America Rejoins the World?
America may well be divided about Donald Trump, but the rest of the world isn’t.
The soon-to-be-former president has gotten high marks in the Philippines and Israel, a passing grade in a couple African countries and India, and dismal reviews pretty much everywhere else. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are particularly relieved that Joe Biden will be taking the helm in January. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo summed up world sentiment with a pithy tweet: “Welcome back, America.”
The international community is happy that the American people have taken down the world’s biggest bully. The heads of international organizations – from the World Health Organization to Human Rights Watch – are delighted that soon Trump won’t be undermining their missions. Perhaps the 2020 presidential election will inspire people elsewhere to dethrone their lesser bullies – Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, even Vladimir Putin in Russia. Short of that, however, the removal of Trump from the international scene will restore a measure of decorum and predictability to global affairs.
With a slew of executive orders, Joe Biden is expected to press the reset button shortly after his January inauguration. The Washington Post reports:
He will rejoin the Paris climate accords, according to those close to his campaign and commitments he has made in recent months, and he will reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. He will repeal the ban on almost all travel from some Muslim-majority countries, and he will reinstate the program allowing “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country, according to people familiar with his plans.
Just as Donald Trump was determined to delete the Obama administration’s legacy, Joe Biden will try to rewind the tape to the moment just before Trump took office.
That’s all to the good. But the world that existed just before Trump began starting messing with it wasn’t so good: full of war, poverty, and rising carbon emissions. Will Biden to do more than just the minimum to push the United States into engaging more positively with the international community?
Dealing with Russia, China, and North Korea
The paradox of Trump’s foreign policy is that he often treated U.S. adversaries better than U.S. allies.
Trump was constantly berating and belittling the leaders of European and Asian countries that had come to expect at least a modicum of diplomacy from Washington. The abrasive president berated NATO allies for not spending enough on their own defense, and he was constantly trying to pressure Japan and South Korea to pony up more money to cover the costs of U.S. troops on their soil.
Trump loved to insult what should have been his friends: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “dishonest and weak,” British Prime Minister Theresa May was a “fool,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was “stupid.”
But Trump was positively glowing about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (“We fell in love”), Chinese leader Xi Jinping (“He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great”), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (“he might be bad, he might be good. But he’s a strong leader”). On the campaign trail in the fall, he reiterated: “One thing I have learnt, President Xi of China is 100 per cent, Putin of Russia, 100 per cent… Kim Jong-un of North Korea, 100 per cent. These people are sharp and they are smart.”
Biden can be expected to reestablish the more routine praise of democrats and condemnation of autocrats. But will the reset go beyond rhetoric?
During the campaign, for instance, Biden hit Trump hard on his China policy. The president, according to the Democratic candidate, wasn’t tough enough on China. Biden pledged to force China to “play by the international rules” when it comes to trade and security. In addition, “under my watch America is going to stand up for the dissidents and defenders of human rights in China,” he has said.
The U.S.-China relationship had begun its slide before Trump took office. The consensus, therefore, is that Biden’s election won’t reverse the trend. As Steven Lee Myers writes in The New York Times, “While many will welcome the expected change in tone from the strident, at times racist statements by Mr. Trump and other officials, few expect President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to quickly reverse the confrontational policies his predecessor has put in place.”
Remember, however, that China-bashing has become a time-honored element of U.S. presidential campaigns. Biden was not different. He saw an opening to criticize Trump and an opportunity to look tough on foreign policy, a perennial requirement for Democratic candidates. Once in office, however, presidents have generally adopted a more business-like approach to Beijing.
My guess is that Biden will largely abandon the tariffs that Trump applied on Chinese goods, because those were self-inflicted wounds that hurt American farmers and manufacturers. But he’ll continue to use sanctions against Chinese companies – on the grounds of intellectual property theft or security concerns – and against individuals associated with human rights abuses. Practically that would mean shifting tensions to more targeted issues and allowing the bulk of U.S.-China economic cooperation to proceed.
More focused cooperation might be possible on environmental issues as well. In 2011, China and the United States established the Clean Energy Research Center to combine efforts to develop technology that can wean both countries of their dependency on fossil fuels. The funding runs out this year. Trump would not have renewed the project. Biden can do so and should even expand it.
Of course, just talking would be a good start. The United States and China need to dial back tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the global economy. Biden will likely move quickly to lower the temperature so that he can focus on cleaning up some other foreign policy messes.
The same applies to Russia. Despite some rather conventional hawkish language about Russia, Biden is clearly interested in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. military policy. He is not only skeptical about the huge cost of modernizing the U.S. arsenal but has shown some support for a no-first-use pledge, which would put him to the left of Obama. These positions should facilitate arms control negotiations with Russia, beginning with an extension of New START, even if the two sides remain far apart on issues like Ukraine, human rights, and energy politics.
The prospects for a resumption of negotiations with North Korea are perhaps not as rosy. Biden will probably order a strategic review of relations with Pyongyang, which will conclude after several months with various recommendations for cautious engagement. Those proposals, not terribly different from the ones that the Obama administration embraced in 2008, will not entice North Korea to give up its nuclear program. There might be negotiations, but they won’t be any more successful than the Trump administration’s efforts.
The end result: the same “strategic patience” approach of the Obama years. But perhaps a more flexible Biden administration will allow South Korea to move forward with its own slow-motion engagement with the North.
The Greater Middle East
Trump tilted U.S. policy toward the Israeli hard line. He was a great deal more accommodating of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, particularly around Yemen and human rights. And he substantially escalated tensions with Iran.
