Renewed America, Renewed Diplomacy? Joe Biden and the world. By Lucien Enev
January 20th: Trump was officially ousted from the White House, and took the “back door” to leave it, refusing to be present at his rival Joe Biden’s inauguration. His furtive departure symbolised his politics during his four years in power: egoistic, self-interested, unexpected. Biden’s inauguration was therefore like a breath of fresh air for millions of Americans who can now sleep on both ears knowing that a reasoned, altruistic, and calm president has taken the reins of the United States. Indeed, Biden’s political style and his domestic programme are in stark contrast with his predecessor’s; but when it comes to foreign policy and the U.S.’ role in the world, the Trump-Biden frontier might be fuzzier than most would want to admit.
The truth is that the 2020 presidential election was mainly articulated around domestic matters - the soaring sanitary, economic, and social crises -, so little space was reserved for the discussion of international issues. Biden made few concrete promises beyond re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and committing to greater multilateralism and a tighter dialogue with Europe. He has already taken steps towards fulfilling the former by naming John Kerry, a former Secretary of State under Obama, US Climate Envoy to the virtually-held Climate Adaptation Summit on January 25th; and towards fulfilling the latter by confirming Antony Blinken - who was educated in Paris during his adolescence and is therefore personally attached to Europe - as his chief diplomat.
But is Biden really intent on profoundly deconstructing Trump’s legacy on the international stage? Or, rather, can he?
Overriding Trump’s domestic policies through Executive Orders is one thing; shifting American diplomacy is entirely another one. It is like trying to sail opposite a current which was set in motion decades ago, after the Second World War. As a historic superpower, the US cannot simply change course at the whim of its leader: its power partly derives from its ability to showcase consistency and coherence. Diplomacy-wise, Trump’s and Obama’s presidencies were not as fundamentally opposed as is claimed by Trump. For example, the massive disengagement of the American military personnel abroad, on which Trump so loudly prides himself, was slowly initiated by Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Similarly, some aspects of American diplomacy under Biden will remain relatively similar in scope - if not in style - to what they were under Trump.
Trump’s anti-China stance in particular is most likely not going to be abandoned by the Biden administration; but it is expected that from now on that China-US relations will nevertheless be conducted in a more courteous manner. The reason is that while being aware of the danger that increased economic interdependence with China poses for the American job market, Biden is also aware that globalisation has made a total decoupling from the Chinese economy virtually impossible without harming American multinational firms. Furthermore, being committed to re-entering the global fight against climate change he knows that this will inevitably involve closer cooperation with China, which is, like the US, one of the major polluting countries in the world.
But beware of naivety: a prudent thaw in Chinese-American relations is merely a necessary evil. The two countries are still very much in a conflictual relationship, and that despite Biden wanting to speak of competition instead of rivalry, or even enmity. Both the US and China have recently issued strong messages in an attempt to show that neither of them will bend in front of the other. Biden, for instance, invited Taiwan’s representative - de facto ambassador - in Washington at his inauguration, thereby symbolically reasserting US support of the small island which China considers as rightfully hers. China, on the other hand, twice violated Taiwan’s air defence zone, on January 23rd and 24th. The operation was not particularly directed at Taipei so much as to the Biden administration, which was reminded that Beijing does not appreciate being challenged in its influence zone. What these successive shows of force demonstrate is that America’s stance towards China is nowhere near profoundly changing under Biden’s presidency. Antony Blinken even went so far as to say in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China”.
When it comes to Europe, there is more reason to expect warmer relations. There is a genuine desire on both sides for closer cooperation after four years of a somewhat isolationist and tactless American foreign policy. To that effect, the EU put forward on December 2nd a proposal for a “new transatlantic agenda for global cooperation” advocating multilateral action in the pursuit of common interests.
Europeans’ show of goodwill and Americans’ outspoken and believable willingness to reciprocate seem like good news for the west and the transatlantic alliance. But that does not mean that EU-US relations will go back to their pre-Trump state anytime soon - if they ever do. During Trump’s four years in office the EU has increasingly dealt with matters alone and sought to develop a sovereign, independent-from-the-US agenda. France’s President Emmanuel Macron had even qualified NATO as “braindead”, underlining the need for the EU to dig its own path. The EU’s cautious rapprochement with China and its plans to tax the GAFA, amongst other things, will certainly be causes for dissent; while Biden’s prioritisation of US firms for the award of public contracts will surely bring back memories of “America First”-style policies to EU officials… So, under Biden the US relationship with Europe will no doubt know a thaw and the reestablishment of a cordial dialogue, but it is unlikely that it will be wholly transformed.
The differences between Trump and Biden are incontestable and innumerable. But the fact is that some elements of Trump’s foreign policy will survive him through Biden. Foreign policy is never embodied entirely by one man, and could not possibly substantially change every four years. The tide of US diplomacy is simply too mighty to sail against.