Among the many crises triggered by Donald Trump’s presidency, there is one that has been largely overlooked by the 2020 election. It also just happens to be the one that Joe Biden has spent his entire career preparing for: the crisis of global confidence in American leadership.
The former vice-president spent 34 years on the Senate foreign relations committee, and another eight years in the Obama White House with an expansive brief on foreign affairs including the American withdrawal from Iraq. Today he stands as the presidential nominee with the most formidable foreign policy credentials of any candidate since George HW Bush in 1988.
But at a time when respect for American leadership has largely collapsed around the world, Biden’s worldview, and the foreign policy he would likely pursue, is mostly an afterthought in an election dominated by the antics and outrages of the incumbent in the White House.
Biden’s team is under no illusions about the scale of the diplomatic challenge. According to recent polling, European confidence in Trump’s leadership is between 40 and 60 points lower than it was at the same point in Obama’s presidency. Even in Russia, confidence in Trump is 16 points lower than it was for Obama at the end of his first term.
How can Biden heal the damage? John Kerry, the former secretary of state and long-time Biden confidant, believes the former vice-president’s long relationships with allies will help.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he told The Guardian. “I know there are worries among friends and allies that the United States could just rip up treaties and norms if we just ping pong back and forth from one election to another. But I think Joe Biden’s presence is reassuring. I wouldn’t speak for the vice-president and his team, but it’s clear for anyone who has known him and worked with him and watched him over many years, just how much he values our European alliances. He traveled for decades on the foreign relations committee in the Senate to learn and listen and get to know dozens of young parliamentarians who grew up to become prime ministers and foreign ministers.”
“I think his unique credibility and years of relationships in Europe will help restore those alliances on day one of a Biden presidency. I know he’s respected, and he earned those relationships. In 2008, when Russian tanks rolled into a neighboring country called Georgia, it was Joe Biden who immediately picked up the phone, and called an old friend, who happened to be the president of the country. So Joe got on a plane, flew all night, and sat on a hilltop in Georgia with the president of our democratic ally and made it clear the United States stands with allies. People remember those moments.”
At a New York speech in 2019, Biden spelled out a return to Obama-era agreements that Trump has been determined to destroy: especially the international deal to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and the Paris climate agreement. Biden has promised to host his own climate summit in his first 100 days, setting higher targets for the world’s biggest carbon-polluting countries.
“Just think about the positive signals an administration could send right away on climate change,” Kerry said. “Obviously, he’s said he’ll rejoin the Paris climate agreement immediately, but I think he’ll also send the signal in Glasgow, Scotland, at the next COP [climate change conference] that the world must ratchet up its ambition. Paris itself was a goal not a guarantee.”
‘He saw his son deployed to a war zone’
Biden was never fully aligned with Obama’s foreign policy. He diverged with his boss in the White House, especially on the decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan. In the Senate, where Obama was a new member on the foreign relations committee, Biden was particularly distant.
Over the years, Biden has been hard to compartmentalize on the use of American force. He voted against the Gulf War in 1990 because it did not advance American national interests. But he voted for the invasion of Iraq 12 years later, after his preferred option to prioritize diplomacy failed to pass. Between those two votes, Biden became a liberal hawk in the Senate, pushing hard for military action against Serbia for its ethnic cleansing wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.
So where does Biden stand today?
“We have to retire the hawk-dove frame. It’s counterproductive,” said Kerry. “What was Joe Biden on the Balkans? He was the guy in the Senate pounding on his colleagues and a Democratic administration to move with urgency to stop genocide. What do you call that? The thread that runs through all these areas is that Joe Biden wrestled with facts and values and he grilled people who agreed with him and those who disagreed with him and hew pressure-tested everyone’s assumptions.”
“He’s a guy who saw his son deployed to a war zone. He knows what it’s like to live with that worry. So, he’s healthily impatient with countries that benefit from our troops’ sacrifice but allow politicians to squander those sacrifices. You tell me: is that being a hawk or being a dove?”
If Biden promises a return to the familiar lines of American foreign policy, he will do so in a world that has changed significantly over the last four years. Trump’s presidency has emboldened authoritarian regimes and weakened democratic checks and balances across the world.
Biden says he will host a summit for democracy in his first year in office, to “strengthen democratic institutions” and “defend against authoritarianism.” The Democratic nominee has made it clear he would confront Russia, where Trump makes every effort to do the opposite. But Biden has been less vocal in explaining that his approach would mean an end to business as usual with Saudi Arabia, as well as continued tension with China.
“He’d never lavish praise on dictators. But guess what? He knows how to work with people to manage disagreements and still get things done in areas where you absolutely have to cooperate,” said Kerry. “Think about China. The world’s two biggest economies have to cooperate on climate change, period. You can do that at the same time that a mature president deals with serious problems in that relationship.”
In practice, Biden’s version of American foreign policy can only succeed with higher foreign aid budgets to halt the slide of democracies and confront the regimes that seek to accelerate that decline.
Biden’s work in the so-called northern triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, involved $420m of US aid to help stem a new wave of migration by strengthening good government, the rule of law, and food security.
Those programs were cut by the Trump administration, which instead spent $11bn on a partial wall along the Mexican border.
“They must fight the underlying problems that are driving mass migration and caravans, but their leadership needs to go further, faster,” said Kerry. “It’s not easy to fix countries where up to half the population lives in poverty. But they can all move faster to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption, and reform their judicial systems.
“Guess what? It’ll never get fixed if there’s not trust and respect at the highest levels. In this grand bargain, the United States has a role to play. The biggest house on the block has to help lead the neighborhood watch.”