Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner / Nov 2020
On 20 January 2021, on the balcony of the US Capitol building in Washington D.C., the President of the United States will be sworn in. The contrast between the incumbent and the President-elect in foreign policy approaches could not be more stark.
President Trump has arguably pursued an aggressive, isolationist, ‘America-First’ foreign policy. The strategy has been largely transactional relationship, seeing him distance the US from both key multilateral international organisations including NATO and the UN, as well as key allies including the EU and Germany, seemingly more comfortable in the company of authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey and leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Il Jong. Eliot Cohen suggests that a Trump victory would “mark a sea change for the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world” based on continued disengagement from international commitments and allies. Trump’s particular brand of ‘America First’ could in his view presage “a world of radical self-help, in which any and all tools of power would be legitimated by that most powerful of reasons – necessity”.
In the case of President-elect, Joe Biden, there is much to ponder. Will he seek a hard reversal to all of Trump’s foreign policy objectives? Will his self-styled ‘Obama-Biden Democrat’ label reclaim both the form of global leadership and the content of renewed moral purpose? Hopes are high in many countries, and the EU as a whole that Biden will kickstart a giant global shopping list, from renewed commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based order to specific assurances to the UN, NATO, and key agreements (e.g. the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iranian Nuclear Accord). Equally, much of Trump’s volatile approach to free trade, as well as bilateral relations with China, Iran and Turkey could remain key parts of Biden’s own approach.
An International Renaissance?
One of the chief criticisms of Trump’s term was his unflinchingly sharp rhetoric towards global and regional institutions, including the UN, WTO, EU and especially NATO. All were viewed as various traps designed to diminish US influence, somehow responsible for enabling a series of ‘poor deals’ for the US. From berating NATO over its budget to tariff wars with the EU, from castigating the UN and hobbling the WTO to threatening withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is a plentiful group of international organisations with which Biden will need to reengage, in order to redress both Trump’s personal antipathy for IGOs in general, and anxieties about continued or increased abdication of key responsibilities by the very state responsible for constructing the majority of these institutions.
However, we should not assume that Biden will transform US attitudes to key IGOs overnight. Both the WTO’s ability to effectively set trade regulations and impose sanctions for breaches, and the WHO’s obligation to improve global health security in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic remain in the firing line in terms of US demands for wholesale change, or major reform. While Biden is keen to repair America’s reputation globally, he may likely spot opportunities to insist on the renegotiations of key terms, which could extend as far as NATO’s budget, and even the price for re-engaging with the Paris Climate Agreement.
Equally however, Biden understands the global risks of defunding American diplomacy. In his own words, Biden is determined to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy”, defining it as the “building and tending [of] relationships and working to identify areas of common interest while managing points of conflict”. Some of his suggestions to “place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners” are likely to go down well. The EU in particular will be supportive of Biden’s intention to host a global Summit for Democracy, as well as his goal of fighting corruption, pushing back against authoritarianism and advancing human rights. Other goals however, including a “foreign policy for the middle class” based on restoring the US’ lead in the global economy, itself largely predicated on continuing to talk tough on tariffs with China and possibly the EU, may have fewer fans. His suggestion that “economic security is national security” could arguably presage either continued tariff spats or worse, economic protectionism that ultimately erodes rather than strengthens sources of American influence abroad, predicated in his words on ensuring that. “the rules of the international economy are not rigged against the United States.” To some, this may sound disturbingly Trump-like.
US trade relations with both the EU and China have reached a series of new lows during Trump’s term. Trump’s “obsession with bilateral trade deficits” and preoccupation with American trade victimhood by the EU, China and WTO have produced impulsive tariffs levied EU steel and aluminium exports, with tit-for-tat tariffs dominating transatlantic trade. Biden and the EU alike are keen for a fresh start, ending “chronic economic uncertainty” over tariffs, including the removal of tariffs on imports of European cars, and even a compromise on the long-running subsidy-spat between US aviation giant Boeing and its European counterpart, Airbus. However, trade policy may necessarily come with a variety of ‘buy American’ strings attached for Biden, not least because this tagline has become a key electoral platform. Biden will have to repatriate key supply chains both to fund the domestic carnage wrought by Covid-19, and work to rebuild a critical mass of American jobs in key states. Nor is he necessarily an advocate of free trade.
While Biden advocates “taking down trade barriers that penalize Americans and resisting dangerous global slide towards protectionism”, his approach is fair trade, rather than free trade, as part of his “foreign policy for the middle class”. This suggests that comprehensive trade deals are unlikely to be a feature of Biden’s renewed transatlanticism. Tariff settlements are one thing, but the architecture needed to establish agreements everything from industrial goods to food standards is demanding. Even if Biden is keen, Congress is unlikely to be. Where Biden is likely to have more luck with European partners is a renewed commitment to supporting NATO, re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement, and working in parallel if not necessarily in partnership with the EU on issues including a new Border Carbon Adjustment (BCA) mechanism, as well as attempting some form of trialogue with the EU and China.
