“THIS TOO SHALL PASS,” Joe Biden reassured an international audience of foreign-policy and defence types at the Munich Security Conference in February last year. “We will be back.” Sure enough, Mr Biden’s election as America’s 46th president heralds a decisive break with President Donald Trump’s transactional, America First posture that has so unnerved the country’s allies. The president-elect is a staunch internationalist, steeped in foreign affairs from his long years in the Senate (including stints as chair of its Foreign Relations Committee) and his eight years as vice-president under Barack Obama. He is a firm believer in the American-led world order put in place after 1945. The real question about Mr Biden’s foreign policy is not how it will differ from Mr Trump’s, but the extent to which it may also differ from Mr Obama’s.
The contrast with Trumpism will quickly become apparent in Mr Biden’s approach to leadership, allies and engagement with international institutions. Writing in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Mr Biden insisted that “America must lead again”, and that his foreign-policy agenda would “place the United States back at the head of the table”. Allies will have a central place in this. And he will reverse the Trump trend of pulling America out of international agreements and organisations.
On day one of his administration, for example, Mr Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change, which America formally left last week. A divided Congress may rule out ambitious carbon-cutting legislation at the federal level, but the tone at the top will be completely different, and supportive of state and local initiatives. Mr Biden has also said that in his first year he would convene a summit (pandemic permitting, presumably) of the world’s major carbon emitters, pressing them to reduce the production of greenhouse gases further and faster.
The pandemic itself is also a priority, as the president-elect made clear in his victory speech on Saturday. Mr Trump has attacked the World Health Organisation (WHO) and declared that America would leave it. Mr Biden will stick with the WHO and seek to lead global efforts to combat the coronavirus.
Nuclear arms control is likely to be another urgent item in Mr Biden’s in-tray. The New START treaty with Russia, the last remaining restraint on the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals (after the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty last year), is due to expire on February 5th. Unless, during his lame-duck period before he leaves office, Mr Trump reaches an agreement with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to extend it, Mr Biden will have just a couple of weeks to do so, as he would like to. The American and Russian presidents can prolong the treaty for up to five years without further legislative approval.
As for America’s allies, they need no longer fear that America’s president will threaten to leave NATO or treat the European Union as a “foe” on trade, as Mr Trump did. To be sure, Mr Biden will urge his European allies to share more of the burden of their own defence, if not in the bullying manner favoured by Mr Trump. He could even exploit the shock of the past four years to encourage the Europeans to beef up their own efforts in ways that might in the past have raised eyebrows about “duplication” with NATO. Mr Biden has made clear, though, that under his administration NATO will remain at the heart of his country’s national security. “The United States’ commitment is sacred, not transactional,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Mr Biden sees America’s wider network of allies as a vital means for shaping global rules and resisting the rise of authoritarianism. In his first year in office he plans to host a global “Summit for Democracy” to shore up the free world, the better to wage the battle of ideas with authoritarian states. Some of his senior advisers would like to see the club of like-minded countries formalising into a “League of Democracies”. Perhaps the G7 might be widened into a G10, with the inclusion of India, South Korea and Australia.
Closely connected to this is greater attention to human rights. The current president has displayed an admiration for authoritarian leaders. It is a safe bet that Mr Biden’s first foreign visit will not be to Saudi Arabia, as it was for Mr Trump.
Yet huddling together as democracies has more of a defensive feel to it than did American ambitions to enlarge the frontiers of democracy after the collapse of the Soviet empire. And the turn away from Trumpism is unlikely to mean simply a switch back to Obama-era foreign policy. For one thing, there is disagreement among Mr Biden’s many advisers over how far turning the clock back is even desirable: Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC, detects a polite divide between “restorationists” and “reformers” (who question some of the assumptions that underpinned the Obama worldview, such as the idea that commercial engagement with China would bring liberalising reforms). For another, in important ways the world has changed.
Take trade. The Obama administration came close to finalising a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) free-trade deal with Japan, Australia and nine other countries, partly as a way to set rules without China. But Mr Trump dumped the TPP (as Hillary Clinton also said she would, had she been elected last time round). Remarkably, the remaining countries went ahead with a trade deal without America, but would it be wise for Mr Biden to spend political capital trying to join it now? More likely he will seek to shape the rules with friendly countries in other ways.
Or take Iran. The president-elect has said he would like to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal from which Mr Trump withdrew. Yet for that to happen he will insist that Iran move back into strict compliance with the JCPOA. Persuading it to do so, without prematurely rewarding its regime with the lifting of sanctions, will be a big diplomatic challenge.
The greatest test, however, will be how Mr Biden handles relations with rival great powers: both the declining one, Russia, and the rising one, China. Mr Biden recently called Russia the biggest threat to America’s security and alliances. There is no talk, as there was under Mr Obama, of a “reset” with Russia. Angela Stent of Georgetown University expects a harder line on human rights and a tougher stance on Russian political interference (not surprisingly, compared with Mr Trump’s softness in those respects), but also a restoration of normal channels of high-level diplomatic dialogue, which have atrophied.
Mr Trump helped change thinking on China: the view that it is a formidable, long-term strategic competitor is now a bipartisan one. With China, too, Mr Biden sees allies as a vital force-multiplier in pushing back against its rising influence on global rules. He has no illusions about the nature of the Chinese regime or its leader, President Xi Jinping, whom he met many times as vice-president and whom he called “a thug” in one of the Democratic-primary debates. But he will also want to work with China in areas of mutual interest, in particular on big global threats such as pandemics, climate change and non-proliferation.
From his victory podium in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7th Mr Biden repeated a favourite mantra, that America should lead “not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example”. But he is also aware that picking up the foreign-policy pieces after Mr Trump’s demolition job will be an enormous task. Mr Trump’s big shadow and the country’s lingering divisions at home will not make the job any easier.