‘Predictable, tactical’: How Biden will tackle US foreign policy

Joe Biden’s administration will make a stark shift away from Donald Trump’s philosophy and style on foreign policy issues.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press]

Joe Biden’s incoming administration will usher in a distinct shift in the United States’ approach to diplomacy and world affairs, analysts have said, just days before the president-elect is inaugurated.

Biden has long supported multilateralism and has promised to restore key political, security and trade alliances when he takes office, while also bolstering the US’s engagement with international treaties and organisations.

That will be a change from the “America First” policies of President Donald Trump, who eschewed multilateralism from his first days in the White House and withdrew from a series of multilateral agreements, including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump’s approach to foreign policy “was a bit like President [Richard] Nixon’s”, said Hillary Mann Leverett, who served on the White House national security council in past Republican and Democratic administrations.

The underlying ethos shared by both leaders, she told Al Jazeera, “is that countries aren’t friends with each other. Countries have interests; they don’t have friends.”

“I think Trump did have this sense that he could follow Nixon’s playbook, that he could be a hard-charging realist, and he could get important deals like Nixon’s opening to China,” said Leverett, who currently heads the political risk consulting firm Stratega.

During his four years in office, Trump portrayed himself as a dealmaker-in-chief, an international real estate developer unafraid to shake up the status quo and further US interests.

“At the end of the day, whether he didn’t have the intellectual depth, he didn’t have the people around him he needed, or he just couldn’t keep his eye on the goal – he just wasn’t able to deliver any of those things,” Leverett said.

Rebuilding relationships

Biden is expected to seek to strengthen ties to many leaders in Western Europe, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he had close ties during his vice presidency – but whose relationship to the US has been strained during the Trump years.

Biden’s relationship with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wooed Trump as the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union, remains more uncertain.

Nevertheless, Biden, who served as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2009, has portrayed himself as a leader who builds personal relationships with his counterparts.

Drawing on almost five decades of political experience, Biden also has said he is not afraid to talk-straight when needed.

His previous boss, former President Barack Obama, has hailed Biden’s ability to pursue distinct objectives without being caught up in “broader ideological debates that all too often end up leading to overreach or a lack of precision in our mission”.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump walk at the Metropole hotel during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Meanwhile, Biden has quickly moved to fill his administration with prominent diplomats in key posts, including nominating an Iran nuclear deal negotiator to the number-two position at the US State Department.

He has also promised to take a harder line on human rights abusers, signalling a likely break from Trump’s close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom Trump called his “favourite dictator” at the G7 summit in 2019.

While Trump “clearly felt an affinity towards autocrats”, Biden “defines himself in terms of building relationships with small ‘d’ democrats, those with whom he shares interests and values”, PJ Crowley, a former US assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Obama, told Al Jazeera.

However, that does not mean Biden will not work with leaders with autocratic tendencies if it fits into a wider objective, said Leverett, pointing to Biden’s controversial 2011 statement that soon-to-be toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who upheld peace with Israel, was “not a dictator”.

Crowley said Trump also took a “transactional” approach with many leaders, including Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who welcomed Trump’s decisions to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights.

The approach contributed to what many Trump supporters consider to be his biggest foreign policy achievements: normalisation agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

“Joe Biden is a tactical politician and I think that he will be able to work the crowd in ways that Barack Obama didn’t,” Crowley said.

‘Pride in being unpredictable’

In Biden, leaders can also expect a return to a more predictable US foreign policy after Trump, who was prone to surprise unilateral decisions and to using social media as a misinformation-laden bully pulpit that could leave his own negotiators and officials reeling.

In one notable example of that on-the-fly strategy, Trump abruptly withdrew US troops from the Turkish border of Syria in October 2019, giving Turkey a de facto greenlight to advance militarily and leaving the US’s Kurdish allies vulnerable.

In a tweet days later, Trump warned Turkish President Recep Erdogan that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if the military does anything he considers “to be off limits”.

Trump “took pride in being unpredictable and playing up the drama, which owes to his experience as a television personality,” said Crowley.

“In diplomacy, there can be suspense, but predictability is valued. If you say you’re going to do something, if you follow through, you establish a track record that you can be trusted.”

‘Not a lot that’s going to sway him’

But such predictability also has downsides, said Leverett, with Biden’s long career meaning “in many ways, he has already made his decisions about how he sees countries, people in those countries and the issues”.

“There’s not a lot that’s going to sway him,” she said.

That could leave Biden falling into stale patterns with leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden has said he once bluntly told the Russian leader, “I don’t think you have a soul”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Vice President Joe Biden walk down the red carpet on the tarmac during an arrival ceremony in Andrews Air Force Base in 2015 [File: Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press]

Biden’s relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be closely watched following increased tensions between the two countries during the past four years. Biden spent considerable time with Xi in his role as US vice president, but he recently called the Chinese leader a “thug”.

His approach to Iran, which he and European parties hope to bring back to the multilateral nuclear deal, will also be under close scrutiny.

‘Realist world’

Others have argued that Biden’s overall diplomatic approach is out of step with the current era of “great power competition”, in which emerging powers are jockeying to establish their own networks of influence.

“We live in a realist world, where power really, really matters. And countries that are looking to be safe, free and prosperous in that world, they’re going to base their political judgments and their geopolitical judgments on power relationships,” James Carafano, a national security and foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“I did think [Trump’s] foreign policy was largely based on realism – and I think people confuse that with something like rampant self-interest or isolationism,” he said.

Still, supporters have argued Biden has the experience – and the staff around him – for a more pragmatic and effective furthering of US interests.

“I think that what you’re going to see in Biden is a backbone on issues and ideas,” Joel Rubin, deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Obama and a volunteer policy adviser to the Biden campaign, told Al Jazeera.

“A recognition that diplomacy is a powerful tool in the arsenal of American engagement overseas.”

Source: Al Jazeera