In the aftermath of Trump’s fraught politics, Biden is left with key foreign policy challenges as he strives hard to make his own case for the presidency, not Obama’s.
The 46th President of the US, Joe Biden, unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, is a quintessential Washington insider. Biden’s team also consists of a number of ‘beltway insiders’. The new POTUS, who served as the vice president to Barack Obama, also served as Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. His familiar with many world leaders is not just by virtue of having served as the VP, but more significantly due to his stint as helming the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Biden’s team includes many Obama era appointees — Antony Blinken, chosen for the Secretary of State position, served as Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama Administration, and Kurt Campbell, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs has been chosen as Indo-Pacific Coordinator in the National Security Council (NSC).
Myriad of Internal and Foreign Policy Issues await Biden
The question on many people’s minds is not just how Biden Administration’s foreign policy will be different from that of the Trump Administration, but also how it will differ from Obama’s. Amongst the executive actions which Biden signed on his first day in office, many clearly indicate a markedly different approach towards foreign policy issues; be it, the US rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization or uplifting the Muslim ban imposed by Trump and ending of the Border wall construction.
While it is true, that Biden’s foreign policy may differ from Trump’s, it is also likely to significantly differ from Obama’s. First, Biden’s foreign policy as America’s President, in spite of his stated emphasis on multilateralism, at least in the first few months will be more inward looking than that of Obama. Biden’s inaugural speech did not devote much time to foreign policy issues. During his speech, as the 46th President of the United States of America, Biden had stated that under him the US ‘will repair alliances and engage with the world once again” as a “trusted partner for peace and security.’ While there are numerous foreign policy challenges, such as dealing with China, Iran and ties with allies in Europe and Asia, which Biden will have to deal with, he will have to prioritize serious domestic challenges — the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, a polarized society and crumbling institutions. The US President referred repeatedly to these points during his address.
Secondly, even in terms of economics and trade agreements, Biden will not be able to give up on the America First narrative. A strong reiteration of this point is the approach of Democrats, including Biden towards the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which was a brain child of Obama. While Biden and other Democrats have taken note of the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the need for the US to engage with allies is a clear realization that getting back to a trade agreement will not be easy.
Rolling back Trump’s immigration policies while advancing America first narrative
If one were to look at other policies, Biden has spoken about a fundamentally different approach towards immigration from that of Trump. After taking over, Biden has sent the Immigration Reform Bill, referred to as US Citizenship Act 2021, to the Congress. This bill could facilitate citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, make it easier for STEM graduates to stay in the US and also address issues pertaining to employment visas. While being more open on immigration, Biden has not totally discarded the America First Approach of Trump, having even spoken on the campaign trail about his own version ‘Build Back Better’. His economic plan of $400 billion seeks to invest in US goods and to promote the consumption of American goods. During the electoral campaign, Biden spoke of ‘Made in America’ and spoke about strengthening US manufacturing. According to the Biden campaign, ‘US manufacturing was the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, and must be part of the Arsenal of American Prosperity today, helping fuel an economic recovery for working families’.
Watch: Biden’s Build Back Better Plan for America
It also categorically states that new jobs are created in innovation and manufacturing through this program. The Biden administration is also likely to focus on giving preference to American goods for federal procurement. Canadian exporters and manufacturers who supply to public work projects are likely to be impacted and this could also affect the US-Canada supply chain.
Biden’s Nuanced Approach to Tackle the Dragon
Biden’s stance vis-à-vis China is also likely to be more aggressive than that of Obama’s. While the China ‘threat’ has been on since the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration too had begun to recognize this. In recent years, ties with China have deteriorated significantly and Trump’s stance, not necessarily the steps taken, has been supported by members of the Biden team, including Blinken and Campbell. Many observers have been arguing that China may have been more comfortable with a Trump presidency given his predictability, though commenting on Biden’s speech, Hu Xijin, Editor of Global Times, the daily published by Chinese Communist Party, said that in Chinese political language the gist is that it would be better for both the countries to not interfere in each other’s paths. Here is his tweet:
An aggressive China policy may receive support from allies but there can be differences. For instance, there could be differences between the US and the EU over economic relations with China. Last month, the EU agreed in principle to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Differences over the degree of economic links with China could come in the way of the ‘coordinated approach’ Biden and his team have been referring to. During the Obama period, as a result of the US’ strains with China being relatively lesser, economic ties of allies with China did not really become a bone of contention. There are also likely to be differences with the EU over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline supported by Russia. Just like the Trump administration, team Biden is also keen to stop the project.
From Trump to Biden’s Oval Office Legacy
Apart from the greatly changed economic landscape and geopolitical architecture, Biden’s task is far more difficult in terms of engagement with the outside world as a result of Trump’s thumbs-down to multilateralism as is evident from his repeated criticism of NATO, the US’ withdrawal from the WHO and skepticism with regard to the UN. Moreover, as a result of Trump’s trade war, differences over foreign policy and simplistic approach towards diplomatic relations with allies in Europe, such as France and Germany, and Asia, such as Japan and Korea (to a lesser degree), mending these ties will not be easy. Nevertheless, Biden realizes the same and has spoken on more than one occasion about strengthening ties with allies and working closely with democracies.You will find more infographics at Statista
While one of the major differences in foreign policy will be conducting it in ‘conventional form’ and not focusing on personal chemistry like Trump did, but at the same time it is likely to be more inward looking. In fact, the US had already begun to take an isolationist approach during the Obama years. So even if Biden is inward looking, if he is able to provide the ‘healing’ he has spoken about and promotes democracy and pluralism at home, it sends a positive message globally. Biden may have members from Obama’s team and may have served under him but his administration is unlikely to be a third Obama administration, since we live in a different world. After winning a hard-fought battle against Trump, Biden would like to leave his own imprint, especially in foreign policy, cautious to not let it be a mere resumption of Obama’s.