NATIONWIDE — When it comes to foreign policy and international relations, President-elect Joe Biden has promised to strengthen ties with the United States’ allies and stand up to authoritarian regimes around the world.
But rebuilding America’s global reputation won’t be easy. Under President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, the United States’ standing as the once-formidable leader on the geopolitical stage was shattered by broken alliances, withdrawals from international institutions and treaties, and an overall departure of U.S. leadership in trade and diplomacy.
“The long-term confidence in American leadership has been badly weakened, and Biden can't fully overcome that,” said Robert Hutchings, a professor at Princeton University and a professor emeritus at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “That said, the very fact that he was elected gets us halfway there.”
Many leaders from America’s traditionally close allies hoping to rekindle a relationship with a more predictable U.S. leader were quick to congratulate Biden. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had a contentious relationship with Trump throughout his four years, issued a statement that said she was looking forward to working with President-elect Biden. “Our trans-Atlantic friendship is irreplaceable if we want to master the great challenges of our time,” she said in a statement.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has publicly tangled with Trump in heated Twitter exchanges, reacted to the news of Biden’s victory by tweeting, “It’s time to get back to building bridges, not walls.”
Trump’s allies have remained silent so far. In Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Monday that the Kremlin would not congratulate an incoming U.S. president until the “legal challenges” to the November 3 election were settled.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist leader sometimes referred to as “the Trump of the Tropics” who openly backed Trump’s re-election, has also refrained from commenting on Biden’s win.
Supporters of Trump’s isolationist approach to foreign policy have pointed to several achievements in international relations in the last four years.
Trump initiated a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which was seen as a bipartisan win.
U.S. officials agreed with the Taliban to formulate a plan to reduce hostility in Afghanistan, where American troops have been fighting for 19 years. That plan has remained shaky, as hundreds of civilians have been killed in continued attacks in Afghanistan.
In October 2019, a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Trump helped broker a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which many analysts said would create an additional alliance against Iran, the focus of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
At home, Trump’s supporters heralded his immigration crackdowns and the reduction of refugee admissions to the U.S. even as human rights organizations accused the U.S. immigration services of abuse, including placing separated children in caged rooms at camps along the border.
“No doubt about it, Trump has demonstrated a willingness to extract the U.S. from international pacts—like the Iran Deal and the Paris Climate Accord—that he considered being ineffectual and contrary to our national interests,” wrote James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy and security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
“As for the charge that Trump will alienate or abandon our allies, the fact is that most of these relationships are in better shape now than when Trump came into office,” Caragano said in an article posted on the Heritage Foundation’s website.
While campaigning, Biden said one of his first steps would be to rejoin the Paris climate change agreement, which became official last week. He has also said he will try to rescind many of Trump’s executive orders on immigration. First and foremost, Biden could see rejoining multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization in order to coordinate an international effort to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Formulating the rest of U.S. foreign policy strategy will likely evolve more slowly, but Biden, who has served in both chambers of Congress as well as eight years as vice president, comes to the position “with a masterful command of the bureaucracy and the institutions of government,” Hutchings said.
“Not since Geroge H.W. Bush have we had an incoming president so knowledgeable about the agencies of government, and the workings of the congress than Biden,” said Hutchings, who has served as director for European affairs with the National Security Council, a special adviser to the secretary of state with the rank of ambassador, and chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
Biden’s first task in setting his foreign policy agenda should be to “restore the value of strategic intelligence, restore the value of diplomacy, and then tackle some of the many issues before him,” Hutchings said.
We spoke to experts to find out what a Biden presidency could look like when it comes to addressing America’s foreign policy with both adversaries and allies.
The fact that many European leaders came out early to congratulate Biden publicly shows their relief and hope that relations between Washington and the European capitals will now return to normal predictability, said Dominic Thomas, the chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
People around the world stayed up late watching the U.S. election on cable network news channels. Many observers saw what was on the ballot as a choice between “a closed [Make America Great Again] vision of the world versus a more open and diverse and multilateral world.”
