Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, defeating incumbent conservative populist Donald Trump, could mark the beginning of a dramatic shift in America’s attitude toward the world. But does that mean things are going back to normal?
The veteran Democratic politician, who will take office in January 2021, has promised to be a safe pair of hands for the world. He vows to be friendlier to America’s allies than Trump, tougher on autocrats, and better for the planet. However, the foreign policy landscape may be far more challenging than he remembers.
Much has changed since Biden was last in the White House as former President Obama’s Vice President. America’s enemies, some goaded by Trump, others enabled by him, are more entrenched. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and others exploited Trump’s vanity and mollycoddled his ego, while reaping their own gains — some are now effectively leaders for life.
Biden promises to be different, to reverse some of Trump’s more controversial policies including on climate change, and to work more closely with America’s allies. On China, he says he’ll continue Trump’s tough line on trade, theft of intellectual property and coercive trade practices by co-opting rather than bullying allies as Trump did. On Iran, he promises Tehran will have a way out of sanctions if it comes into compliance with the multinational nuclear deal he oversaw with Obama, but which Trump ditched. And with NATO, he is already trying to rebuild confidence by vowing to strike fear in the Kremlin.
These are easy crowd-pleasers for the veteran politician, who for many years chaired the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Steeped in traditions of US global leadership that champion democracy and human rights, he was an advocate for US interventions in the Balkans and Darfur, though without success; and pushed nuclear non-proliferation.
But executing on his foreign policy vision now won’t be simple. For four years, countries across Europe, the Middle East and beyond endured neck-snapping US foreign policy reversals. One day Trump was pulling US troops out of Syria to the consternation of allies with troops in harm’s way, only to soon reverse course. Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and countless Islamist fighters gained from the immediate confusion and longer term from America’s damaged reputation as a reliable ally.
Biden now risks running into a wall of needy friends all keen to right perceived wrongs. After American allies endured a scattershot US foreign policy strategy that undermined traditional alliances and threatened the world order, managing their expectations for a new presidency will be key.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will also be a new challenge for Biden. Erdogan is stoking conflicts in Syria, Libya and Armenia — and even spiking tensions with Greece and France — to distract from his failings at home. Trump’s desire to disengage from the region had signaled to Erdogan that America would not lead allies to constrain him; the Turkish leader has since damaged the NATO alliance by buying Russian weapons, and backing attacks on America’s Middle East and European allies’ interests in a way unlikely to have been tolerated by previous US administrations.
Trump isn’t the only one to blame for the power vacuum that made this possible — the outgoing president only accelerated the disengagement drift of the Obama-Biden era. For the next four years, Obama’s own isolationist legacy will haunt Biden’s relations with allies, too, particularly in the Mideast.
During his own tenure, Obama let fall America’s Middle East partners — President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt — during the 2011 “Arab Spring,” causing other Middle East allies to fear they too could be dumped by America. He took US troops out of Iraq and was drawing them down in Afghanistan long before Trump took office. His failure to punish Syrian dictator al-Assad for gassing his own people convinced even allies in Europe that the US was in retreat, and prompted several Gulf States to spend big on their own defense.
Trump’s toughness on Iran, in contrast, has reaffirmed to Gulf allies that he had their backs. But concerns that his missteps could trigger a war have encouraged allies to look elsewhere for support anyway, deepening ties with Moscow and Beijing. Biden will now have to convince allies that the US is a steady long-term partner, while juggling the long-term threat posed by China’s rise.
In this, Biden is already behind the eight ball. This year’s significant voter turnout for Trump showed that 2016 was no aberration: America remains deeply divided, and another future US President could potentially trash Biden’s agreements just as Trump wrecked Obama’s. Though voters have selected a traditional candidate for the White House, allies feel a chill and won’t be calmed easily.
By the time he takes office next year, the road toward greater isolation will already be well traveled. The new President will have to calibrate how far and how fast he needs to reverse to bring enough allies behind him to set the world on the path he desires.
For a sense of how difficult this will be, imagine his plan to contain Iran in a new multinational nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Trump junked. How will Biden convince the UK, Germany and France — which invested boundless energy into supporting the US to create the original deal — to join him in starting again? And that’s before he considers the complication of getting Russia and China on his side again, as he and Obama did in 2015. China, for one, is unlikely to go along with a new Iran deal until the US makes concessions in the South China Sea and over trade.
Foreign policy success won’t just be about winning the trust of friends and acquiescence of enemies again; it will be about building international confidence in America’s unity of purpose, a tall order for such a divided nation. Biden may well find that the world order can no longer be reset the way he wants.
After a few weeks in office, the road to White House may appear in retrospect to have been the easiest part of his journey as president.