(Art of the) Deal-based Diplomacy
As a self-styled ‘businessman President’, Trump has made much of his ability to strike deals in explicitly transactional modes, requiring him to eschew both the rules based international order on the one side, and a variety of key norms and values on the other. The infamous ‘angry Trump’ image from the 2017 G7 summit, of a seemingly implacable President with his back to a beseeching Angela Merkel and other world leaders went down well among domestic supporters. Globally however, it set a precedent for Trump’s behaviour, characterised in Cohen’s words by “bombast, insult, and fight picking with allies” and “lavish compliments paid to friendly or flattering dictators.” Trump’s transactionalist foreign policy apex (or nadir) saw him refuse not only to condemn Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) over the controversial state killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but to refer instead to lucrative US arms contracts with Saudi Arabi.
A clear reset of diplomatic norms is expected. Biden’s sharpest rebukes to Trump during the campaign concerned the rejection of core allies, and of “belittling, undermining, and in some cases abandoning” partners. Overall, a recent survey of US-based International Relations scholars indicated that 92.2% felt that foreign governments would be more willing to cooperate with a Biden administration, against just 1.8% who thought the same of a Trump administration. However in defining the nature of that cooperation, Biden may prove less predictable than expected, having already stated that America will not necessarily return to a ‘values-based’ approach, but instead pursue a ‘power-based’ foreign policy. Pre-election, this may be deliberately muscular rhetoric, designed to reassure Democrats and convert disaffected Republicans. Post-election however, such a strategy would require maintaining a hard line against a number of perceived problem states including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Biden can be expected to take a tough line on human rights violations with these states, while also cultivating cooperation (particularly with China) on issues where, is in his words, “our interests converge, such a climate change, non-proliferation, and global health security.” Continued US troop draw-downs from Afghanistan and the Middle East are possible, though Biden will find the realities of defeating al Qaeda and ISIS simply as ‘narrowly defined’ goals more challenging than tackling counter-terrorism in the US itself.
Special Relationship: RIP?
A Biden win will mean the hurried construction of diplomatic bridges by the UK. Trump was not only a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Johnson, but an enthusiast for both Brexit and pro-Brexit parties. Johnson has routine returned the favour, remaining largely supportive of Trump and his policies, as well as failing to maintain connections with key Democrats. It is unlikely that the UK will assume the role of premier US all, leaving “British diplomats scrambling to get to know Team Biden.” However, a series of personal tensions and political antipathies are likely to undermine early attempts at jump-starting the Special Relationship. From a personal perspective, Johnson’s missteps, including the personal “rudeness shown by Boris Johnson towards Obama and Hillary Clinton” will not endear him to the Biden camp, nor the generally positive attitude of the UK government to much of Trump’s foreign policy. The core problem however is Brexit. Trump and Johnson shared a clear sense of the rightness of this policy, underscored by deep-seated aversion to the EU, while Biden has from the outset opposed the policy and “deeply regrets the U.K.’s exit from the EU”. Talk of 2021+ US trade deals are therefore more likely to be tilted towards the EU rather than the UK. Common ground will have to be found elsewhere, although much depends on the UK’s own ability to revive its own interest in foreign affairs beyond the nascent designs for a Global Britain.
Events, dear boy, events
Happily, the UK has three prime opportunities in 2021 to identify a range of major global issues to undertake alongside the US. These include the the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council in February, the rotating G7 Presidency for 2021 itself, and hosting the delayed COP26 UN climate summit in November. All three present opportunities for the UK to launch its own foreign policy goals as well as publicly support Biden’s objectives “of renewing alliances between democracies, strengthening international institutions within the UN and taking action on climate change.” Indeed, UK-US approaches are broadly similar across all three forums. First, the UK can support Biden’s determination to support global democracy at the G7 via Johnson’s initial proposal of a ‘D10’, essentially adding the democracies of Australia, South Korea, and possibly India. At the UNSC, the UK can underwrite efforts at restoring faith in the WHO, and ensuring support for developing countries struck by the pandemic. Biden’s determination to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and begin America’s march towards net-zero carbon emissions will chime well with Johnson’s plan to sign up more states to carbon-cutting commitments.
The sticking point will be the EU. At this point, Biden has implied that US attitudes to the UK rely almost entirely on the UK’s ability to build bridges with the EU, both diplomatically and trade-based. Negotiations have seen their ups and downs, and while a deal is ultimately on the cards, Johnson will need to overcome deep-seated distrust among Democrats over his handling of the Internal Market Bill, and its potential to destabilise the Good Friday Agreement, and his ability to strike a genuinely workable deal with the EU. With a UK-EU deal under and three global opportunities to promote UK leadership, Biden is likely to recognise the added value of working with the UK, while separately repairing America’s relations with Europe.
In sum, even if the much-vaunted ‘common values’ of the Special Relationship are periodically redefined, US-UK relations have the advantage of a foundation based on close military and intelligence communities, as well as variety of common interests. The nature of alliances is after all. evolution, and Biden is seasoned enough to retain the useful parts.