Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 14, 2020
Images of spontaneous expressions of joy in ousting Donald Trump for Joe Biden came from around the world last week, and along with them, new expectations for a reentry of the United States into global issues.
Four years of Trump’s America First slogans, of a program of isolation that made allies into adversaries and that adulated despots are going to give way quickly to something more recognizable as American foreign policy, if Biden can bring it off.
The response showed that the world expects and needs a stable United States for its own health, security, trade and approach to international problems — something most countries have found lacking under Trump.
Indeed, Trump since Election Day, Trump seems missing in action — except for making punitive fires of perceived opponents. Since Trump was skeptical about intelligence reports, maybe he figures Biden doesn’t need them either — or he’s just being obstinate.
But the world power balance has shifted in a single Trump term, with increased climate concerns, aggressive and nationalistic trade and military strategies, with yet more pressure on what to do about refugees forced from home countries. The “populist” or nationalist political causes rising here were also growing in Europe, in the United Kingdom, through the Middle East and Asia.
Biden is going to have a plateful of issues to get nuclear expansion in Iran and North Korea back under control, to persuade Israel’s right-wing parties that also caring about Palestinians is not against their interest and to rebut aggressiveness by Russia and China.
For Trump, trade was a weapon, not a sign of prosperity, yet, by almost every measure, things worsened on his watch. Trump’s episodic approach to military efforts has left more questions than answers in many places. And the failure to help lead global efforts on pandemic, refugee issues and climate have left us in a weaker position.
So, it was with little surprise that plaudits poured in from world leaders as soon as the election was called for Biden, a known quantity to them over years, as well as delayed congratulations from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s conservative president, Chinese leaders and silence from the Russian, North Korean, Mexican and Brazilian leadership.
Foreign policies were not the deciding issues of this election, but clearly Biden will be spending a good deal of attention to address what he sees has been lost in the Trump years.
The United States will address the world as “a” leader rather than “the” leader, argues Timothy Garton Ash, columnist for the Guardian.
“Even if Biden had won a landslide victory and the Democrats controlled the Senate, the United States’ power in the world would be much diminished. President Donald Trump has done untold damage to its international reputation. His disastrous record on handling Covid confirmed a widespread sense of a society with deep structural problems.”
We can expect that Biden will revisit Trump plans for full withdrawal from Afghanistan and cutbacks of U.S. military bases in Europe.
A recent survey of European officials, for example, found that the U.S. is seen as “ineffective” on a variety of international issues — “an all-time low for American soft power,” as Ash called it. Strategic distraction has allowed China to rise, Russia and Turkey to advance territorial claims, Iran to restart nuclear development — though it’s unclear whether Iran was fully complying with international limits before Trump broke off from a 2015 agreement.
Biden is regarded as having good international experience as a supporter of traditional alliances, and someone who can assemble and trust a team — skills that seem foreign for Trump.
European leaders agree that the priorities are the “3 Cs”: Covid, climate change and China. Among Biden’s first acts are creating a Covid team and intention to rejoin the World Health Organization. Biden is a supporter of United Nations efforts in the Middle East and for NATO, both of which Trump has loathed.
Biden promises to stand firm with China and Russia, and to renew efforts to stop North Korean nuclear development. In general, Biden advocates coalitions, a distinct difference from Trump, and the basis of approach to issues from terrorism to environment and health. Biden has discussed supporting a network of democracies with more flexibility than in the past.
A More Balanced Approach
Biden stands for an approach more committed to balancing international and strictly U.S. interests than did Trump.
His selection of a Secretary of State and national security team should be an early signal as to whether the emphasis will be on restoring U.S. standing in the world or seeking to dominate trade partners to bring multinational companies back to American shores.
Other world leaders, including in China, must understand this, because they are trying for the same balance. In a world in which no one country produces all the parts for an automobile or a mobile phone, there is need for increased internationalism. The question, as always, is how to enable that while promoting domestic jobs.
Right now, for example, Europe has just decided to levy tariffs on a range of U.S. products — as tit-for-tat retaliation for American actions, including subsidies to support Boeing production of aircraft. Trump has pushed for tariffs to counter sale of European-made cars, among other products. It’s a tangle that a paralyzed U.S. government shows no sign of repairing before Biden takes over.
Biden’s main strength seems to be a commitment to stability, where Trump’s main tool was unpredictability. Clearly the world is telling us it prefers a Biden, regardless of the specific programs that he will support.
Those big problems cannot be solved by the United States alone: Trump’s isolationist lean has proved that in only this one term. And even if isolation had proved effective, it comes at a price for American farmers and businesses.
Biden’s desire to take early actions in rolling back many Trump decisions shows that he is serious about foreign policy and eager to restore what he sees as better balance.