BY: Atlantic Council
PEJOURNAL – We finally have a winner. After several days of counting votes, former Vice President Joe Biden has defeated President Donald J. Trump in the US presidential election, after the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for the former vice president on November 7.
While Biden may have to contend with a divided Congress to achieve his many domestic priorities, he will have much more power to shape US foreign policy going forward. “Under a Biden presidency, the United States will shift from a ‘with or without us’ approach to a policy that fundamentally believes the United States can achieve more when we work together with partner nations,” Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said.
But while President Trump was defeated, his stronger-than-expected showing should give pause to those who expected the United States to fully abandon his foreign-policy doctrine. As Emma Ashford, a resident senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, argues, the “post-Trump Republican party is likely to continue to be apathetic about the value of international institutions, and skeptical of the utility of multilateral agreements on topics like climate change and arms control.”
What are the most significant changes we should expect from the new Biden administration? Experts from across the Atlantic Council weigh in on what the outcome of the 2020 election will mean for US foreign policy and America’s role in the world:
US FOREIGN POLICY: Biden will seek to rebuild alliances.
“The election to the presidency of former Vice President Joe Biden—in the midst of what may be one of the most chaotic and dangerous eras in US history—represents a victory for the foundation of our nation: the values that have undergirded our Republic and that we Americans share among ourselves and with our closest democratic allies and partners. It also is an important signal to those friends abroad of our renewed commitment to working together—a reinvestment in multilateral cooperation, international norms, and the global order, which are the only effective means for addressing the urgent challenges that we all face. Together.
“Yet, the challenges and fears that led to the election of Donald Trump do not leave us, even as Trump himself leaves the White House. They must be addressed, even as new challenges compound them. We’ve failed to protect those most vulnerable to the ugliness of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and, sadly, much more. We’ve failed to invite those who feel alienated by Washington and found a home in Trumpism to see just how much stronger America is when we work together and are engaged in the world.
The recent US retreat from global leadership left our allies and friends all over the world abandoned during our new era of great-power competition, emerging threats, and a raging, global pandemic. The vitriol that has permeated our discourse has left an indelible mark on our character, and it will take much more than a presidential election to rebuild at home and overseas. But it is a new beginning.
“What America needs now is a unifier: someone who will bridge the unprecedently wide chasm in our society and polity. Someone who will look above the ramparts that have risen to divide us. This is no easy task. The future of our nation lies in the hands of a person who must draw on our founding principles and rebuild them for the modern world.
“At the Scowcroft Center, our namesake is our North Star. General Brent Scowcroft was commonly referred to as an “honest broker”; highly respected across party lines and national borders, he was known for his fairness and humility. Few possess the ability to bring people together the way General Scowcroft did, especially in this moment of deep polarization. President-Elect Joe Biden is one of those people.
“An internationalist in his DNA, President-Elect Joe Biden will seek above all else to renew our polity at home and to rebuild America’s alliances abroad, the most important asset that the United States has to navigate the world. We share this foundational strategic tenet for America’s role in the world, and we are committed to working with the Biden administration to advance our mission of strengthening America’s alliances and partnerships around the world.
Facing multiple overlapping crises at home and abroad, now is exactly the moment for the United States to lay out a bold vision and for the new president to lead a renewal of our values at home and a new era of rejuvenation of the democratic world abroad. Now is our chance to rebuild a stronger, more resilient rules-based system that can meet the challenges and leverage the opportunities of this century. With cooperation, determination, and resolve, the United States and its allies can recover from this period of crisis and revitalize an adapted rules-based system to bring about decades of freedom, peace, and prosperity.
“There is so much work to be done. But in this moment, one thing is clear: in reaffirming our leadership abroad, America has finally come home.”
* Barry Pavel, senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
CHINA: US allies and partners need to know where Biden stands on Beijing—and soon
“President-elect Biden should present a clear goal, strategy, and roadmap for his China policy as soon as he is inaugurated in order to build political consensus not only with Congress, but also with like-minded countries. While the Biden campaign emphasized the importance of alliances and multilateralism in order to restore US global leadership and democracy, US allies and partners will want to know how a Biden administration’s China policy will fit into his overarching goals.
