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Biden foreign policy begins with telling the world: ‘America’s back’

Vice President Biden meets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 7, 2015.
Vice President Biden meets NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 7, 2015. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)
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One of the first things he will do if elected president, Joe Biden has said, is “get on the phone with the heads of state and say, ‘America’s back, you can count on us.’ ”

To prove his point, Biden plans a few quick hits, reversing some of the centerpieces of President Trump’s foreign policy, just as Trump quickly moved to overturn much of the Obama agenda in January 2017.

Biden has pledged to immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, the World Health Organization and other U.N. bodies. He plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal, if Tehran also returns to compliance.

He has said that on Day 1, he will remove the “gag order” prohibiting any health organization that performs or provides advice on abortions from receiving U.S. foreign aid. He will lift Trump’s “Muslim ban,” reverse his “cruel and senseless” immigration policies, increase refugee admissions to 125,000 a year (Trump’s target is 15,000) and “restore greater transparency for military operations.”

During his first year in office, Biden plans to host a “Summit for Democracy” with all ideologically like-minded nations to reaffirm U.S. leadership, alliances and commitments, and to convene a new global climate gathering.

“If [Biden] is elected and if Trump is defeated, that in and of itself sends an incredible, powerful message around the world” that “the last four years were an aberration and not representative of what America is and aspires to be,” predicted Antony Blinken, the Biden campaign’s senior foreign policy adviser.

But while the immediate initiatives “will give us a moment,” Blinken said, “it won’t last long.”

Much of Biden’s initial vision sounds like reverse Trump — a return to the liberal multilateralism of the Obama administration. He has surrounded himself with national security veterans of the Obama White House and State Department who are likely to have prominent roles in a Biden administration. But he and his team insist that they are well aware that the world and the United States have changed radically in the past four years.

Some of the Obama-Biden policies didn’t wear well. By the time Trump took over, wars had not ended, the Russia relationship was not reset for the better, and China had not become the hoped-for “responsible stakeholder” in the world order.

Trump promised to bring China to heel. He didn’t and the result is a pitched conflict between the world’s two major powers.

At the same time, much of what Trump has wrought is not so easily undone. The internal process for formulating policy at home has been all but obliterated. Social divisions, the speed of technology and social media have made truth a relative concept and foreign policy is just another partisan issue. The allure of nationalism and transactionalism has blurred the lines abroad between autocrats and democrats, making the collective action Biden says he seeks harder than ever to achieve.

Relationships with both friends and adversaries have changed, in some cases unalterably for the foreseeable future.

Even as they scarcely hide their strong preference for Biden after what they see as years of erratic Trumpian abuse and abdication of U.S. leadership, allies in Western Europe say they are under no illusions.

“As Europeans, we should not think that if there is a new American president, the situation is as it was before President Trump was elected,” said Clément Beaune, French minister of state for European affairs, speaking to a group of U.S. reporters this week. “Some of the trends of Trump — pressure on the European Union, on defense financing, tough on trade . . . the hard game played with China — the main elements of this will continue somehow.”

Many in France, Germany and others have moved away from a U.S.-centric world order to a place where, according to numerous polls, they see their relationship with China as equal in importance to that with the United States. They have learned that “if you are just waiting for the big partners . . . to make political choices . . . just waiting and seeing what happens, I think you are not defending your own interests,” Beaune said.

For the short term, countries of all political stripes are in a holding pattern awaiting the Nov. 3 results. The stakes are high for Japan and South Korea, where Trump has demanded major increases in payments for U.S. troop deployments; to Iran and Afghanistan, where longtime adversaries are waiting to see which way the winds of war will blow; to Saudi Arabia, where Biden says he will end support for the Yemen war; and to Poland and Hungary, where nationalist governments consider Trump their patron.

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In Germany, where devotion to multilateralism runs deep, hopes for a Biden presidency are tempered with realism, according to Peter Wittig, who served as Berlin’s ambassador to Washington through much of the Trump administration. “Faith in the United States as the standard-bearer of democracy has eroded all over Europe,” Wittig wrote in the current edition of Foreign Affairs.

