Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.
On January 20th, Joe Biden will take office as President of the United States. First elected to public office in 1972, his length of tenure in public office is striking.
He first joined the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in 1973, when Mao was Chinese premier, Willy Brandt was Chancellor of West Germany, Tito ruled Yugoslavia, and Brezhnev was premier of the USSR. The foreign policy universe Biden cut his teeth in was one still framed by carnage of the post-World War Two order; far removed from the less clear threats we see today from organised terrorist groups and non-state actors like ISIS. Asia and Africa were then economic minnows.
Given the length of his record, a number of conclusions can be drawn about how Biden is likely to approach foreign policy challenges and the projection of US power on the world stage.
In Washington DC, the cache of “Europe” as a foreign policy focus has been gradually declining since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. With the long-term US policy ambition of seeing swathes of Eastern Europe admitted to NATO and the European Union realised, recent administrations have deprioritised European affairs to instead focus on strengthening US ties with fast-growing Asian markets.
Biden’s history of involvement in European issues is likely, however, to see a slight shift of US attention back to the continent. He was a senior member of Senate Foreign Affairs committee during the collapse of the USSR, the reunification of Germany, and Yugoslavian conflicts, where he was one of the key cheerleaders for the allied intervention in Kosovo. His decades-long relationships and interest in flashpoints such as Georgia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Ukraine will de facto represent in an upgrade of White House interest in European security policy.
Biden has always been a supporter of multilateral institutions – be they NATO, WTO or EU. Power blocs of this kind have, according to his worldview, led to collective action and pressure for positive change. To this end, it would be fair to conclude that Biden sees no particular upside to Brexit and has concerns about its impact upon the Belfast Agreement.
Despite fears in some quarters, a trade deal with the UK remains an easy win for any US President. Indeed, one could conclude that a Biden administration is less likely to push for the inclusion of some of the more politically-controversial health service and food hygiene aspects of the deal that the Trump administration were alleged to be keen on; making its passage simpler on a UK level.
The issue of US-Russia relations has been one of the reoccurring sagas of the Trump administration, with the outgoing President having been accused of kowtowing to the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. While Donald Trump reluctantly maintained sanctions under huge political pressure from Congress, Biden was one of the leading forces behind their initial implementation during the Obama administration and has been sharply critical of Russian operations in Syria.
While one should expect a further deterioration of relations with Moscow in the coming months, his record of dealings with Russia as a Senator is instructive. While he was repeatedly critical of domestic human rights abuses against political dissidents and Chechen separatists, he quietly championed a USSR-US deal on nuclear arms controls as far back as mid-1970s, resulting in a strengthened Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty that curtailed ballistic missile manufacturing in both countries. Biden is willing to negotiate – but to extract a price. This is how relations with Russia will be framed.
Arguably the boldest foreign policy decision taken by the Trump administration was its decision to withdraw from the P5+1 Agreement aimed at normalising political and economic relations with Iran. While the outgoing administration framed their opposition to the agreement on the grounds of it being excessively favourable to Iran, Biden will likely recommence of US engagement with its structures. The Republican-run Senate will do its best, however, to erect legal roadblocks designed to stall aspects of the deal related to trade and the lifting of sanctions.
On the broad topic of trade policy, Biden’s record shows him to have been broadly committed to freer trade and has opposed most tariffs. He backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and China’s WTO accession. Given his close links with the trade union movement and the emphasis his campaign placed on winning industrial states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it will be interesting to see his past positions reconcile with growing US public sentiment towards protectionism in the Covid-19 era.
The future of US-China relations remains the biggest question mark hanging over the incoming administration. While Biden opposed the rolling tariffs Trump has imposed on Chinese imports into the United States, he has similarly been sharply critical of Chinese intellectual property infringements and state subsidies that harm US competitiveness. He has also described President Xi as a “thug” – a pointed remark for a politician who has tended to value velvety prose over confrontation.
Climate change policy – another likely area of tension between the US and China in the coming years – will receive a significant upgrade under Biden. He has already announced intention to return to 2015 Paris Agreement from “day one” of his presidency. Given the importance to the UK and the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ narrative, securing a successful outcome from COP26 is a key priority. An engaged, enthusiastic US presidency will help rather than hinder this objective.
If environmental issues represent the biggest schism between the Trump and Biden administrations, a noticeable area of agreement between the two men is their shared aversion towards neo-conservative foreign policy positions. While Biden voted for early stages of Iraq war, he shares Trump’s scepticism of military interventions. Under Biden, the likelihood of US troops being sent to Syria or Iran is highly unlikely.
Similarly, one can expect a Biden presidency to adopt a similar policy agenda in respect of Israel. He has been a long-standing champion of US military and financial aid to Israel and has, notably, stated that he will keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem. The difference between Trump and Biden rests on the issue of the realisation of an independent Palestinian state. Biden has long favoured a two-state solution while Trump, despite pushing policy proposals that would essentially realise that objective, has shied away from using the term.
In Latin America, a Biden administration appears likely to follow a similar path to Trump, yet placing a stronger focus on environmental and human rights concerns. He has publicly backed Juan Guaidó over Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate President of Venezuela and has stressed his willingness to build relations with Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President, while raising concerns about his administration’s policies towards the Amazon. If an area of tension between the outgoing and incoming administrations is to be found, it is likely in respect of Cuba, where Biden will likely seek to restart US-Cuba talks on a reset in political and economic relations.
Despite his willingness to negotiate, Biden’s record of public pronouncements – be it in furious opposition to apartheid-era South Africa, anger at Milošević’s butchery in Yugoslavia, or fury at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – have long positioned him as one of the foremost human rights-focussed politicians in America. Those sentiments will guide him in office.
In conclusion, when it comes to foreign policy issues, Biden is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue; a widely experienced negotiator who prefers playing the long game to the pursuit of quick wins that fail to yield results. Multilateralism, not unilateralism, is the Biden way – and it will guide US foreign policy over the next four years.