First, US allies and partners will want to know how the Biden administration is going to identify areas of conflicting versus common interest with China, as the Biden campaign said that a Biden administration would pursue both competition and cooperation with China. Given Asia-Pacific allies’ heavy economic reliance on China as well as China’s more aggressive behavior and narratives since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, US policy toward China will have significant implications for how these allies re-evaluate and adjust their own China policies and strategies.
“Second, the Biden administration should clarify its stance and approach in terms of US-China decoupling. It is worth noting that the stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific that are involved in US-China decoupling, directly or indirectly, seem to have different understandings about it. The Biden administration will also need to make clear whether it aims to decouple and, if so, how it is going to create a rules-based, level-playing field in order to respond to the rise of China collectively with like-minded countries.
The realm of national security is increasingly inter-connected with economic security, which is likely to continue for the time being with the uncertainties stemming from the pandemic and economic recessions. Showing how and where the Biden administration’s China policy will be similar to and different from the Obama administration’s will be the key to rebuilding political consensus domestically and internationally.”
*Miyeon Oh, director of the Asia Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
NATO: Now the hard part—earning back the trust of a relieved but more cynical Europe
“President-elect Biden’s win is a relief for much of Europe. European allies and partners will look to pivot quickly to a ‘new normal’ with an American president focused on healing the transatlantic divide—a circumstance many hope will resemble the ‘old normal’ that pre-dated President Trump’s surprise win of the White House in 2016. Indeed, there are rumors of a NATO summit early in Biden’s administration that will signal the preeminence of the transatlantic relationship and rapidly change the tone of the Trump years. Expect a quick effort to put the US-EU relationship on better footing as well.
“However, Biden’s administration will not in itself assure a ‘snapback’ to old patterns of cooperation. Europe’s estimation of American leadership has become more cynical, especially after an election that seemed to validate Trump’s perspective as much as it did Biden’s. Parts of the European political and policy establishment want a permanently more independent posture from US policy and can use the closely contested election as ammunition for that purpose.
While Biden’s team will undoubtedly demonstrate a sustained commitment to working with Europe on most major issues, repairing the mistrust of US intentions that Trump has cultivated in European capitals will likely take positive relations with successive administrations. US prevarication towards NATO, for instance, predates Trump and has roots in domestic perceptions of foreign policy that need to be addressed before the transatlantic relationship can be considered repaired.
“To that end, Biden administration’s should focus on diversifying the public appeal of our institutions. For NATO, that starts with resolving the unhelpful debate around burden sharing (especially in light of downward pressures on defense budgets in the wake of COVID-19).
NATO’s importance must be understood by a broader swath of an increasingly diverse American public, many of whom have foreign-policy concerns that are not transatlantic in nature. Working with NATO to find new champions for the Alliance among the American public is the best hedge against a return to the toxicity of the Trump years during future presidencies.
“Prioritizing NATO while necessarily reestablishing US security bona fides in other regions, particularly the Indo-Pacific, will be a tricky proposition in terms of US attention and resources. An early indicator might be whether Biden will move to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Germany. Doing so will be a down payment on ensuring adequate resources are available to deter Russia. A decision otherwise would indicate a gap between rhetoric and resources and that will augur further, if more polite, transatlantic tensions.
“In any case, Biden’s approach to foreign policy places alliances as central to US global influence, signaling a reinvigorated promise of American international leadership. While the details will matter over time, there will be a collective sigh of relief from Brussels in the first instance.”
*Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
ECONOMY: Just how ambitious will Biden’s agenda be? Look to Congress.
“The economic agenda for the next four years depends as much on the future make-up of the new Senate as it does on the election of the next US president. A Republican Senate and Democratic House are likely to deliver a scaled-back stimulus bill in the near-term and a compromise infrastructure package in the medium term.
The Biden administration will still advance its priorities toward building the green economy and improving health care, childcare, and education, with the goal of providing universal pre-K for all families. To partly fund these major spending increases, the Biden administration plans to raise taxes on corporate profits and American households that make more than $400,000 per year. While all of this will be up for debate in a Republican Senate, it would be a mistake to think compromise is impossible with only one to two Republicans needed for a bill.
