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Winds of Change: An End to US Isolationism Under Biden?

Markus Korhonen 17 March 2021
17 March 2021    Markus Korhonen

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President Joe Biden’s administration will yield a more predictable foreign policy approach than the erratic decisions made under former president Donald Trump. However, Trump has left a complicated legacy, and Biden will need to make amends with former US allies.

Following the election of Joe Biden as US president, the new administration will seek to reverse several of former president Donald Trump’s controversial foreign policy choices. Throughout his campaign, Biden championed an end to US isolationism that has characterised much of Trump’s tenure, and he will inevitably practice much of former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy moderation. However, with international allies wary of any more volatility in US foreign policy, Biden will need to focus on rebuilding relationships. And he will have to do this amid a domestic Covid-19 crisis, and a divided Congress that could seek to obstruct many of Biden’s efforts.

While Biden’s primary focus will be on the domestic front, particularly addressing the ongoing pandemic and related socio-economic concerns, he is nevertheless likely to engage far more outside US borders than former president Trump. Biden will spend much of his time trying to repair the damage to the US’s international profile, and will need to assure European and global allies that the US has returned to its traditional role as the institutional leader and consistent powerhouse of international relations.

These are his top three challenges in the coming year.

 

1 DIFFUSING TRADE TENSIONS WITH CHINA

One of Biden’s toughest foreign policy challenges will be the US-China relationship, that grew increasingly aggressive and competitive under Trump. Biden’s China policy is yet to be finalised, although it will be more predictable than Trump’s. On significant strategic issues, such as climate change and North Korea, he will most likely seek common ground with China, leveraging his considerable diplomatic experience to encourage greater bilateral cooperation on mutual interests. Similar to former president Obama, he will try to avoid major confrontations with China. However, during Biden’s presidential campaign he espoused increasingly tough rhetoric on issues relating to trade and human rights. Biden has indicated that the US needs to regain leverage to use in trade negotiations with China and has not pledged to roll back punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by President Trump.

Biden cannot appear to be too lenient. This is not only due to the genuine strategic competition between the US and China, but also because members of his own Democratic Party are growing increasingly wary of China’s expansionist efforts. A tougher stance also allows Biden to build bridges with congressional Republicans, especially on issues of bipartisan interest. As such, Biden’s approach to China not only requires him to diffuse the tensions Trump stoked with Middle Kingdom, but also presents him with the potential for bridging a divisive domestic debate in the US administration.

2 MENDING FENCES WITH EUROPE

After Biden’s electoral victory, EU officials were quick to congratulate the president-elect, hopeful for a respite from Trump’s often contentious and unpredictable policies. Under Biden – who has long advocated for a strong transatlantic partnership – the US’s EU policy will focus on restoring relations across several key areas which suffered under the Trump administration, including climate change, defence cooperation, and trade. Biden’s intention to mend fences is evidenced by his appointment of Antony Blinken, known for his pro-Europe stance, as Secretary of State. Blinken will be tasked with rallying the US’s more traditional allies such as France and Germany, while being more critical of the US’s authoritarian competitors. As such, while Trump pursued amicable relationships with autocratic leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Biden will seek to strengthen ties with democracies. This will signal the US’s return to a more traditional relationship with western states, and associated principles of multilateral cooperation, consensus and participation.

3 OPTING BACK INTO INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND CONTRACTS

As a longstanding proponent of US multilateralism and democratic principles, Biden’s foreign policy approach will prioritise re-joining the international treaties and organisations that Trump abandoned. Following Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, which saw the US disengage from issues such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation, Biden will now need to reaffirm the US’s commitment to such accords. In fact, when Biden takes office in January, he will have 16 days to preserve an arms control treaty limiting Russian and US nuclear arsenals. Biden has already stated his commitment to such treaties and has also indicated that he intends to strengthen the nuclear deal signed with Iran and other states – a major legacy of Obama’s administration. He will also opt back into the Paris Climate Agreement; Biden has already nominated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiator and former secretary of state under Obama, John Kerry, as his climate envoy, indicating that climate change will be a prominent focus of the new administration. Contrary to Trump’s lackadaisical approach to the Covid-19 pandemic both domestically and abroad, Biden will also look to work more closely with the World Health Organisation to coordinate a stronger response to the ongoing pandemic. Although Biden will be more conciliatory in his attitude towards US defence allies, and will continue shared security investment, budgetary commitments to collective defence spending will likely remain an issue between the US and Europe. Biden will – like Trump and most other US leaders – still push for NATO members to recommit to their responsibilities as NATO members which could add a barrier to mending US-EU ties.

 

S-RM is a global risk consultancy providing intelligence, resilience and response solutions to clients worldwide. To discuss this article or other industry developments, please reach out to one of our experts.

Markus Korhonen
Markus korhonen Senior Associate Email Markus

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