Biden’s administration now must highlight the crucial importance of working multilaterally, Thomas said. “The global COVID pandemic absolutely underscores why working together internationally to find a solution to this common problem is so important,” he said.
Europeans, after four years of Trump, are still wary that “Trumpism” and other forms of populism and nationalism are not over yet, Thomas said. European nations have also seen the rise of nationalism, including Britain’s exit from the European Union and populist governments in eastern Europe. Germany has seen an increase in support for far-right politics.
“Trump attempted to weaken the European Union and in fact, put his full-fledged support behind the Brexiteers,” Thomas said. There are fears that even with Trump out of the White House, America could elect a similar leader in four years, and any cohesion reformed between Western democratic allies will again be broken.
“I think ultimately one of the things the administration is going to have to do in the appointment of the new secretary of state and in foreign affairs is to launch a serious diplomatic offensive” to restore faith in the American leadership, he said.
Biden said Russia posed the greatest threat to America in an interview with 60 Minutes last month.
Trump has claimed that no one has been tougher on Russia than he has, a claim that is muddled by his seemingly strong admiration for Putin’s authoritative style.
Still, the U.S. has continued to pressure Russia with sanctions for the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. A diplomatic tit-for-tat that began in 2016 under President Barack Obama continued under Trump in retribution for election meddling. Then came what the U.S. and other Western nations said was the Kremlin’s attempts to poison Putin’s foes abroad. Both sides have recalled diplomats, creating the tensest relationship between Moscow and Washington since the end of the Cold War.
But Trump has consistently shocked the intelligence community by insisting that he believed Putin when he promised him that the Kremlin did not try to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections. This came despite documented evidence that a cyber campaign designed to undermine the U.S. democratic process was conducted by Russian intelligence officers that year and continued into the 2020 election.
Biden has said that if he had been president as the national intelligence community was warning of Russian interference, he would have reacted swiftly and harshly.
“Biden has stated very clearly that he's not going to tolerate any foreign interference and that he's going to draw red lines on that,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow specializing in disinformation at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “I expect him to work with allies in order to enforce those red lines, so where we saw the Unites States putting sanctions on Russia or removing diplomats in response to Russia, were we to see related incidents or similar incident to what we saw in 2016, I think we can expect a bigger response from a Biden administration.”
Biden has frequently told the story of when he, as the vice president, met Putin in 2011 and claims to have told then-prime minister Putin, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”
Putin, according to Biden’s retelling of the event, looked back at him and said with a smile, “We understand one another.”
Expect under a Biden White House to see a resurgence of U.S. efforts to strengthen democracies worldwide, particularly in former communist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“Biden is very bullish on democracy and democracy support, and we know that Putin views that sort of democracy and support for it around the world as an equivalent of meddling,” Jankowicz said. “We can expect a Biden administration to support democracy activists is not only Putin's backyard but in Russia itself, and to stand up for equality in Russia.”
While there will be some efforts to work with Russia on issues of mutual concern, like terrorism, Jankowicz said she did not foresee U.S.-Russia relations improving under a Biden administration “unless there was a strong change of heart from the Russian leadership.”
The relationship with China is likely to be one of the most complicated in Biden’s term.
Biden inherits a large number of policies on China from the Trump administration, such as tariffs, sanctions, and the changed relationship with Hong Kong. In the past, Biden has agreed with many of the Trump White House’s assessment of China’s breaking of international trade rules, unfair subsidies for Chinese companies, discrimination against U.S. firms, and the theft of their intellectual property.
Biden harshly criticized China’s disregard for human rights early in the campaign, calling the treatment of Uyghurs in western China a genocide. China since 2017 has detained and forced more than 1 million of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority into re-education camps. Those who have not been detained have been subjected to surveillance and intimidation. The U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials and blacklisted Chinese agencies linked to the actions.
But Biden is unlikely to unilaterally change any of the Trump-era policies on day one in office, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C.
For example, on tariffs, “perhaps over some time through trade negotiations, if China were to take various steps to address U.S. concerns through an agreement, we could gradually agree to lift the tariffs,” she said. “Biden certainly didn't think imposing them was a good idea in the first place.”