“On the global stage, a Biden administration is expected to reach out to traditional allies to confront the many economic challenges posed by China. You will see a focus on this given the realities of a divided Congress.”
*Josh Lipsky, director of the Atlantic Council’s Geoeconomics Center
AFRICA: The path to more commercial ties is through repaired diplomatic relationships
“The war on terrorism is mostly over, and US interest in military adventures in Africa has been waning. At the same time, there has been a decisive effort to solidify commercial relationships with African states. New policy tools such as the equity-backed US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the forthcoming $500-750 million Africa Trade and Investment Program (ATIP) stand to overhaul US policy and significantly move the needle on increasing two-way trade and investment.
“Yet these positive developments emerge at a time when US soft power on the continent is in decline. Racialized commentary that has leaked from the White House, in conjunction with criticisms of the US coronavirus response, have tarnished America’s image in Africa, with damage done to signature relationships with Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia, among others. To capitalize on its commercial push, the United States must refocus its policy in Africa on repairing these critical relationships.
“A Biden presidency affords the opportunity for a credible reset and the prospects of a more predictable policy toward Africa, in which regional allies will again be treated as the important partners that they are. Biden is also likely to reassure US allies that he won’t unilaterally yank American security support away from Somalia and the Sahel, which will produce sighs of relief not only in Africa, but in Europe.”
*Bronwyn Bruton, director of programs and studies at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center
MIDDLE EAST: This is an opportunity for the region to depoliticize its relations with the US
“For about fifty years until shortly after the turn of the 21st century, the American approach toward the Middle East was remarkably consistent, notwithstanding the region’s seemingly perpetual state of turmoil. The United States largely sought little more than to strengthen the existing status quo or return to that status quo once it was upset.
The countries of the region generally enjoyed the relative safety provided by the American-led security regime and took care to ensure that their relationships with Washington remained resolutely apolitical in tone and bipartisan in nature. However, beginning with the war in Iraq and continuing since, the United States sharply diverged from its traditional approach and became increasingly seen in the region as a threat to the status quo. The ramifications of these strategic errors continue to define the challenges that President-elect Biden will face in the region.
“Over roughly the same period of time, several key countries in the region also sharply diverged from their traditionally apolitical approach to Washington, preferring instead to increasingly align themselves with the Republican party. This was also a fundamental strategic error. A new Biden administration provides an opportunity for leaders in the region, particularly the current leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel, to appreciate the negative consequences of their politicized approach to Washington and to seek to ‘reset’ relations along lines of longstanding common interests, including dealing with threats from Iran.
Of course, the coming Biden administration will need to focus immediately on the wide range of domestic challenges facing our deeply divided society and dysfunctional political elite. The primary strategic challenges abroad will be from China and Russia and the existential threat of global warming. Nevertheless, the odds are high that when he turns his eyes to the Middle East, President-elect Biden will look to offer the possibility of such a reset to the region on these terms. Time will tell whether leaders like Bibi Netanyahu and Mohamed bin Salman, who chose not to hide their support for President Trump’s reelection, will have the wisdom to meet him there.”
*William F. Wechsler, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs.
LATIN AMERICA: Biden will work with allies to help solve the Venezuela and migrant crises
“Joe Biden’s election win will yield significant shifts in the direction of US foreign policy, including with our partners across the Western Hemisphere. Under a Biden presidency, the United States will shift from a ‘with or without us’ approach to a policy that fundamentally believes the United States can achieve more when we work together with partner nations.
“In Latin America, where President-elect Biden brings deep experience and commitment, this shift in mindset will bear out in a number of issues but will be most acutely seen in two areas. First in Venezuela, where the United States and regional partners must contend with a Maduro regime that remains deeply entrenched despite the ratcheting up of US sanctions during the Trump presidency. Here, expect a more nuanced approach that remains tough on Maduro but with new strategies that prioritize working with allies to advance a transition.
Expect a more collaborative approach as well in trying to stem the root causes that force Central Americans to leave their homes and migrate north. During the Trump administration, rather than addressing the holistic economic development and security challenges that must be solved to reduce migratory flows, US policy was focused on security and on making other countries bear the brunt of imposing draconian US policy toward migrants and refugees. President-elect Biden—long a champion of a multi-pronged strategy in Central America—will work hand-in-hand with regional leaders to address the corruption, the challenges with rule of law, the necessary drivers for economic development, and the security issues that perpetuate instability in Central America.
