast his presidency.
Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institute has written of a group he dubs “2021 Democrats”, thinkers in Biden’s orbit who oppose Trump but are also not restorationist. They disapprove of his trade war, for example, but want foreign policy to serve domestic goals by “reforming trade deals to target tax havens, prevent currency manipulation, improve wages, and generate investment in the US” (Biden has called this “a foreign policy for the middle class”). They note that the Trump administration has got away with diplomatically provocative actions – providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, say – and argue that this should inspire a Biden presidency to a more confident use of the US’s leverage in the world.
More than that, some shifts written off as products of the president’s impulsive and antagonistic character and zero-sum world-view will in fact prove structural and long term. Most notable among them is the deterioration of US-China relations. Under Obama the rivalry between the two powers was already becoming more stark, and policies to contain Beijing’s military, economic and technological power were taking shape. Biden urges the US to “get tough” on China and has threatened economic sanctions over its aggressive actions in Hong Kong, towards Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
A corollary of that is the US’s pivot to the Pacific and its new focus on relations with other China-sceptic partners in the region (particularly within the so-called Quad of the US, India, Japan and Australia), which began under Obama, has continued under the Trump administration and would proceed further under Biden.
Another trait that was already in view before Trump became president was the US’s attempt to reduce its role in the Middle East. This bid marks the Democratic Party as much as it does the current administration. Wright notes: “Centrist Democrats now openly question whether the region is worth the high levels of military engagement the United States has maintained for decades.” Countries there are adjusting accordingly: “In a trend dating back to the Obama years, regional actors simply do not look to the US for direction as they once did,” assesses Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The expectation in a Biden White House, as in the Trump White House, would be that Europe should take more responsibility for the Middle East and other parts of its turbulent geopolitical neighbourhood, and indeed for its own security more widely. Trump hectors European leaders for free-riding on American security and contributions to Nato, but they can anticipate that Biden will issue the same message; more politely expressed, yes, but also – coming from an administration that cannot be dismissed as an aberration – harder to ignore.
That could come as a rude awakening for some Europeans, particularly in countries such as Germany that yearn for the comfort and ease of the old transatlantic relationship, and hope or even expect that Biden would resurrect it. The Democratic candidate himself is partly responsible, with his restorationist talk (“We’ll be back,” he told the mostly European crowd at the Munich Security Conference last year).
If he wins, that has to stop. It has been suggested that Biden should first go on a listening tour to heal the diplomatic damage of the Trump era. That is reasonable. But he should also make a big speech on what the world can expect from the US under his leadership, to head off misapprehensions and missteps by the nation’s allies and geopolitical rivals alike. Trump’s unpredictable theatrics have scrambled the world’s perception of the US. Biden’s first foreign-policy task will be to unscramble it.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic