What to expect from US foreign policy under a Biden presidency

The return of multilateralism, an environmental policy about-face, a warming of relations with the EU… Leaders League explores the foreign policy shifts in store should Biden win.

Posted Wednesday, November 4th 2020
What to expect from US foreign policy under a Biden presidency

During his first electoral campaign and all throughout his presidency, Donald Trump did not mince his words when it came to the Paris climate agreement, calling it a ‘horrible’ deal that ‘hamstrings’ the United States. For the Trump administration, the way forward was clear, the US had to extricate itself from an agreement that secretary of state Mike Pompeo labelled an intolerable economic burden.

To this end, on November 4th 2019, the United States sent an official letter to UN giving notice of its intention to pull out of the agreement. And although a number of US cities and states were quick to stress that they would abide by the commitments the US made when they signed the agreement in 2015, Trumps decision gave fuel to climate sceptics the world over.

The election of Joe Biden should mark a turning point. At the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Biden pledged to take immediate action on day one of his Administration to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and is committed to implementing a timetable that would see the US becoming a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. But more than this he has pledged mobilize all of Americas foreign policy apparatus to persuade the rest of the world to follow suit. The return of the world’s biggest superpower to the frontline of the climate change fight has been spelt out in black and white.

The art of… diplomacy
During his time in office, Donald Trump cared little for diplomatic convention, whether you admire him for that or not. A salesman at heart, Trump takes a zero-sum approach to international relations, goes with his gut rather than by what his policy advisers suggest and resorts to slinging mud on Twitter when things don’t do his way. His obvious distain for the work needed to maintain cordial relations with other relations is evidenced by his outburst blasting ‘sh*thole countries’ and mistaking the Balkans for the Baltics.

"Within the Democratic party, Biden has a reputation for being more of a dove than a hawk, when it comes to foreign policy"

The contrast in approach with Joe Biden, a seasoned diplomat, could not be more stark. In 1975 Biden joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and travelled to hotspots such as Iran and the Soviet Union, and under Barack Obama, Biden was often the standard bearer for American foreign policy in diplomatic voyages from Paris to Pretoria. Middle class and college educated, the 77-year- old has a keen grasp of geopolitics and the ins and outs of international politics.

More dove than hawk?
When it comes to foreign policy objectives there is little real difference between democrats and republicans. Both oscillate between interventionist and isolationist stances. So it has gone with in the GOP this century, with George W. Bush engaging in military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Trump preferred to ‘bring the troops home’.   

Within the Democratic party, Biden has a reputation for being more of a dove than a hawk, when it comes to foreign policy. And this was the source of disagreement between the former vice president and Barack Obama. For instance, in her biography of Joe Biden, the journalist Sonia Dridi notes that Biden wanted to limit the US military’s engagement in Afghanistan, however when it came time to decide, the president instead listened to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and sent an additional 30,000 troops to the country.

According to Dridi, Biden, citing several sources, tried to dissuade Obama from giving his final go-ahead for the Navy Seal team raid that killed Osama bin Laden, judging it ‘too risky’. This version of events received further conformation in Hillary Clinton’s autobiography. Will America pursue a hawkish foreign policy under Biden or will caution be the order of the day? Much will depend on the composition of any future cabinet.

Trump’s foreign policy can be summed up as “I’ll take care of my country, the rest can take care of itself.” This message was received loud and clear by autocrats the world over, who rubbed their hands with glee at the novel prospect of America turning a blind eye. Perhaps no country has been more emboldened by the Trump administration’s attitude than Turkey. Incursions into Syria, antagonizing Greece, supporting Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia… Ankara has taken full advantage of Washington’s indifference to switch to a more aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

Will the mice still be able to play with a new man in the Oval Office? It’s impossible to say for the moment, but it seems likely that Biden will take a much less laissez faire approach to the actions of foreign powers.

Framed in the context of a business deal, it is unsurprising that Donald Trump prefers to take a unilateral approach to foreign policy. He has little time for collective decision-making bodies, such as the UN or the WHO, less for multilateral agreements, such as NAFTA. With Joe Biden as president, multilateralism should come in from the cold.    

For all their differences, Donald Trump and Barack Obama do have one thing in common: America’s foreign policy priority should be the Asia-Pacific zone. During his two terms in office, the democrat reinforced ties with Japan and India and sought to check China’s ambitions by beefing up US military presence in the region, now the heart of the world economy. Donald Trump too, was interested in putting the breaks on Chinese expansion, but economic expansion, rather than military, which he did by flexing America’s commercial muscle.

Where does this leave the countries of Europe? While a Biden government would surely seek to rebuild relations damages by Trump, who viewed the EU as a ‘commercial enemy’, Europe it seems, is destined to remain to be a secondary concern for Washington.