Biden will face the usual menu of foreign policy challenges — from the near-peer competitor China to a nuclear-armed and unpredictable Kim Jong Un — but as he works to rebuild and rejoin alliances, his greatest hurdle could be convincing the rest of the world and even the US’ closest allies that once again, America really can be trusted.
Foreigners are eyeing the more than 70 million votes Trump received — tacit approval for the President’s four years of disruptive, sometimes damaging foreign policy that might be an indication of the direction the US is moving — and wondering whether Biden represents a return to “normal” or whether he will end up offering a brief reprieve.
“Thoughtful foreign counterparts realize it will be easy for Biden to reverse things that do not need to be ratified by Congress, and they expect those things, but the permanency of that is what worries people,” said a US diplomat based in Europe. “[Our allies] fear ping-ponging back and forth from one extreme to another, especially because of how many people voted for Trump.”
Another US diplomat overseas noted that in the short term, it will likely be “relatively easy to restore a positive movement and atmosphere in our alliances, key relationships … just by practicing normal good democracy,” but “longer term, people know the US could swing back to Trumpism, so they’re wary.”
The international welcome to Biden has been warm. As a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a two-term vice president, Biden and his preferences for strong alliances and global economic integration are well known quantities overseas.
Despite the warm words, however, Washington’s relationships with allies have been scarred in ways that might be hard to entirely heal.
And as Trump put his “America First” foreign policy to work, many leaders decided it was time to curtail their reliance on the US.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron told ambassadors that France and Europe could no longer rely on the US for security, a warning he repeated even more starkly in 2019.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warned in 2018 that the European Union could no longer depend on the US, while core Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, suddenly found themselves faced with demands for up to 400% higher payments for the presence of US troops.
Former career US diplomat Lewis Lukens told CNN that Biden “will need to immediately start rebuilding relationships and reestablishing trust in America. But that will be difficult as most allies and partners will be wary that ‘another Trump’ could be less than four years away.”
“I think many countries’ faith in the US as a reliable partner have been shaken by the damage Trump has done, not just to US democracy and institutions, but to multilateral institutions as well,” he said. “Trump still has two months in which he can inflict damage (even if temporary). And the reluctance to admit defeat and start a peaceful transfer of power is being noted with dismay by democratic allies and with barely concealed glee by countries like Russia, China, and Turkey.”
The US diplomat overseas stressed that it is a “huge challenge,” and that Biden must build an actual coalition among European and other like-minded nations to confront those issues.
US allies are looking forward to working with the incoming Biden team on China, some say.
“The Biden team will be much more astute as to how you rebuild a coalition that reminds China that one of the biggest assets that the US has is global support, a network of allies and friends that is unrivaled,” said a senior diplomat from the region. “The Biden team is fully aware that they are in a competition setting with China and that will be important, but that there are issues of mutual vulnerability like climate change that they need to address together.”
Biden has said that he won’t continue Trump’s overtures to Kim. This position could strain the US relationship with South Korea, where Trump’s openness to engagement with Kim was favored. Instead, Biden will work closely with allies and China in an attempt to rein in their nuclear program. Many US administrations have tried before, none have succeeded.
During a foreign policy speech last year, Biden said he would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran starts complying with the pact, a move that advisers say will require close work with allies and a near immediate start of new negotiations.
After the Trump administration left the pact and launched its maximum pressure campaign, Iran announced that it would no longer limit itself to the deal’s restrictions. Yet negotiating that re-entry is easier said than done.
“We will have to figure out how we are going to approach it and what we expect to see of Iran and how that gets communicated,” said a Biden foreign policy adviser, when asked about face-to-face meetings with Iran in order to get the US back into the JCPOA, and to push Iran back into compliance. “I don’t want to speculate.”
It will also require Tehran to play ball. While that’s seen as likely in the near term, a lot will depend on how much power Iranian hardliners gain in the country’s 2021 elections.
Given the complexity of the situation, it could leave allies frustrated if the US does not rejoin overnight.
“Some Europeans expect Biden will jump right back into the deal which is not exactly what he has said, and we are in a fundamentally different place,” said the US diplomat based in Europe.
“They may be disappointed.”
Biden has clearly stated that he wants to draw down the US military presence in Afghanistan but doing that carefully will be a challenge and Biden’s advisers have not offered details on how he intends to do it. That’s partially because it’s not clear exactly what sort of situation they’ll inherit, they say.
It is also unclear how, precisely, Biden will approach the US-Taliban direct talks that started under the Trump administration, which have been critiqued by some.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia
But even if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, most believe that Biden will be able to accomplish this goal, as it has GOP support as well.
“This is a fairly settled question,” Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, told CNN. “With regard to Saudis in Yemen, Biden can say Congress has weighed in on this and I am following through.”