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Great Expectations and Even Greater Challenges await Biden on the World Stage

With Joe Biden’s election victory, many countries expect the US to once again play a more assertive and constructive role in international and regional affairs. Nonetheless, the Biden administration’s attempts to reengage will undoubtedly be met with significant challenges from Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe.
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After the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, leaders of many democratic countries across Europe lined up to congratulate him and his new administration. When asked about his conversations with European leaders, he replied, “I’m letting them know that America is back. We’re going to be back in the game”. After four years of an “America First” foreign policy, Biden’s promise to restore alliances and multilateralism has been celebrated by European allies with a sense of relief. But the Biden administration’s quest to restore traditional relationships based on cooperation and shared values will not be smooth sailing. His administration will face foreign policy challenges, particularly with regard to China, the Middle East, and Iran, and backsliding democracies in NATO such as Turkey, Hungary, and Poland.  

China:

The Trump administration completely altered the path of US-China relations, moving away from a policy of engagement to one of confrontation and competition. Although Biden’s team viewed the Trump administration’s policies towards China as “clumsy, costly and unstrategic”, they have still signaled that they will likely break with pre-Trump approaches to China by putting an end to the idea of unconditional engagement. After all, Biden has reiterated the “need to get tough with China” and has also referred to Xi Jinping as “a thug”.  Biden’s foreign policy team seems to be skeptical of previous administrations’ idea that engagement and cooperation with China will work to integrate it into the rules-based system.

Second, the Biden team wants to usher in a new approach to China. They think there has been and still is too much focus on China’s rise. Here, the new administration doesn’t seem eager to focus on China, and as a natural reaction, it may instead attempt to suppress, contain, or stop it. Shifting its focus internally, the incoming Biden administration seems poised to focus more on the US, its progress, and technological and economic edge.

As another matter, the new administration probably won’t put too much effort into trying to change China itself, but could instead aim to change its environment. Here, the US may come to look for deepening military and economic cooperation with its allies in Asia, such as Japan, South Korea, and India. On the other hand, the new administration could still reenergize bilateral relations with China just to be able to engage in dialogue with the country on issues revolving around human rights, climate change, and the pandemic.

For sure, the upcoming administration will continue to view China as a significant challenger and may try to rally partners in the region to curtail its rise. In the meantime, however, the doors to a structured bilateral relationship will remain open.

The Middle East:

We should expect a more assertive and present US in the Middle East under the Biden administration. First off, the president-elect will likely reenter into negotiations with Iran. Nonetheless, rather than returning to the JCPOA directly, Biden is expected to use Trump-era sanctions as leverage to achieve a better agreement and to assert certain foreign policy demands before jumping back into the deal.

The new administration is also expected to be more present in Syria. Here, it has been surmised that he could use the carrot of US assistance in Syrian reconstruction as a way of opposing and preventing Assad’s repeated atrocities and resistance to power-sharing.

When it comes to Israel, few expect Biden to recall the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. During the Biden administration, the US will most likely continue to be a staunch supporter of its ally, albeit with nuanced moderation when compared to the Trump administration. Moderation, although not so nuanced, may also come to characterize US-Saudi relations, especially considering that the US is expected to take a more serious and hands-on approach to the conflict in Yemen.

Europe:

The biggest winner under the upcoming administration will probably be Europe. Trump treated the US’s European partners as pariah states, and his opposition to European integration was unprecedented among US presidents. Not surprisingly, celebration of Biden’s victory was widespread across Europe as the new administration promised to reinvest in transatlantic alliances and to cooperate and coordinate with allies regardless of the US’s own stake in matters. The expectation of European-US structural cooperation is especially poignant in the policy realms of environmental protection, disarmament, and global health.

Perhaps most importantly, the Biden administration is expected to work with its partners to support and commit to democracy. Explicitly stated, backsliding democracies within NATO such as Turkey, Hungary, and Poland may not be as welcome at the table as they were under the Trump administration. Indeed, there are even rumors of a new cooperative mechanism called the D-10 that could consist of the globe’s top ten democracies. Nonetheless, the US is not expected to stop its demands for more balance within NATO’s burden-sharing doctrine.  

When it comes to trade agreements with Europe, EU countries have plenty of grievances with today’s US trade policies, especially with the tariffs the Trump administration slapped on steel and aluminum. However, European countries, especially the UK, should expect to enjoy improved bilateral trade agreements with the US. Having clearly stated that he would prioritize rebuilding relations with the US’s allies, Biden could extend an olive branch by removing the tariffs imposed on EU countries.

From the very beginning of his campaign, Joe Biden offered a different vision of US foreign policy and America’s role in the world when contrasted with that of the last four years. Hijacking Trump’s famous slogan, Biden aims to “make multilateralism great again”. However, after a traumatizing four years characterized by a lack of American leadership, Biden’s ability to convince the US’s allies of its return to engagement and leadership on the world stage will hinge on his performance in handling the myriad foreign and domestic challenges that he will inherit. Considering the resurgence of great power rivalries, the highly polarized domestic political environment, and the battle with Covid-19 at home and abroad, Biden’s administration will be tackling many issues on many fronts.