Jack Clayton discusses Joe Biden's potential foreign policy policies and ideas.
“America is back. We're going to be back in the game. It's not America alone”. These were the words of President-elect Biden to world leaders, after four years of an America First foreign policy under Trump. Many of America’s traditional allies were frustrated by Trump’s disdain for global institutions, cooperation and a foreign policy approach that was not so much business-like, but dependent on how complimentary one was of the man. Trump’s presidency had severe consequences on issues such as climate change, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and autocratic regimes flouting international law.
In contrast, Biden is more knowledgeable about foreign policy, as a former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Even with his knowledge and experience, Biden’s immediate tasks to tackle the pandemic, which the outgoing President has handled badly, and to rebuild the economy are huge. Biden will likely try to balance prioritising domestic matters with being a reliable multilateralist international ally that shows leadership. Some have speculated that as a moderate, Biden may return to the previous status quo and normality. But Biden could begin a more ambitious reshaping of a distinctive foreign policy. One that implements burden-sharing to solve the current crisis and make it a long-term ethos that his predecessors could not achieve. It would not be easy, nor solve all global ills, but it could satisfy Americans and the international community if Biden spells out some long overdue foreign policy principles.
Biden will be a familiar face in the White House, and there could be more appetite amongst the international community for America to show more global leadership. This is in fact quite different to when Obama entered office, despite the widespread excitement to his election victory. Bush’s War on Terror campaign that resulted in two chaotic wars in Afghanistan, where U.S troops remain nineteen later, and Iraq, contributed to regional destabilisation. Consequently, Obama had to repair America’s damaged reputation with a distrustful international community that perhaps did not so readily look to America as a world leader as it had before. Trump and his nationalist politics as President after Obama did not improve this impression either. However, world leaders appear more enthusiastic for greater American involvement in world affairs under Biden. Unlike Obama, Biden is in a political atmosphere where global leaders are less hostile after Bush’s overactive militaristic foreign policy who are seeking cooperation and engagement, particularly during a pandemic.
This potentially opens up possibilities for more burden sharing that can benefit both America and the world. If done well, and a clear understanding of the roles within the international community materialises, a balance can be found. America would not have to fear being taken advantage of financially. Simultaneously, the rest of the world would not need to fear over relying on America or being forced to dance to their tune because it is one of the main superpowers. Moreover, a rebalance may be forced because countries will have work collectively to get through the pandemic with a coordinated and trusted strategy, especially to combat populists and disinformation.
Collectively solving Covid-19 could pave way to removing other barriers to cooperation. It could make America’s feud with NATO seem minimal. Trump brashly complained that members do not pay enough. However, Obama did too, albeit with the ambition to strengthen collective security and NATO, rather than through seeing it as a bad deal. If there is greater burden sharing, the international community could be empowered by having larger stakes in world affairs. Additionally, a more balanced international order does not have to represent U.S decline. It could be the start of America using its clout more responsibly by promoting human rights and democracy and peace as collaborative shared values, instead of self-interested foreign policy goals.
A united front on these issues is crucial when autocratic regimes such as China systematically persecute Uighur Muslims, and Russia threatens multilateral institutions and attacks its perceived enemies on foreign soil. This does not mean that there should be no engagement with traditional adversaries. Indeed, re-entering talks with Iran to prevent them obtaining nuclear weapons would be shrewd diplomacy, but any future deal cannot overlook their militarism in Iraq and Syria. Biden must hold strategic allies to account too, including Saudi Arabia after the journalist and critic of the regime Khashoggi was murdered with impunity. This would indicate a more principled foreign policy that would not put America back in the game, but ahead of it.
ack Clayton is the secretary of the Young Fabian International Network.
He tweets at @claytonj944.