Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday 20 January, putting an end to a chaotic four years of Donald Trump, which culminated in the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January. At home, Biden’s presidency will represent a break with the style and substance of Trumpism – it is difficult to imaging “Amtrak Joe” attempting to overturn the result of an election he lost. But for the world, the picture is murkier.
Biden will seek to repair relations with US allies spurned during the erratic isolationism of the Trump years, attempting to reassure them that the US remains committed to its traditional alliances. He will emphasise the US’s commitment to NATO and its desire to re-engage with international initiatives abandoned by the Trump administration, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change. Biden’s message, in short, will be that the Trump years were an aberration and that things are back to normal.
As much as the US’s allies will be hoping that Biden is right, in reality all of them have come to the realisation that the post-Trump era will be different, for two main reasons. The first is that Trump showed “America First” isolationism to be an election-winning proposition, winning in 2016 and gaining 46.9 per cent of the vote in 2020.
There is no guarantee that Trumpism will not continue to haunt the Republican Party for years to come. Isolationist Republicans could hobble Biden’s policymaking – more so if they retake one or both houses of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections, as has often happened historically – and one could well win the next presidential election, or the one after that.
A telling example of the reservations traditional US allies now harbour about the country came this weekend as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Angela Merkel’s historically Atlanticist party, held a conference to elect a new leader. Two of the three candidates on the ballot used the US as a cautionary tale, none mentioned Biden by name and the winner, Armin Laschet, accused Trump of “dripping poison into America’s soul”. (For more, read International Editor Jeremy Cliffe’s full write up of the vote.)
The second reason is that such allies expect Biden’s term to be focused on domestic healing. The US is a broken, divided country, as the Capitol riots demonstrated. Biden’s attention will be turned to the post-coronavirus economic recovery and fixing American democracy after the assaults of the past four years. The US’s alliances are important to him but some of the country’s traditional allies do not expect him to make them a priority, and with good reason.
In short, US allies no longer consider the US a fundamentally reliable ally, even without Trump. While diplomats are reassured personally by Biden, whom they know and trust from his decades as a senator and as Barack Obama’s vice-president, they also believe that their countries need to be better prepared for a future in which the US’s commitment to its traditional friends ranges from disengaged to openly hostile.