JOE BIDEN’S FOREIGN policy plan focuses implicitly on undoing Donald Trump’s four-year tenure as the leader of the free world. The essay on his campaign page entitled “American leadership” includes such phrases as, “restore dignified leadership,” “renew our own democracy and alliances,” “repair the damage” and cites plans to “reverse,” “return” and “reaffirm” the U.S. government’s place in the world compared to how it exists today.
It’s no secret the president-elect plans to use the Obama administration as a starting point for many of his internationally oriented policies from Iran to North Korea, from China to Israel, including in choosing the staffers who will implement them. But many analysts fear that mindset is doomed to fail and blind to some of the promising opportunities Biden will inherit from Trump that the incoming administration is currently poised to waste. Biden could never snap back to the foreign policy of January 2017. And in some cases, he shouldn’t even try.
“There’s always this temptation” for incoming presidents to spurn their predecessors, Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Monday. He cited the derisive policy of George W. Bush upon winning the presidency of “ABC,” or “Anything But Clinton.”
“And those were supposed to be the happy times in American politics before things got so poisonous,” he added.
What to do with Iran will be among the top priorities for Biden, following pledges he will restore the 2015 nuclear deal that served as a signature achievement of the Obama administration and became a central target for Trump when he assumed power. The Trump White House unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and provoked widespread outrage from some of America’s most consequential allies in recent months for attempting to still use the deal’s terms to further punish Iran.
However, the deal as crafted five years ago allows for some provisions that limit Iran’s nuclear program to begin “sunsetting” by the end of this year, with more to expire in 2023 and 2025. Some have suggested that simply jumping back into the terms of the deal, as Biden has indicated he might, may not be as wise as exploiting the natural opportunity for renewed engagement to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Facing China, Biden will likely prioritize the relationships with allies that Trump used against them for leverage. But the former vice president who led many of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives also has an opportunity to build upon the Trump administration’s aggressive strategy against Beijing – a clear break from Obama, who, like past presidents, believed bringing China closer into cooperation with the Western world would inherently nudge it toward adopting democracy, free markets and civil freedoms.
“Instead of being reliant on unilateral pressure, we would expect a Biden administration to boost multilateral efforts against China while keeping some level of unilateral pressure, such as certain export controls on Huawei, in place,” says Matthew Bey, senior global analyst for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm and part of the RANE company.
Bey references the Chinese telecom giant that became a central target for the Trump administration’s containment policy on China. Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in remarks at the Reagan Institute in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday highlighted White House efforts to encourage allies to back away from using Huawei to build their 5G networks as one of the administration’s singular foreign policy achievements.
While there is a chance that the trade war can reduce in intensity – we expect some level of tariffs on China to remain in place initially – the underlying tech war that we have seen emerge is likely to remain in place,” Bey says.
Many experts believe the current state of China’s volatile neighbor North Korea will also tie Biden more closely to his immediate predecessor’s policies than perhaps he realizes.
Trump routinely cites his personal relationship with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, resulting in three high-profile summits that ultimately achieved little in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The meetings also wrought widespread criticism that Trump gave away a key point of leverage – the implied legitimacy afforded by a meeting with the president of the United States – with little to show for it.
“He’s very proud of it,” O’Hanlon said of Trump, “and Joe Biden said, ‘No, we really shouldn’t go that extreme in spending time with dictators.’ But it was Barack Obama who said that we should be willing to reach out our hand to anyone who would unclench their fist and who advocated interacting with so-called rogue states back when he was inaugurated 12 years ago.”
“And it was Barack Obama who conceded to President-elect Trump in 2016 when they met at the White House that Obama’s own North Korea policy had failed. In other words, to throw away Trump’s initiatives and just go back to what Obama did is not so compelling either and would seem to actually repudiate some of Obama’s own interests.”
A more pragmatic approach would be to resume negotiations with North Korea aimed at verifying it won’t produce any new strategic nuclear weapons – not eliminate its existing arsenal – in exchange for some limited sanctions relief on its crippled economy, O’Hanlon said. Exploiting personal diplomacy with Kim could finalize that kind of deal.
And reaching out to North Korea could prove the most urgent priority for the Biden administration amid the ongoing threat of its breaking the current hiatus on strategic weapons tests to coincide with Inauguration Day.
“This is a traditional pattern,” said Markus Garlauskas with the Atlantic Council. Such a test would signal a new intent for further weapons testing. Preventing that from happening is critical for the incoming administration.
Most profoundly for Biden, Trump has provided the world a clear lesson in the idea that partnering with the U.S. can’t be taken for granted, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for the Biden administration, says Jon Alterman, who as a young staffer for the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan worked with then-Sen. Biden on the Foreign Relations Committee.
“Partners will be more motivated to cooperate with the United States and be warier of testing U.S. patience,” says Alterman, now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “At the same time, though, no partner will feel able to avoid hedging against potential U.S. abandonment, and that will mean being more conciliatory to our adversaries, too.”
This reality will be particularly consequential for any continuation of other foreign policy achievements and goals of the Trump administration, including supporting ongoing talks between Israel and Lebanon over border disputes, the growing number of Arab countries that have officially established diplomatic ties with the Jewish state and the intractable problem of withdrawing from Afghanistan.
But it will play out most acutely in Asia, Alterman adds, where U.S. allies South Korea and Japan have bet everything on a close relationship with the U.S. for 75 years and now fear they could be left on their own against China’s regional ambitions.
“It also casts a shadow over Europe and the Middle East, where both Russia and China have their own strategies at work,” he says.