Joe Biden’s election win will be greeted with a sigh of relief by many U.S. allies, whose confidence in Washington was shaken over the four years of President Donald Trump’s combative “America First” approach to the world.
The Biden administration is expected to reverse course quickly on parts of Trump’s foreign policy agenda by rejoining the Paris climate change agreement, working more closely with other countries to combat Covid-19 and trying to breathe new life into the Iran nuclear accord. NATO allies like Germany and France won’t be berated so publicly, and leaders of adversaries like Russia and North Korea won’t be showered in praise.
Yet diplomats warn that Biden, constrained by probable continued Republican control of the Senate, can’t undo all that’s changed and won’t be able to sweep away concerns over the U.S.’s long-term reliability in foreign affairs.
“The world will go into whiplash now,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow on global governance and multilateralism at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief, but there’s no going back to the way things were in a sense that there will be some recognition that Trumpism is not dead.”
Although differences with Europe on crucial topics such as China and trade will remain, Biden and his team of national security officials will usher in a return to a more congenial way of operating than an administration under Trump that other leaders found erratic and sometimes offensive.
“Tonight, the whole world is watching America. And I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe,” Biden told a rally of jubilant supporters on Saturday night in Wilmington, Delaware. “We will lead not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
Ahead of the election, European officials had increasingly questioned whether the multilateral system, from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the World Trade Organization, could survive another four years of Trump. His zero-sum approach toward issues like trade and the environment made the relationship with Europe especially fraught.
“Dealing with him has just been extraordinarily unpleasant for these leaders, perhaps most notably for Germany’s Angela Merkel,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University. “No one has really enjoyed doing business with Trump himself. Whatever they might think of Biden’s style, it will be an immense improvement for them.”
Biden, who during his almost five decades in government served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, has vowed to restore American leadership of the international postwar order that Trump repeatedly undermined.
“Day one, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying, ‘We’re back,’” Biden said in an Arizona TV interview in July.
In particular, U.S. allies have expressed optimism that a Biden administration could mobilize support for an ambitious global climate agenda.
“A Biden presidency would not only significantly accelerate the U.S. decarbonization process, but also impact climate efforts of other countries,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a research fellow at Bruegel, a European think tank focused on economics.
Biden has proposed a $2 trillion climate plan that calls for an emissions-free electric grid in the U.S. in 15 years, although the likely continued Republican hold on the Senate may limit Biden’s climate agenda mostly to actions he can take through executive order.
More broadly, any effort to win Senate approval of a major treaty may be doomed, Walt said.
“There’s no chance a GOP Senate will ratify a treaty on any important issue -- not on trade, not on digital governance, not on arms control, and certainly not on climate,” he said. “He can do executive agreements, as Obama did, but other countries won’t make big sacrifices for pacts that might be overturned in 2024.”
As the coronavirus pandemic rages globally, Biden is likely to reverse Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization.
European officials, who have sought to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive despite Trump’s effort to dismantle the accord after quitting it in 2018, say they will work with the Biden administration to revive the agreement. Even so, they face roadblocks thrown up late in the Trump administration through an array of revived sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Among the complications: Countries close to the U.S. in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel, will push for a seat at the table on any Iran talks after being left out during the Obama-Biden administration, according to a diplomat from the region.
“I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Biden wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations. With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern.”
The biggest impact from a Biden presidency will be a reinvigoration of the notion that the U.S. can work with allies in a more predictable fashion. On everything from trade to climate to peace efforts, the Trump administration has frequently frozen out allies, who often find out about developments from the news.
Areas of conflict with other countries will persist, reflecting increasingly divergent U.S. interests in some key areas.
European partners will differ with the U.S. on everything from how tough to be on Russia and China to regulation of big technology companies to free trade and defense spending, several diplomats said.
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro emulated Trump and tied himself closer to the U.S. than any other Latin American president. He will struggle to sustain that under Biden, who has criticized expanding deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and leaders he considers authoritarian. Regional officials will also look for nuance in how Biden handles Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, as well as outreach to Mexico.
Mideast allies may look at Biden’s victory with some ambivalence. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel benefited from Trump’s penchant to look the other way on their domestic human rights issues. But Biden is unlikely to reverse the wave of normalization agreements between Israel and some Arab nations that Trump achieved in recent months.
A key question will be how Biden deals with China after ties grew increasingly acrimonious toward the end of Trump’s presidency. Both Biden and Trump vowed to be tough on Beijing, but Biden has pledged to work with allies to force China to “play by the rules.”
In Asia, “we are hearing some fears coming from Japan and India that under Biden the U.S. could return to a multilateral and institutional approach” that China could manipulate to its advantage, said Bruno Macaes, Portugal’s former Europe minister and a non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
And although Europe may be supportive of the U.S. stance on China economically it could be less aligned on Beijing’s growing military assertiveness in Asia, said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe.
“I’m not sure Europeans would be on same page as the U.S., for instance, if China escalated tensions against Taiwan,” Balfour said. “Europe is not as worried about China’s rise or its role in the South China Sea,” she added.
Despite the prospect for ongoing differences, “America’s allies will feel they’ve woken up from a nightmare,” said Harvard’s Walt. “But that doesn’t mean you can roll back the clock to 2015 and start over.”