President-elect Joe Biden takes office Wednesday on a mission to metaphorically sage the White House. Plans are already in place to reverse numerous Trump moves. Yet Biden’s term won’t mark a return to the era when Biden was vice president, before Trump unleashed his campaign of global disruption. A legion of Obama-era officials are returning to government with him, but analysts expect them to deploy a more “hard-nosed” and perhaps less high-minded approach to the United States’ myriad overseas challenges.
On Day 1, Biden is expected to signal a return to the Paris climate accords that Trump abandoned and to announce a major summit on climate action to be hosted in the United States in the first months of his presidency. Top aides acknowledge that the decarbonizing goals that the Obama administration helped set in 2015 are no longer adequate. “It’s not sufficient for where the science says we need to be and it’s not sufficient because we’ve lost critical time over the last couple of years,” Brian Deese, Biden’s nominee for director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.
Biden is also expected to scrap some of the key planks of Trump’s nativist agenda: He aims to reverse the travel bans on citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries, revive U.S. refugee resettlement programs and push for a sweeping legislative overhaul of immigration policy. His administration is also expected to address concerns over illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border not with an expensive physical wall, but with expanded efforts to improve security and economic conditions in Central America — the root causes that drive migration.
There’s no easy slogan that encompasses the Biden camp’s thinking. During confirmation hearings Tuesday, Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, said the new administration would operate with an ethos of both confidence and humility, a marked departure from the “swagger” touted by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad,” said Blinken in prepared remarks. “And humility because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone — even one as powerful as the U.S.”
In interviews and op-eds, a host of foreign policy and national security experts tapped for roles in the Biden administration have stressed the importance of bolstering America’s alliances around the world after Trump’s erratic and, at times, bullying diplomacy. The first major test of this more calibrated approach will come when Biden reckons with the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal instigated by Trump. European partners fear that, given Iran’s rising stockpiles of enriched uranium, there is a narrow window to compel Tehran back into the agreement.
“We are running out of time,” Omid Nouripour, a member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told my colleagues. “Every single day we don’t talk, and there are no inspections, the centrifuges are running faster and faster.”
On other fronts, though, there may be more continuity with Trump. Those in Biden’s camp are keen on winding down U.S. war efforts in the Middle East (although, unlike Trump, they may actually heed congressional demands to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen). And they are part of a bipartisan consensus in Washington that views China as a strategic rival whose rise needs to be contained and whose growing global clout needs to be checked.
On Tuesday, Blinken said he concurred with the Trump administration’s last-minute assessment that China’s campaign of repression in the far-western region of Xinjiang was tantamount to genocide. It’s a nod of agreement that underscores the view in Beijing that Biden won’t — as far as China is concerned — represent a meaningful departure from Trump.
U.S. policy hawks are already urging the incoming administration to stay the course. “I think we’re going to see a more defiant China,” Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Wall Street Journal. “A China that is not only more aggressive, but also feels more and more justified in its aggression.”
And they want Biden to meet that aggression head-on. “Transparent competition … can prevent unnecessary escalation — and it can foster cooperation with China, not foreclose on it,” wrote former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster for The Washington Post. “The Biden administration should be confident in the free world’s ability to compete effectively with the [Chinese Communist Party] and its authoritarian, mercantilist model.”
In an essay in Foreign Affairs last week, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi — two experts tapped to steer China policy in the Biden White House — appealed to realpolitik rather than liberal idealism. They invoked the political legacies of 19th-century Austrian arch-conservative Klemens von Metternich and British diplomat Lord Castlereagh, two European statesmen seen by some historians as the architects of relative political stability on the continent in the wake of the devastating Napoleonic wars.
“Even in their cynicism about the darker ambitions of states and men … the two statesmen succeeded in erecting a durable and flexible system that extended peace and prosperity beyond what many thought possible,” wrote Campbell and Doshi. “The United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific and across Europe need a similar sense of anxiety and ambition today.”
As recent polling of European publics revealed, Biden certainly calms the nerves of jittery U.S. allies. But the legacy of the Trump years has left a mark: More than ever, people abroad see the United States as a troubled nation, buckling under its own dysfunctions. A period of humility may indeed await.