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OP-ED: A President Biden to the world?

  • Published at 07:15 pm August 21st, 2020
Biden TV election
Photo: REUTERS

How will Biden’s foreign policy differ from that of Trump?

After the controversy generated by polls in the 2016 general elections, most prudent observers are rightly shy of placing an inordinate amount of trust in the infallibility of the predictive power of public opinion surveys for the upcoming US presidential elections in November. 

That said, at this time, the odds look even for either President Trump or his Democratic challenger and former vice president Joe Biden. Thus, the question is legitimate: Will a future President Biden engage with the world differently than the incumbent?

After teaching politics at the collegiate level for almost 20 years and investing about a similar amount of time in doing retail politics for various campaign of both major American parties, my answer to that question is yes, but with a caveat: Most of the differences will be in the category of status quo ante of previous administrations of both parties. 

This caveat is largely fuelled by the rather unusual personality of President Trump and many of his foreign policy appointees whose brusqueness made the slightest changes in tone or substance appear more abrupt than they actually were.

The first instance where we can expect change, therefore, is that in tone whereby a Biden-Harris administration will likely revert back to the bipartisan consensus of leading with quiet strength rather than bullying without focus. 

In other words, seriousness of purpose as behooves the world’s major superpower should be restored were Joe Biden to become successful in a couple of months. 

Instead of Trump’s unusual ambassadors in Berlin and London gratuitously offending allies and pushing for their benefactor’s business interests, we are likely to see the more conventional type of envoys having discussions and relaying national policies to host countries in a cerebral, behind-the-closed-door manner that befits diplomacy between allies.

Secondly, a Biden-Harris administration is almost certain to go back to the approach of previous American administrations of both parties with regards to Russia in that the Putin regime will be eyed with wariness and suspicion rather than with the cultural affinity that Trump’s nationalist faction have seen in a revanchist Russia. 

The possibility of a build-up to another Cold War cannot be entirely ruled out though with Russia’s continuing economic travails, it is hard to see it matching the technological, military, and cultural clout of the United States any time soon.

The Russian “reset” has to, by definition almost, portend a third change: We will very likely see a change in the lack of global focus on human rights that has been the hallmark of a Trump administration that is friendly with nationalist-authoritarian regimes in Pyongyang, New Delhi, and Moscow. 

Traditional American support -- even if often only moral -- for free elections, free press, and political pluralism is once again going to be felt a little more acutely in Damascus, Dhaka, Doha, and elsewhere where regimes have a similar lack of tolerance for dissent.

Fourthly, the pillars of the Western democratic alliance -- NATO, 5Eyes, and EU -- can expect a fully engaged American leadership under a President Biden. 

Ties that have been frayed, even as they have been sustained by sheer institutional strength, by neglect, personnel decisions, or diplomatic faux pas under the current administration will see rapid repairs, with looming threats of trans-national terror and Russian expansionism as key contributing factors.

In the fifth instance, the Middle East, I do not expect a major change in American policy except in tone which, by itself, is enough to persuade regional actors to behave differently. No American administration is going to locate the American embassy back to Tel Aviv; for starters, there is a law about it, and domestic considerations would mitigate against it too. 

A Biden administration will, however, take a more open approach to Palestinian concerns and grievances, just like all its predecessors going back to the elder Bush’s presidency; in parallel, the mediating role of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan is likely to be upgraded from its current secondary row behind President Trump’s business partners in the ruling families of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Last, but not least, the world should not expect a major change from Trump’s rhetorical bellicosity towards China. During his time in the Senate and his subsequent stint as Barack Obama’s deputy, Joe Biden has had a sceptic’s eye towards China, balancing trade relations with concerns about the Communist giant’s political behaviour. 

A toughness in these times of continued trade imbalances and Hong Kong democracy protests is going to be expected from a President Biden, and his own party’s idealistic and younger members of Congress will insist on it. 

There may be fewer rhetorical barbs, but China should expect continued coolness in Washington DC, no matter who wins this November.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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