The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden to face wary allies after four years of Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, surrounded by other foreign and economic leaders, talks to President Trump on the second day of the Group of Seven summit on June 9, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada. (Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung/Getty Images)
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Minor rifts between the United States and its closest allies widened into a gulf over the past four years, as President Trump left multinational agreements and undercut organizations the United States had helped found, including the United Nations and NATO.

Particularly in Europe, bewilderment about Trump’s personal and political snubs morphed into alarm and eventually expressions of pity for Americans as leaders were caught on open mics mocking the U.S. president.

In contrast, Joe Biden’s presidential victory brought a collective sigh of relief from many allies, who are expecting improved relations as Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and go-it-alone policies are replaced by a more traditional and collaborative approach.

Biden has said he will hold a global “Summit for Democracy,” focusing on advancing human rights, combating corruption and bolstering defenses against authoritarianism.

But he has acknowledged that it will not be seamless.

"The next president will face the enormous challenge of picking up the pieces of America's broken foreign policy under President Trump," he tweeted in late November.

Four years of Trump’s attacks on European institutions have left many allies wary of relying on U.S. leadership and concerned that his populist approach could triumph after the next turn of the White House. And several issues that predate Trump could further strain relationships.

“Most Europeans know that beneath the headlines of European euphoria on Biden, the U.S. and Europe still have significant differences of interest that cannot be waved away,” said A. Wess Mitchell, a former assistant secretary of state for European Affairs. He cited long-standing U.S. opposition to a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, the U.S. push for Europeans to spend more on defense and an uneven playing field in trade.

“They welcome what is likely to be a more conciliatory U.S. approach,” he said. “But they know they will experience a lot of challenges ahead.”

One of Biden’s first tasks after assuming office will be to start mending the economic and political relations that unraveled over the past four years. He has said that on his first day in office, he will rejoin the 2016 Paris climate accord that Trump withdrew from during the first year of his presidency.

Biden has called the U.S. relationship with NATO "sacred," and his first overseas trip is expected to take him to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, a tradition for U.S. presidents. Trump's first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia.

“President-elect Biden certainly is pro-NATO,” said Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, predicting the trip and calling Biden “very much a multilateral organization supporter.”

"We like to have allies. He likes to have allies," she said.

Biden’s policies on foreign relations

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, has outlined ways in which foreign policy will undergo a significant turnaround. The incoming administration will be more confrontational with Russia and look for more opportunities to cooperate with China on arms control, climate change and other issues.

But one of the biggest differences will be in tone, as Biden and his top diplomat work to rebuild credibility and confidence in the United States as a reliable partner for its allies.

"I would sum it up in three words: leadership, cooperation and democracy," Blinken said in an interview with CBS News in September.

“Joe Biden would reassert American leadership, leading with our diplomacy. We’d actually show up again, day in, day out. But to engage the world, not as it was in 2009 or even in 2017 when we left it, but as it is and as we anticipate it will become: rising powers, new actors super-empowered by technology and information, who we have to bring along if we’re going to make progress.”

Europeans are anticipating something of a diplomatic windfall. The countries that co-signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran all opposed Trump's withdrawal from the agreement and have struggled to keep it alive amid a stream of U.S. sanctions. Biden has said he would consider rejoining it if Iran resumes its commitments under the deal.

Biden also has vowed to cancel Trump's plans to leave the World Health Organization and reverse a policy that prohibits funding humanitarian groups that discuss abortion, a rule routinely adopted by Republican presidents and ditched whenever Democrats hold the White House.

Although critics have said Trump’s America First policy has left the United States alone, U.S. isolation under Trump can be overstated.

Even as he castigated Europe, many U.S. officials worked to reassure allies and NATO that the United States would not abandon them.

But four years of Trump’s attacks on European institutions have left a deep scar. Positive feelings about the United States have virtually evaporated in countries such as Germany, where Trump has ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops.

Biden's policies on other topics

On some issues, there is probably no going back to 2016.

Iran has amassed a significantly larger stockpile of enriched uranium and conducted a worrisome string of ballistic missile tests, complicating the potential for negotiations. The Trump administration’s push to keep out Chinese telecommunications companies has fed a growing concern about Beijing’s ability to tap into otherwise secure networks in other countries, and that will not be erased.

And Biden is expected to continue the push, started during the Obama administration and amplified under Trump, to have Europeans pay more for their military defense.