Joe Biden has promised to put an end to Donald Trump’s isolationist, disruptive approach to global relations.
But a Biden administration bid to restore American leadership will require time and political capital at a time when the superpower’s global role stands in doubt at home and abroad.
While diplomats are not likely to hear the phrase “America First” for a while, Mr Biden will face challenges including countering China, re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran, resetting relations with Europe and dealing with the fallout of Brexit on the relationship with the UK.
What Biden wants: Keen to rebuild the European alliances that Mr Trump has repeatedly snubbed, Mr Biden is likely to be the most Atlanticist US president in a generation. He prides himself on his Irish heritage and will move away from Mr Trump’s overt hostility to the EU. Mr Biden will also be a strong backer of the Nato military alliance.
He is opposed to Brexit, though has accepted it as a fait accompli. However he will find it easier to work with the UK if it can avoid a no-deal divorce from Europe that respects Irish border agreements.
What they want: While many European officials accepted that Trump was a blunt messenger for structural change – including more defence spending from Nato allies and a withdrawal of US troops from Germany -, they still see US military might that underpins Nato as essential to Europe’s security. They would also like Washington to engage more in dealing with regional crises from Belarus to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Upshot: Expect 18 months of happy hand-holding events that put the postwar alliance system back at the heart of US relations with the rest of the world, starting with efforts to lead a global response to coronavirus. But the crunch could come over China, Brexit and trade.
What Biden wants: Joe Biden, like Donald Trump, wants to end America’s forever wars and plans a shift in US loyalties in the Middle East. He’s promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal from which Mr Trump withdrew if Iran comes back into compliance, and to reset relations with Saudi Arabia which he has called a “pariah”.
In a sign of Mr Trump’s lasting legacy, Mr Biden will not move the US embassy from Jerusalem, where Mr Trump controversially relocated it from Tel Aviv in 2018. He has no plans to push for a two-state solution. Mr Biden’s top advisers have also made clear his foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere. Some fear this means little will be accomplished in the region.
What they want: Iran wants compensation for its treatment at the hands of the Trump administration and all sanctions lifted as the price for its return to the deal. At present, it is still developing its missile programme.
Saudi Arabia is concerned a Biden administration could halt arms sales and impose a renewed chill on relations.
The UAE would like to see the US take more punitive action against Turkey, and, if Mr Biden agrees to re-enter the Iran deal, to ensure Iran’s missile programme and support for militias in the region are also addressed. It also wants a seat at the negotiating table with regional powers on any Iran discussions.
Upshot: There is likely to be a timing crunch because of Iran’s presidential elections in June, which could hand power to hardliners who would be more difficult to negotiate with. A new Biden administration will have to work fast to agree a new approach to Iran with the accord’s European signatories — the UK, France and Germany.
What Biden wants: One Biden adviser described the president-elect’s foreign policy priorities as “China. China. China. Russia”. Team Biden will inherit a US foreign policy establishment that views Beijing with far more concern than it did during the Obama era. However it remains unclear what combination of co-operation, competition and confrontation Mr Biden will use to engage with the US’ rising power rival.
While he will probably refuse to endorse a new Cold War that could put America’s leading global role under threat, he will seek to push back on conventions governing technology and investment. He will also maintain a robust US military presence on China’s doorstep.
Mr Biden will seek to strengthen co-ordination with European partners on investment screening, intelligence sharing and emerging technologies in a bid “to get on the same page with our allies regarding China,” a Biden official said.
He will also try to strengthen regional partnerships with allies given short shrift under the Trump administration, such as South Korea.
What they want: Some experts think China will breathe a sigh of relief with Mr Biden at the helm. Europeans are hoping for less aggressive public rhetoric than during the Trump years, but many officials expect little let-up in private pressure by the US. The tide in Europe is also generally shifting to greater scepticism towards Beijing.
Upshot: Some Democrats fear Mr Biden still underestimates the threat posed by China’s military, economic and diplomatic ambitions and how hawkish he may need to be in order to avoid being outsmarted by Beijing. Most European officials insist they don’t see themselves as equidistant between Washington and Beijing — but they are also eager to preserve economic relationships with China and the potential for partnerships in other areas such as climate change.
What Biden wants: Mr Biden has many of the same protectionist tendencies as Mr Trump. He proposes making federal agencies procure only US services and goods, and has floated a tax to penalise US companies for moving jobs and manufacturing overseas. Like Mr Trump, he has argued that the World Trade Organization needs to be reformed and better able to deal fairly with non-market economies like China.
However, although Mr Biden has signalled he will continue to be tough on China on the trade front, he is unlikely to replicate the confrontational, and at times unpredictable, tariff regime fostered by Mr Trump. But the extent to which he will remove or lower tariffs — or apply further tariffs — is unclear.
In line with his broader foreign policy, Mr Biden will want to lower trade tensions with Europe. But this means resolving some major disagreements, including the decades-long row over airline subsidies and the debate over how to fairly tax big tech companies.
What they want: The immediate hope for foreign governments who back a rules-based global trading order and want a functioning World Trade Organization to oversee it will be that a Biden administration will join with the consensus of other member states in backing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new director-general. The would effectively remove the current administration’s block on the appointment of a new leader and allow the body to move towards discussing further reforms, ideally with the US as a contributing member.
Europe and the UK will also hope to make progress in talks about aircraft subsidies as they look to have US tariffs on a range of their goods — including cheese, wine and olives — removed. Those same countries will be hoping that they can avert tariffs over digital services taxes, and have tariffs on steel and aluminium lifted.
The UK will of course be hoping to swiftly close a trade deal with the US once Biden takes office, but the Biden campaign has said this will not be at the top of the new president’s priorities.
Upshot: While the US might make more effort to engage and negotiate with Europe, substantial issues remain. Trade tensions with Beijing, too, are likely to continue, albeit with some change to the tariff regime. There will probably still be trade wars — but expect them to be conducted more in back rooms and less over Twitter.
What Biden wants: Mr Biden will rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, from which Mr Trump withdrew the US on Wednesday, and plans to integrate climate change targets across every aspect of US foreign policy, national security and trade. He wants net-zero emissions for the US by 2050, to entirely rely on and even export clean energy.
He has said he wants to lead a global effort to ensure every significant carbon-emitting country will ramp up its own ambitions for domestic climate targets, with transparent, enforceable goals — with China particularly in mind.
What they want: EU countries desperately need the US to come back into the international coalition to combat climate change, as they push forward with their own Green Deal reforms. The UK will also hope to use hosting COP26, the UN climate summit, in November as a vehicle to try to prove it still has international influence post-Brexit — and to reduce tension over Brexit between Mr Biden and premier Boris Johnson.
Upshot: China and Japan both recently laid out hefty new targets for themselves to go carbon neutral by 2060 and, in Tokyo’s case, by 2050. That puts the pressure on Mr Biden to improve America’s targets and — potentially — to find a bright spot in US-China relations even as Mr Biden competes for the leadership mantle in global climate diplomacy.