Over the last four years, President Donald Trump has undoubtedly left his mark on America’s foreign policy. From Europe to China, Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has tested US relations with allies and rivals alike, ruffling a few feathers along the way. Under the Trump administration, US foreign policy has been characterized by chaos and unpredictability, with Trump’s transactional view of diplomacy leaving traditional US allies regularly in the president’s firing line.
But with Joe Biden’s election success, America will have a new president in the White House — and foreign leaders are now faced with a very different proposition to Trump’s ham-fisted style. A Biden presidency will most likely see the US return to a more traditional geopolitical approach, with Mr Biden looking to rebuild America’s reputation among its allies.
Given the vastly different views held by President Trump and Mr Biden, it appears if American leadership on the global stage is about to see a dramatic shift — and this could have a major impact on some of America’s key relationships. As the dust from the 2020 presidential election settles, a new picture of American diplomacy is emerging, with some countries coming out winners and others seeing a difficult road ahead.
China Under Biden
During President Trump’s time in office, there has certainly been no love lost between the US and China. Since 2016, Mr Trump has started a trade war between the two countries, which so far has cost hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. The Trump administration has also hit China with sanctions over human rights violations and national security concerns, with Beijing retaliating with their own round of sanctions. Mr Trump has personally blamed China for the coronavirus, claiming the virus is “China’s fault, it should never have happened” — and has repeatedly referred to the virus as the “China Plague”.
At first glance, it is fair to say that Beijing will not be unhappy to see the back of Donald Trump. Joe Biden offers a more moderate position than President Trump’s tough stance on China, with it likely that the new administration would prefer reconciliation over confrontation. However, that is not to say that US-China relations won’t have their challenges under Biden.
A tough approach to China is one of the rare issues that has bipartisan support in US politics, with Democrats and Republicans alike favoring a harder stance towards Beijing. Additionally, many have speculated that Trump’s more isolationist ‘America First’ position has played into Chinese hands, with a United States that is less engaged with global affairs providing China a free reign to bolster its influence. Given that Joe Biden will seek to rebuild the traditional alliances that Trump has disparaged throughout his term, this may well constrain China’s ability to manoeuvre under a Biden presidency.
Across the Atlantic
In Western Europe, Biden’s victory will be greeted with jubilation. America’s reputation in Europe has taken a nosedive under President Trump, and it will be hoped that Joe Biden can restore US-EU relations. Trump has frequently criticized NATO members such as Germany over defense spending, alongside hitting the EU with trade tariffs. As a result, Trump is highly distrusted across Western Europe — with confidence in the president reaching lows of 11% in France, 10% in Germany and 9% in Belgium.
With Biden in the White House, this will change. Mr Biden will aim to improve US relations with the European Union more generally, alongside reaffirming America’s close ties to continental powers such as France and Germany. In particular, Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, alongside his science based approach to Covid-19, would likely endear him to European leaders.
The UK is a potential exception to this. Brexiteers inside Westminster had seen Donald Trump — who once referred to himself as “Mr Brexit” — as an ally, and had hoped that a favorable US-UK trade deal could be reached under Trump’s watch. However, given that the Democrats have previously threatened to block any trade deal with Britain if assurances are not given on Northern Ireland, Britain could find itself the biggest European loser from Biden’s victory.
Russia, Iran and North Korea
Whilst a Biden administration may find repairing relations with its closest European allies fairly straightforward, he will still have to tackle some of America’s more traditional rivals. Russia, Iran and North Korea all have strained relationships with the US, and Mr Biden’s victory will impact each of them in different ways.
In terms of Russia, Biden’s victory may provide Democrats with an opportunity to get revenge for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Democrats have certainly not hesitated to use Russia as a sort of bogeyman over the last few years, and Mr Biden’s claim that Russia represents America’s “greatest threat” will not have been missed in Moscow. However, Trump’s defeat will offer more stability for US-Russia relations — giving Vladimir Putin a more predictable adversary in the White House.
For Iran, Biden’s victory could offer Tehran a reprieve. The Trump administration has taken a hardline stance against Iran, pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposing strict sanctions on the country. The killing of General Qasem Soleimani back in January, one of Iran’s key military commanders, has further inflamed tensions between the two sides. Joe Biden has pledged to use diplomacy, not military force, to improve relations with Iran — seeking to revive the Iran nuclear deal and reset relations between the two rivals. However, such a reset will prove to be far from easy, with Iranian trust in Washington remaining extremely low.
North Korea will present Mr Biden with his most immediate concern, and his electoral success will not have gone down well in Pyongyang. President Trump certainly made waves when it came to US-NK relations, personally meeting Chairman Kim and in 2019 becoming the first sitting US president to enter North Korea. But for all the enthusiasm and talk of change, relations between the two rivals failed to thaw — with North Korea continuing its quest for nuclear weapons. Likewise, US sanctions have remained in place despite the meetings, with little tangible progress made under President Trump.
Biden is likely to take a more hardline approach to North Korea during his presidency, with the former vice president unlikely to give away any cheap concessions. During the campaign, Mr Biden criticized Donald Trump’s relationship with Kim Jong-Un, saying that his closeness to Mr Kim is “like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he, in fact, invaded … the rest of Europe”. Given that last year North Korea compared the former vice president to a “rabid dog”, it seems unlikely that the future Biden administration will soften their stance on Pyongyang anytime soon.
Beyond ‘America First’?
Donald Trump’s foreign policy over the past four years will be best remembered for its unpredictable and chaotic nature. His ‘America First’ approach has consistently left allies out in the cold and rivals guessing about the president’s next move — and has occasionally bordered on farcical. However, if President Trump preaches American chaos, Joe Biden offers a very different view of US leadership on the global stage.
Whether it be traditional US allies in Europe, or the rising challenge of China, a Biden presidency will leave a more measured mark on US relations — with some nations benefiting more from this than others. The 2020 election, at least for the time being, is likely to put an end to ‘America First’ and place a more traditional statesman in the White House.