“Style and tonality matters,” he said in an interview. “It would be a great relief to even have a president who respects allies.” But “I think people don’t really expect U-turns. They know that Europe has become less important to the Americans, that attention will be absorbed by China and Russia. Nobody expects to go back to the status quo ante.”

Foreign policy has been Biden’s calling card for most of his career in government. But it is far down the list of concerns of American voters fighting a pandemic, social unrest and a struggling economy.

To accommodate this reality, Biden has outlined policies that overlap with his plan for curing domestic ills. Regaining the U.S. role in the world and defending it, he has said, will require that the United States first get its own house in order. A nation floundering and divided against itself is a dim beacon for attracting followers.

“Foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy,” Biden said in his first major foreign policy speech as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in July 2019. “They are a deeply connected set of choices we make about how to advance the American way of life and our vision for the future.”

As America gets back on its feet, Biden’s prescription for returning to the international forefront rests on two pillars. The first is physically reclaiming a prominent place on issues such as climate change, nonproliferation and global health.

The second is reactivating and enhancing the system of alliances, primarily in Europe and East Asia, that have been the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy for decades but have been disdained by Trump. “Climate change, nuclear proliferation, great power aggression, transnational terrorism, cyberwarfare, disruptive new technologies, mass migration — none of them can be resolved by the United States, or any nation, acting alone,” Biden said in the 2019 speech.

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Those broad goals have remained unchanged and often repeated since the beginning of Biden’s campaign. Applied to China, which Trump has called the primary threat to American security, they point to little immediate action. Like Trump, Biden has defined the problem as China’s seeking “global hegemony” as an “authoritarian dictatorship.”

But the clean energy, infrastructure-building, jobs-first America he promises, along with ingrained Democratic protectionism, may leave Biden little wiggle-room in ending Trump’s restrictive trade policies. He has not committed to reentering Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump quickly discarded. Rather than immediately revoking Trumpian tariffs on China and lifting sanctions, he has promised a review of Chinese trade and industrial practices.

“The United States does need to get tough with China,” Biden wrote last spring. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations,” while enlisting China’s participation in solving problems such as climate change and North Korea.

Biden has pledged a $4 billion regional strategy for Central America “to take on the corruption, violence and endemic poverty driving people to leave their homes.”

He has said he will pursue an extension of the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, “and use that as a foundation for new arms control arrangements.” Little thought is being given to reducing the current heavy sanctions burden on Russia, and President Vladimir Putin earlier this month criticized what he described as Biden’s “sharp anti-Russian rhetoric.”

Biden has spoken of his “unshakable” commitment to Israel’s defense and does not intend to reverse Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has said he would restore U.S. aid to the Palestinians, canceled by Trump, and allow the reopening of the Palestinian Consulate in Washington but has given few hints of where he might plan to take the peace process.

Biden has indicated he would take a second look at Trump’s planned withdrawal and redeployment elsewhere of 9,500 troops from Germany. As President Barack Obama’s vice president, he opposed adding troops to Afghanistan and has said that, as president, he would withdraw “combat troops” in favor of Special Operations forces. But he has said he cannot promise full withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria in the near future.

Rather than pledging major cuts in a Defense Department budget Trump has boasted of expanding, Biden has indicated spending could increase. “I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable,” he has said, “but we need priorities.” He has called for moving away from “legacy systems that won’t be relevant for tomorrow’s wars” in favor of “smart investments” in “cyber, space, unmanned systems” and artificial intelligence.

But many definitive policy decisions will have to wait. “One of the first things, even as we’re confronting a whole series of new challenges and the need to deal with them as they are, not as we were,” is the importance of “getting back to a process and regular order in the creation of policy,” Blinken said.

“I think you would see that some of this would be worked on, teed up during transition, and hit the ground running.” he said. “But some things would have to wait for an actual administration and a clear deliberative process to make sure that we are fleshing out any reasonable option, and fully anticipating second and third order consequences.

“This is not at all about going back to 2009, or pick your date. This is about dealing with the world as it will be in January next year.”