“Expect a Biden administration to also focus on human-rights issues, addressing climate change in the hemisphere, and ensuring that labor rights are upheld in the new US-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA). And importantly, Joe Biden will have a plan to work with the hemisphere to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic through a strategy that benefits US workers and US businesses while also making the hemisphere once again prosperous and more resilient to future shocks. This multi-pronged strategy will better position the United States, rather than China, to be the partner of choice for allies across our hemisphere.”
* Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
EUROPE: Biden should welcome a stronger Europe
“President-elect Joe Biden’s win will be welcomed with relief in much of Europe, where he is seen as a friend and supporter of the transatlantic relationship and a multilateral agenda. He faces an immense task and the narrow result should inspire humility when engaging allies who have been following the contest closely over the last few days.
“A strong Europe is America’s best asset when tackling global challenges—from dealing with an assertive China and fighting climate change to rebuilding the global economy post-COVID-19. Disagreements will linger, on trade or digital regulation, but they can be addressed through constructive dialogue rather than confrontation.
However, the Biden administration should acknowledge that the past years have awakened Europeans to the necessity of building their own strategic identity and progressively reducing some of their dependence on US power, especially in their own neighborhood. More friendly rhetoric won’t reverse this. On the contrary, President-elect Biden should welcome and harness those changes to shape a forward-looking transatlantic relationship with a more responsible Europe.”
*Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.
TURKEY: A Biden presidency means near-term uncertainty but longer-term opportunity
“Joe Biden’s victory may appear to cast new uncertainty over the US-Turkey relationship, already at historic lows.
“On the other hand, in the medium term, Biden could present an opportunity to reset relations between the two NATO allies, and Turkey should welcome Biden’s commitment to having the United States re-assume greater transatlantic leadership and cooperation. Turkey, home to NATO’s second-largest army, can and should be an integral partner in balancing Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
As vice president, Biden traveled to Turkey on several occasions to meet with his future counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including for talks at even tougher times such as after the failed coup attempt. Ultimately, Biden is an experienced politician who should perceive and work in harmony with Turkey’s growing regional importance in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. It is in the best of interest of both the United States and Turkey to work towards finding common ground and compromise on these issues.”
* Defne Arslan, director of Atlantic Council in Turkey
US FOREIGN POLICY: The old, pre-Trump model of US leadership won’t work
“A succession of US presidents has carried out foreign policy by fiat, and a newly-elected President Biden will be able to undo some of Donald Trump’s most egregious foreign-policy errors with the stroke of a pen. On the whole, however, Joe Biden will discover that changing US foreign policy back to the way it was before will be very difficult—and probably impossible.
“So, for example, the Biden administration may reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, resume US membership in the World Health Organization, and recommit the United States to meeting its obligations within the Paris Climate Accord. He also should revisit the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other measures to liberalize global trade. These steps would be welcomed by most of America’s allies and partners and would signal a greater willingness to take others’ interests into account—something that Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach explicitly did not.
“Beyond these steps, however, a Biden administration tempted to restore the old model of US leadership from the pre-Trump era is likely to be disappointed. After all, Trump’s victory in 2016 shook allies’ confidence that America would have their backs, no matter what. An American political system characterized by polarization and deep dysfunction is an unreliable long-term partner. Accordingly, US allies are likely to hedge their bets, deepening cooperation with others. Some might modestly increase their own military spending as an insurance policy against US abandonment.
“The true source of this nation’s power is the American people, and that is why Joe Biden must focus his efforts here at home. That includes dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and restarting the economy once the virus recedes, a process that could grind well into 2022. In addressing these challenges, President-elect Biden’s administration can expect more cooperation from allies and partners than a second Trump administration would have received. But repairing the deep divisions within our society will require his full attention.”
*Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
US FOREIGN POLICY: Trump foreign policy vision will not simply go away
“Elections are not won or lost on foreign-policy issues. Nonetheless, the failure of the 2020 election to repudiate the domestic and foreign policies of Donald Trump has major implications for the future of America’s role in the world. Though Joe Biden has won the 2020 election, the strength of Donald Trump’s electoral success suggests that Trumpism in the Republican party is here to stay. The more challenging question, of course, is what Trumpism actually means for foreign policy in the long-term.
Donald Trump himself has been at best mercurial in foreign policy, tweeting insults at other world leaders, ramping up tensions with Iran or North Korea, and suddenly and unexpectedly altering long-standing US foreign policies to meet his whims. But there is far more consistency among his advisors and a core set of themes that run throughout Trump’s time in office that we can expect to inform future Republican foreign policymakers.”
“Both parties increasingly embrace the frame of great-power competition, but the Trump administration’s framing of the issue has focused heavily on trade and economic issues, to the extent that questions about protectionism and domestic industrial policy re-entered the mainstream of national-security discussion for the first time in several decades.
We can expect this—and the question of economic decoupling from China—to continue to play a major role in Republican foreign policy moving forward. Perhaps more importantly, though they continue to pay lip service to the importance of US allies and partners, administration documents and officials have increasingly framed US foreign policy in unilateralist terms. A post-Trump Republican party is likely to continue to be apathetic about the value of international institutions, and skeptical of the utility of multilateral agreements on topics like climate change and arms control.
This has substantive implications for US allies. As the Trump era has shown, allies are likely to be able to preserve their strong relationship with a unilateralist United States only insofar as they support American policy choices; as the US withdrawal from the JCPOA highlighted, allies are increasingly unlikely to be successful in shifting US foreign-policy priorities.
“While the Biden administration may prove a brief respite from these trends, the strength of the Republican showing in the 2020 election suggests they are likely to continue in future Republican administrations, with significant consequences for American allies and adversaries.”
*Emma Ashford, resident senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
ENERGY AND CLIMATE: Biden will need to navigate political left and right on climate policy
“Despite being considered a moderate compared to most of the other Democratic primary candidates, President-Elect Joe Biden’s climate and energy plan is the most ambitious ever of any major party presidential nominee. However, with the Senate likely to remain in Republican control, these ambitions will probably be curtailed. The administration’s power will be limited to executive order and agency rulemaking, with a few exceptions where there is bipartisan Congressional support such as for basic research, nuclear energy, carbon capture, and nature-based solutions. While there is growing support for climate action in some parts of the Republican Party, it is not something that can be counted on under Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership.
“Biden’s challenge in the short term will be to rejoin the Paris agreement and undo much of the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda without significant support from the Hill while remaining under pressure from the left to do more. Biden recognizes that a rush to ban fossil fuel production is bad politics, undermines US foreign policy goals, and ultimately has minimal impact on the climate. (Some argue that these bans will raise prices, making fossil fuels less competitive, but this is not the case in a world awash with energy.) Instead, Biden is likely to focus his efforts on reducing demand for fossil fuels while also making them cleaner by limiting methane emissions and encouraging carbon capture and sequestration.
“Getting the United States on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050 is hugely ambitious and puts the United States in the same club with the Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, and Chinese (though the Chinese are aiming for 2060). If Biden’s ambitious but pragmatic policies come under fire from the left wing of his party, Biden should remember what he said in the second debate: he “beat all those other people because [he] disagreed with them.”
*Randolph Bell, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center
CLIMATE CHANGE: Biden will make climate change a national priority
“President-elect Biden has declared climate change to be a national priority, promising unprecedented executive action out of the gate to both reducing emissions and investing in addressing the growing impacts of a hotter planet and to reclaim the position of the United States as a global leader in aggressive climate and environmental policy.
“President elect Biden plans to advance legislation during his first year in office that establishes an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by his first term’s end in 2025; makes a historic investment of $2 trillion in clean energy and climate research and innovation; and incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean-energy innovations and climate-smart infrastructure across the country. Such investments will focus especially on areas most vulnerable to climate impacts such as extreme heat, and on communities of color, including coastal communities suffering from the effects of sea-level rise, salt-water intrusion, and sunny-day flooding, as well as the storms that increasingly hammer at-risk areas, where 40 percent of Americans live and work.”
*Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center