Biden has described China as America’s biggest competitor. Democrats have concluded that China now imposes an enormous challenge to the U.S. and democracy writ large, Glaser said.
“A Biden administration will agree in large part with the assessment of the Trump administration on the threats and challenges China poses, but they are going to develop what they see as a more effective strategy to deal with them,” which will likely include more top-level strategic dialogue and interagency cooperation on policy toward China, Glaser said.
From China’s point of view, Biden is likely to be seen as tough but “someone who is sincere and someone, more importantly, who when he says he will do something he will do it,” Glaser said.
China’s leadership has pushed the idea at home that the U.S. is trying to suppress its global economic rise with unfounded criticisms of unfair trade practices, attempts to undermine democracies around the world, and human rights abuses.
That’s not likely to change, meaning the overall relationship with China is not likely to improve under any U.S. president, Glaser said. But there are areas where Biden could try to forge cooperation in, such as climate change, which the Biden campaign believed the Trump administration ignored at the U.S.’s own peril.
Joe Biden is a known entity in the region, and in that sense, there won’t be a need to start building personal relations with him, said Joyce Karam, a senior correspondent for The National, a leading English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates and an adjunct professor at George Washington University.
“Many of those leaders, sometimes their children, have known him personally having been – like many of them – in the political arena since the 1970s,” she said.
Biden’s approach is likely to be more traditional to the Middle East than Trump’s has been, and will have a focus on pursuing U.S. interest in security, the flow of oil, and counterterrorism efforts, Karam said. But Biden will put more emphasis on human rights in this region as he said he would on other regions around the world, such as China and Russia.
Under Biden, the U.S. could work with the Europeans to return to the Iran nuclear deal Trump pulled out of in 2018, saying that it did not sufficiently curb the country’s civilian nuclear program or its regional aggression. Trump then placed sanctions on Iran. But Tehran’s compliance will be key to any new deal with Iran, Karam said.
“A full return to that status quo is tumultuous because Iran is enriching more uranium and the Trump administration put sanctions in place that could block economic relief to Tehran,” Karam said.
On Israeli-Arab relations, he will likely continue pushing for normalization steps but will be less hawkish with the Palestinians and less supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
“Trump has gone farther than all previous U.S. presidents in favoring the policies of the Netanyahu government in Israel,” Karam said. Biden could try to move the needle back to the center without risking a confrontation with Netanyahu, “but at the very least he is likely to reengage with the Palestinian side after two years of no Palestinian-American talks.”
Other Middle East leaders are focused on hoping for American assistance in maintaining stability in the region. Some leaders worry that Biden will be too soft on Iran and will not counter its regional activities, while others fear a Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights and political freedoms, Karam said.
Biden has said he plans to try to undo many of Trump’s immigration policies, a move that will be closely watched by Mexico and other Latin American counties.
But so far, two of the region’s largest countries’ leaders have yet to call Biden, including Mexican President Lopez Obrador and Bolsonaro of Brazil, sometimes known as “the Trump of the Tropics.”
Obrador has had a friendly relationship with Trump, despite the White House’s threats to impose tough sanctions on Mexican products if Obrador did not crack down on Central American migrants crossing Mexico to reach the U.S. border.
He traveled to the U.S. to celebrate the renegotiation of NAFTA with Trump but did not meet with the Biden campaign, which was seen as a diplomatic snub.
Despite Obrador’s lack of communication with Biden so far, “Biden will be prudent and sensible enough to have a, relatively speaking, decent and cordial relationship with Mexico,” said Octavio Pescador, the co-founder of the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA.
“I don't think the Mexican government will change drastically its approach to Central American immigration,” Pescador said.
Trump insisted in his 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the border wall. In some sense, that has been true as Mexico has curtailed to Trump’s insistence that it crack down on immigration to Mexico from elsewhere in Latin America by taking national police out of areas with high violence and conflict areas and deploying them to the southern border, Pescador said.
“I would not think that the Mexican government will change that dramatically because it is in their best interest. In fact, historically Mexican immigration laws were a lot more restrictive than the U.S. laws, once you were in the country,” he said.