Biden’s Foreign Policy: Cooperation Is the Only Way Forward

By Nishan Kafle

There is an unspoken consensus in the American establishment that the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy is sacrosanct and resists the whims of passing administrations. On issues of multilateralism, human rights, and democratic alliances, it was difficult to distinguish a Republican administration from a Democratic one. This long-held norm wasn’t respected in the years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, however, with haphazard change triumphing over continuity.

But with Joseph R. Biden’s victory, America’s longstanding allies breathed a collective sigh of cautious relief, believing he will restore the basic tenets of American diplomacy—working through multilateral institutions, protecting and promoting democracy, supporting foreign aid, and, most pressingly, confronting climate change. But America watchers will be closely tracking whether Biden will neatly fit into the familiar mold of former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy doctrine or refashion it to reflect changing times engendered by COVID-19 and the recession of democracies.

Issues that can be resolved by signing paperwork, like rejoining the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the World Health Organization, restoring confidence among NATO allies, and repealing draconian immigration policies, are low hanging fruit and expected. The administration has already checked several of these off of its to-do list. But today’s energized citizenry—both global and American—want a foreign policy that manifests results, and not one simply confined to signing ceremonies.

Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat in the 2016 presidential election underscored the importance of leveraging foreign policy in a manner that materially benefits the average American at home. To the casual observer, American foreign policy is dominated by regime change wars, or wars that weigh heavily on taxpayers’ pockets but provide little in tangible return. And as an establishment figure, people—understandably—thought she would continue that tradition.

There needed to be an intervention that sought to tie workers’ interests to foreign policy. At this juncture came Trump’s “vision” of renegotiating unfair deals and providing succor to the everyday American. But with America’s economic clout in decline at the same time that ascendant economies, like India and China, demand greater heft in power corridors, this is an ambitious goal.

Although deeply flawed, Trump’s personality-driven foreign policy enjoyed a few successes, and Biden should build on them. Some of his triumphs include the formal recognition of the threats posed by China’s activities in the South China Sea and its provision of future mobile technologies to the world, the destruction of the Islamic State, and the brokering of ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.

Trump’s formal meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un may have proved ineffective in slowing the development of North Korean strategic weapons, such as a recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missile, but Biden should keep trying to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through China-backed sanctions or formal summits rather than reversing course. Biden also shouldn’t release the pressure applied by Trump on NATO allies to contribute more money for Europe’s defense—being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean footing the bill. While controversial, Biden will struggle moving the American embassy in Israel elsewhere as that would backtrack on the little progress made in the normalization of ties in the region.

To accomplish his stated goals, Biden will have to do more than a simple course-correction in foreign policy.

Biden should strive to foster partnerships with democracies beyond just Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Biden’s proposed “Summit for Democracy” aims to assuage democracies the world over, tormented by Trump’s bullying and vicissitudes, assuring them that America “will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” But with democratic decay deepening, will Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and Turkey, be invited? What democratic standards should countries meet to win America’s backing? Will the world’s largest democracy—India—be invited? America cannot claim to be the bastion of democracy if it fails to assemble representatives from all democracies—even flawed ones.

Accounting for only a quarter of global GDP and no longer the economic juggernaut it once was, America cannot singlehandedly coerce China to cease its human rights violations and unfair trade advantages. The United States can, however, use its unrivaled power to convene, bringing liberal democracies together to apply their minds on issues of shared interest, such as climate change, nonproliferation, global health security, and punishing human rights abusers and cyber criminals.

Most importantly, to succeed abroad, Biden needs to start at home. It’s a bit rich for the United States to proselytize liberal values abroad when race relations are frayed and police high-handedness is rampant at home. It also needs to address the hypocrisy gap: the United States will have to set equal parameters on human rights for both allies and adversaries—Saudi Arabia and China should be judged on equal grounds.

Most Americans are only concerned about the proximate threats to their physical and economic security and Biden will have to convince the disenchanted working class that international trade represents an opportunity for economic growth. The benefits of globalization have disproportionately favored the monied at the expense of the working class, whose incomes have remained stagnant. Keeping in mind that Trump’s defeat does not necessarily mean a defeat of his “America First” agenda, Biden will have to ensure that U.S. foreign policy works toward more inclusive economic growth through renegotiations of unfair trade policies.

Biden ascends to power in an increasingly multipolar world with emerging economies jockeying for influence. He will have to deal with them through predictable and tactically adroit diplomacy. Biden’s biggest challenge, however, is to repair America’s soft power by extending the olive branch to countries affected by Trump’s actions (and tweets).

Executive orders are relatively effortless, but it takes years to make amends for a sullied reputation. There is no dearth of opportunities. Most significantly, the United States should cultivate the comity of all nations, both allies and adversaries, who are never as rogue as the last administration trumpeted. Success or failure will depend on how the balance is struck between domestic aspirations and external engagements; resources and ambitions; and rhetoric and actions.

Nishan Kafle is a second-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School and the winner of the Spring 2021 CSS Writing Competition.

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