Biden’s first and perhaps least controversial step will involve the nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran. Biden has indicated that he favors rejoining the pact, and Iran would welcome such a move. To begin with, he’ll likely negotiate the removal of Trump-era sanctions in exchange for Iran reversing some of the nuclear moves it has made over the last three years.
“One option for a Biden administration to jumpstart the process would be to revoke National Security Policy Memorandum 11, which formally ended U.S. participation in the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, on day one of his administration,” the National Iranian American Council recommends. “Sanctions-lifting could be accomplished by the same mix of statutory waivers, Executive order revocations, and U.S. sanctions list removals as performed by President Obama when implementing the initial U.S. commitments under the nuclear accord.”
It can’t come too soon. Iran will hold its presidential election by June 2021, and the reformists need to demonstrate that their strategy of engagement with the United States is still effective. The reform camp did poorly in last spring’s parliament elections.
Another important first move would be for Biden to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The cancellation of all military assistance, from intelligence-sharing to spare parts for planes, would seriously compromise the war effort, and it’s a move that even some Senate Republicans support. “He should publicly and privately tell the Saudis that he will do this on day one,” Erik Sperling of Just Foreign Policy told In These Times. “This will pressure them into negotiations and may end the war before he even enters the White House.”
The Saudis, not thrilled at Biden’s victory, have been slow in sending their congratulations. In addition to his stance against the Yemen war, the next president will take a harder line on Saudi human rights violations, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
On the other hand, Biden might find a bit more common ground with Saudi Arabia in piecing together a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Donald Trump put a heavy thumb on the scale to favor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Biden will seek to correct the balance. Writes Yossi Melman in the Middle East Eye:
It is very likely that once Biden enters the Oval Office, his foreign and national security team will renew contacts with the Palestinian Authority, reinstate the Palestinian embassy in Washington and re-open the US Treasury’s pipes to allow the smooth flow of financial aid to the Palestinians, which were blocked and closed by the outgoing administration.
From sources close to the Biden campaign, Middle East Eye also learned that the CIA will once again cooperate with its Palestinian counterparts and engage in mutual security collaboration to tackle terror threats. But at the same time, PA President Mahmoud Abbas will be asked to tone down anti-Israeli rhetoric and to resume talks with Israel.
Biden favors a two-state solution, but it’s not clear whether this option still exists after Trump and Netanyahu teamed up to undermine the Palestinian negotiating position.
Climate Crisis and Security
Unlike the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – or major political parties in Europe and other countries – Joe Biden has not fully embraced a Green New Deal. Instead he has put forward his “clean energy revolution,” which envisions a carbon-neutral United States by 2050 and would invest around $1.7 trillion into job creation in clean energy and infrastructure.
Biden’s positions on the climate crisis are in marked contrast to Trump’s denialism. According to the president-elect’s website, Biden
will not only recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change – he will go much further than that. He will lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets. He will make sure those commitments are transparent and enforceable, and stop countries from cheating by using America’s economic leverage and power of example. He will fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade.
This plan, if implemented, “would reduce US emissions in the next 30 years by about 75 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalents,” reports The Guardian. “Calculations by the Climate Action Tracker show that this reduction would be enough to avoid a temperature rise of about 0.1C by 2100.”
Achieving the goals of the Paris agreement is certainly a major improvement over Trump. But those goals themselves are insufficient. The pledges at Paris would still result in an increase of more than 3 degrees Celsius, well above the 2-degree target. Moreover, those pledges were voluntary, and many countries are not even meeting those modest goals.
Of course, Biden will face considerable resistance from the Republican Party for even his modified Green New Deal. That’s why he has to focus on the jobs and infrastructure components to force the Republicans to appear “anti-job” if they stand in the way of the “clean energy revolution.”
To pay for his Green transition, Biden plans to rescind the tax cuts for the wealthy and leverage private-sector funds. He hasn’t discussed reallocating funds from a sharply reduced military budget. Indeed, Biden hasn’t talked about reducing military spending at all, though he favors reducing American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Joe Biden is rather unexceptional when it comes to his views on American exceptionalism. The Foreign Affairs article that outlined his foreign policy approach was titled “Why American Must Lead Again,” after all.
Granted, Biden was focusing more on the “soft power” side of American leadership: leading on climate change, human rights and democracy, nuclear non-proliferation. His tone in the Foreign Affairs article is a welcome antidote to Trump’s bombast: “American leadership is not infallible; we have made missteps and mistakes. Too often, we have relied solely on the might of our military instead of drawing on our full array of strengths.” He emphasizes diplomacy, international cooperation, openness.
But Biden will be the president of the United States of America, not the Democratic Socialists of America. He believes that the United States has a right to intervene militarily overseas if necessary. He views the United States as a honest broker to mediate in parts of the world – the Middle East, East Asia – where the United States is hardly neutral. He will, like Obama, sell weapons, and lots of them, to almost any country with the cash to buy them (and even some that don’t).
And if that weren’t enough, he’ll have a still-strong “America First” constituency in Congress scrutinizing his every move, eager to label him a “traitor.”
The international community, although welcoming the new president, will understandably remain wary of the United States. Dr. Jekyll will be back in charge in the White House, but who’s to say that Mr. Hyde won’t return in four years, or even make some guest appearances before the next election?
It simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to entrust leadership to a country with a severe personality disorder.
John Feffer is director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.
He is the author of several books and numerous articles. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He is a former associate editor of World Policy Journal. He has worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.