by Owen Saunders
After a long election cycle, the US Presidential Election is almost concluded. In January, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. Whilst Democrats managed to retain control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party looks likely to hold their Senate majority. The Senate has an important role to play in the ratification of treaties negotiated by the President and, thus, the successful execution of his foreign policy. Just as Trump’s foreign policy offered a break with the Obama-era, the question is now what change will Biden bring: a return to the goals of his former running mate, or a new unique path? As of 20 January 2021, a new foreign policy dynamic will be in place. The legacy of Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, however, may limit Biden’s ability to restore US leadership globally.
On environmental issues, Donald Trump had repeatedly criticised the Obama administration’s engagement in the 2015 Paris Agreement, arguing that the accord would unduly impact rustbelt states and American sovereignty. Consequently, last year Trump announced the formal withdrawal of the United States, a decision coming into effect the day after the election. Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the accord and can do so without Senate ratification. The problem sits with the Senate, who again must approve many of the measures required to meet the goals of the accord. Former President Bill Clinton experienced similar resistance in regard to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
In the course of his presidency, Trump has also repeatedly turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, most recently in the case of China’s Uighur Muslim minority. He has refused to condemn or sanction China over the issue because it would threaten ongoing trade negotiations. The Biden campaign, in comparison, repeatedly called the treatment of the Uighur population ‘genocide’. Similarly, China has imposed national security legislation in Hong Kong, restricting freedoms and denying Hong Kongers of their sovereignty. In reaction, Trump signed an Executive Order in July of 2020 calling for “Hong Kong Normalization.” Biden, like Obama, can be expected to outwardly condemn these actions.
Bilateral and multilateral trade arrangements have been heavily criticised by Trump as damaging for American economic interests. One of Trump’s first foreign policy decisions was to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership negotiated by Obama (TPP). Biden will presumably attempt to resuscitate the pact, though he will need Congressional approval and Senate ratification. Further, Trump successfully re-negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which he had repeatedly lamented for undermining the US auto-manufacturing industries. The new agreement, the Canada United States Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), was mainly a cosmetic change, however, it does enforce greater percentages of steel and aluminum produced in the US to be integrated in automobiles. Changes to CUSMA are unlikely under a Biden administration. Early on, Trump imposed trade tariffs on Chinese goods to force a better trade deal, but these initiatives largely failed to address trade disputes. Preliminary agreements to reduce tariffs had been reached by early 2020 but then the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Biden has argued that the tariffs have only hurt US businesses and consumers and will likely pursue less confrontational methods of negotiation.
Regarding bilateral relations, Trump is boastful of his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though the minutes of their five meetings are unrecorded. Russia has proven to be a central threat in the spread of misinformation across the United States and Trump has often been reluctant to criticize them. Given Russia’s role in the 2016 election and Biden’s criticism throughout the campaign of Trump’s “unknown diplomacy” with Russia, Biden will likely take a tough stance against Putin, including on the occupation of the Crimea. Similarly, despite Biden’s criticisms of Trump’s legitimising of North Korea,’ his administration would continue negotiations with North Korea on nuclear issues. Finally, the Anglo-American Special Relationship may be impacted by Biden’s election. While Trump remains an advocate for Brexit and a quick trade deal with the UK, Biden opposed Brexit and his administration will only approve a new deal if Brexit does not threaten the Good Friday Agreement.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticised Western security alliances and agreements. As a result, the Trump administration abandoned the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and imposed new economic sanctions on Iran. Under a Biden presidency, removing those sanctions is a real possibility that could open re-engagement with Iran and lower bilateral tensions. A Senate approval of two-thirds vote is required for a new agreement or re-entry into the old one, which may prove difficult to achieve. Trump has also not been shy to criticize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), mainly as European members fail to meet obligations to spend 2% of GDP on defense. The Biden administration will undoubtedly re-engage with and vigorously support the organization, as he championed the Obama administration’s commitments to the security alliance.
Regarding public health, Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the COVID-19 virus. In September 2020, announcing that the US would withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), blaming the multilateral institution for the failure to recognize and react to the virus adequately. Under Biden, Trump’s commitment to withdraw from the WHO would not be honored.
President-elect Biden has a great deal of work to do in repairing damaged bilateral and multilateral organisations and relationships around the world. Although not every foreign policy decision made under the Trump administration is noted here, the evidence of an ‘America First’ policy is strong. Nonetheless, Trump himself is not the problem, he is a symbol of sentiments within the United States that are anti-trade, anti-immigration and pro-isolationism. Although Biden’s foreign policy will likely be a continuation of the Obama administration, which itself was not perfect, Biden is likely to be limited in his efforts to return American foreign policy towards multilateralism and globalization.
Despite the popularity of ‘America First’ casting a long shadow, Biden will continue seeking re-engagement with the world, despite the domestic political difficulties at home. President Biden can do so by focusing on re-entering environmental agreements and security deals, upholding human rights, and restoring the reputation of the United States as a leader of the liberal international order. Through bi-partisan negotiation, the undoing of President Trump’s executive orders, and the implementation of new executive orders himself; any successes will depend to a great extent on working with other states in regaining more effective US diplomacy and leadership in the world.
Owen is pursuing his MA in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His interest in researching this topic developed from a US Foreign Policy graduate course thought by Dr. David G. Haglund, Department of Political Studies, at Queen’s University in Canada. Find him on Twitter @owensaunders26