There have been reams of commentary, on the possible impact of a Biden Presidency on US policies – both domestic and foreign.
While the defeated President Donald Trump is likely to pose legal challenges, it can be safely concluded that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. Having been Vice President under Barack Obama, and an insider to Washington (in fact with his vast experience he was a big asset to the Former President in navigating his way through the complex Washington DC establishment), unlike under Trump, Biden is likely to follow a more traditional and conservative approach towards US foreign policy where by, there is less focus on optics and personal diplomacy (as was the case with Trump).
First, he has reiterated on more than one occasion that he is likely to work closely with US allies, and strengthen ties with other democracies. His predecessor, on the other hand, had strained ties not just with Beijing, but even with allies like Germany and Canada. While Trump shared a good personal rapport with former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi, there were differences on economic issues.
Current State Of US Foreign Policy Under Trump
Even in the midst of the pandemic, ties between US and Germany, already strained over the past few years, went downhill after Trump called for the reduction of NATO troops in Germany (Trump’s Defense Secretary, Mark Esper had then announced that US would remove 11,000 of the 35,000 troops in Germany) given that its financial contribution to NATO was much lesser than what it should be, and US was doing all the heavy lifting. Said Trump: “Germany is a wealthy country, and they have to pay. They owed us billions of dollars, billions of dollars to NATO. They should be paying their bills. Why should we defend countries and not be reimbursed?”
Even in the midst of the pandemic, ties between US and Germany went downhill after Trump called for the reduction of NATO troops in Germany.
The civilian and military budget of NATO for 2019 was about $1.84 Billion, according to NATO figures. The US was paying for just over 22% of this, while Germany’s contribution was 14.76%, and France and the UK just under 10.5% each. The running cost of NATO are met by a common funding arrangement determined by a country’s national income. While there are many who would not disagree with some of Trump’s arguments but what befuddled many commentators was the fact that Trump, while being transactional with many longstanding allies, got along rather well with many authoritarian leaders. In an interview, Trump had himself confessed: “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. The easy ones I maybe don’t like as much or don’t get along with as much.”
Expected Moves From Joe Biden
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been critical of authoritarian leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom he called an ‘authoritarian’ in an interview to the New York Times in January 2020. The Turkish President did not take very kindly to Biden’s remarks.
Secondly, Biden is likely to move back to multilateralism with a change of approach vis-à-vis issues like Climate Change, Trade and membership of the WHO. Biden has already made it clear that under him the US will join the Paris Climate Change agreement (a 2 Million Trillion climate plan has already been prepared by Biden). Biden will also reverse Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization, it is likely that he will in fact work for strengthening the WHO. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JCPOA)/Nuclear Deal/P5+1 agreement also led to differences with allies such as UK, Germany, France (who were signatories to the agreement) and even Japan and India over the issue of Iran.
Biden is likely to move back to multilateralism with a change of approach vis-à-vis issues like Climate Change, Trade and membership of the WHO.
While UK, Germany and France the E3, had formed a special purpose vehicle (SPV), by the name of INSTEX (instrument in Support of trade exchanges) to bypass Iranian sanctions, India’s ties with Iran had steadily deteriorated, after it stopped the purchase of oil in 2019 as a result of Washington removing the waiver which it had provided to India along with other countries to purchase oil from Iran. This decision impacted the overall trade relationship, as well as the progress of the Chabahar Port Project which is important for India since it is a gateway to Afghanistan. Biden, on the other hand, has categorically stated that he is willing to ‘offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy’. Biden has made it clear that an administration led by him would be willing to rejoin the agreement, if Tehran is willing to comply with its nuclear obligations. Unlike Trump, who did not work with his allies, Biden has categorically stated that he will work with allies to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also dealing with other major challenges.
Watch: Will President-elect Joe Biden change US Foreign Policy?
Furthermore, there is growing skepticism vis-à-vis China in the aftermath of Covid-19 and while Biden may adopt a different approach in term of economic engagement with China, Democrats are likely to be tougher on China on the issue of Human Rights. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, the President was not particularly concerned about China’s detention of the Uighur Muslim population in the Xinjiang province. In June 2020, the US President had signed a bill which sought to punish China for its ill treatment of Uighurs.
India Policy – America’s New Best Friend?
While in India, there is a worry with regard to Biden and Kamala Harris’s remarks on issues pertaining to Human Rights and Minorities (Biden had criticized India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens while Kamala Harris, of Indian descent, had been critical of the abrogation of Article 370 in the Jammu and Kashmir region of India), it is important to understand, that there can not be absolute convergence on all issues, and even in India there has been criticism of the above policies and the growing social polarization which harms India’s interests.
As a Senator, Biden had played a crucial role in voting for the Indo-US Nuclear deal. As a Vice President in the Obama administration, he also played his role in strengthening the bilateral relationship (it would also be important to point out, that a vast majority of Indian Americans vote Democrat). His stance towards China is likely to be tough, and given his emphasis in working with allies to counter China, India is likely to be an important stakeholder. He has been critical of China and while addressing Indian Americans on Independence Day, Biden had stated: ‘..if United States and India became closer friends and partners then the world would be a safer place. If elected president I would continue to believe it and continue what I’ve long called for, standing with India confronting the threats it faces, in its own region and along its borders.”
India is likely be an important stakeholder in the Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy and on multilateral issues there is likely to be greater convergence from all indicators. On economic issues, one can draw a strong cue from his announcement that he would reverse Trump’s policies with regard to H1B Visas (Trump Administration had suspended H1B Visas). Even on immigration issues, he is likely to follow a more open policy. It would be important to point out, that we live in a different world. Biden can not ignore workers, who are disillusioned with globalization, and given the narrative which Trump has built with regard to trade and globalization.
We live in a different world. Biden can not ignore workers disillusioned with globalization and the narrative which Trump has built with regard to trade.
It is simplistic to assume, that Republican Presidents have been better for India. It is during the Presidency of Bill Clinton, that the foundations of a robust India-US relationship were laid, and similarly during the second term of Obama too the strategic relationship was strengthening. While strategic ties have grown under Trump, economic relations have not been smooth. Under Biden, the relationship could be more expansive if anything, while building on the gains made in terms of security and defense cooperation. There could be differences on certain issues like those discussed above but there are more interests than divergences on the whole.
Biden, The Soft Power President
In conclusion, there may be certain changes but on the whole bilateral relationship is likely to grow and both countries will need to realize that expecting identical views/ total congruence is not feasible. It is important for India to stay out of US Domestic politics and seek to harness the possible synergies. Apart from economic ties and a more flexible approach towards Iran, one important area which is likely to benefit under a Democrat Administration is people to people contact.
‘Soft Power’ is likely to be an important component of the bilateral ties under Biden’s US Foreign Policy.