Amid the global anxiety and disquiet, projections of the massive outpouring of group violence and institutional dysfunction, Americans went to poll and elected Joe Biden as their new president in what is a marginal victory in a very polarized society. The election of President-elect Biden came at the heels of the global unrest and questions abound on the ability of the United States to lead the world as it had once. These questions of credibility of US commitment, resolve and political will not only come from the rivals of America (such as China, Iran, North Korea or Russia) but also from the allies whose trust in the American leadership was shattered and deeply broken by the cauldron-fraught presidency of Donald J. Trump.
In the backdrop of these questions of credibility over American commitment and leadership to shape the world in transition, President-elect Joe Biden sought to reassure the world primarily American allies that, “America is back in the game.” How President-elect presidency would tackle the mounting challenges of American foreign policy amidst polarized domestic problems is yet to be seen, however, analyzing from his previous wide-ranging experience in the American government especially in his politics at the American senate foreign relations committee and as Vice-President of former President Obama as well as from his rhetoric, we can gather a sense of what President-elect Biden approach toward American leadership in global affairs would look like.
President-elect Biden approach toward American international relations could be divided into three strategic accelerators: the primacy of promotion of democracy and human rights (values), reengaging with multilateralism (liberal international order), and alliance-making (sustaining American commitment on defence and foreign policy challenges). These three strategic accelerators would be defining feature of Biden presidency as Trump’s presidency upended these long-term and enduring pillars of American international relations during his term.
However, President-elect must recognize realities before approaching his policymaking table. The world Biden is inheriting is starkly different than the world before 2016 and the world he has tremendous experience in; the unipolar moment of America. Biden inherits a world where confidence and integrity in the American commitment to lead the world has been shaken to its core, and some may contend that it is irreversibly damaged. The pandemic-hit world reignited fears that American commitment to its promotion of democratic values and norms including holding accountable repressive regimes and preserving human rights is completely dependent on the election-cycle as President Trump’s term ushered an America without a moral compass. Besides belittling American allies in Europe and Asia, President Trump did indeed confronted China head-on yet there as well American’s foreign policy fell short in effectively dealing with the challenges posed by assertive China and Russia alongside with authoritarian governments in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and India etc.
Further debilitating American’s role in the world is Trump’s continued abrasive posturing toward multilateral forums such as the European Union, World Health Organization, United Nations and Climate and Trade accords. This abrasive posture weakened America’s role significantly in the global policymaking and left a void which was filled rapidly by its rivals.
A Biden presidency would face these mounting challenges to the American role and commitment in the world as he is inaugurated in January. But, domestic priorities will also constrain Biden’s foreign policy-inclined presidency. Division sowed in the ballot is a deep wound of the American society. No government could function its foreign and defence policies properly without a substantial harmony in its society. It cannot be discounted that domestic priorities of rising inequality, political friction in partisanship, containment of COVID-19, race and reconciliation, infrastructure and economic fragility will demand more time, energy and effort from Biden than foreign policy challenges.
However, balancing domestic priorities, a Biden presidency likely to not to let go of the long term challenges to the American role in the global affairs. Starting with reassuring its allies, President-elect Biden is expected to double down on American commitment to its allies as promotion of democratic values and strengthening liberal multilateral institutions hinges upon a solid commitment of America to back up its commitment with hard power.
Biden is also committed to conveying a global democracy summit after his inauguration for the discussion and promotion of democratic values, international financial accountability, preservation of liberty and human rights, the conference is aimed to signal American’s recommitment to the values of individual rights, civil liberties, free access to trade and commerce and strengthening democracies across the globe. While this summit may likely to be more about rhetoric and signalling, nevertheless, it may allow various national governments to have a glimpse of Biden’s foreign policy inclination.
Lastly, as the void left by America was filled by China, Russia and other actors in multiple domains, Biden would move considerably in reassessing American’s role in global multilateralism by engaging in resolute policies toward multilateral forums such as EU and UN and confronting challenges by China, Iran, North Korea and Russia through a multilateral approach. While this approach will not mirror the unipolar multilateralism of America, it does, however, will starkly differentiate with Trump-era policies toward global forums for interaction and joint policy initiatives.
Biden presidency faces a long, turbulent road ahead to rebuild the trust, confidence and credibility in American values and commitments. These problems with credibility will take enormous time to mend, especially in the context of global friction amongst nations in the world. Biden is indeed facilitated by his understanding of the world, his long experience with America’s foreign relations and the team he intends to put in his administration to manage American international relations, he is nonetheless handicapped by the eventful turbulences occurred during Trump’s era. The restoration of American role will be an arduous road fraught with compromises and understanding. Biden does have what it takes to restore trust and credibility in US role in the world, but the circumstances may not favour him.