Among the many crises sparked by Donald Trump’s presidency, there is one that was largely overlooked in the 2020 elections. It also happens to be what Joe Biden has been preparing his entire career for: the crisis of global trust in American leadership.
The former Vice President spent 34 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and another eight years at the Obama White House writing a detailed report on foreign affairs, including the US withdrawal from Iraq. Today he is the presidential candidate with the most impressive foreign policy credentials of any candidate since George HW Bush in 1
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 largely an afterthought in an election driven by the antics and outrage of the incumbent dominated in the White House.
Biden’s team is under no illusions about the extent of the diplomatic challenge. According to recent polls, Europe’s confidence in Trump’s leadership is between 40 and 60 points lower than at the same time in Obama’s presidency. Even in Russia, trust in Trump is 16 points lower than it was in Obama at the end of his first term.
How can Biden heal the damage? Former Secretary of State and longtime confidante of Biden, John Kerry believes the former vice president’s longstanding relationships with allies will help.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he told The Guardian. “I know there are concerns among friends and allies that if we just played ping pong from one election to the next, the United States could easily tear apart treaties and norms. But I think Joe Biden’s presence is reassuring. I wouldn’t speak for the Vice President and his team, but it is clear to anyone who has known him, worked with him and watched him over many years how much he values our European alliances. He spent decades on the Senate External Relations Committee, learning, listening, and knowing dozens of young MPs who have grown to become prime ministers and foreign ministers. “
“I think his unique credibility and years of relationships in Europe will help restore these alliances on the first day of a Biden presidency. I know he’s respected and he deserves these relationships. When Russian tanks rolled into a neighboring country called Georgia in 2008, Joe Biden immediately picked up the phone and called an old friend who happened to be the country’s president. So Joe got on a plane, flew all night, and sat on a hill in Georgia with the president of our Democratic ally, making it clear that the United States stands with allies. People remember those moments. “
In a speech in New York in 2019, Biden formulated a return to agreements from the Obama era that Trump absolutely wanted to destroy: in particular the international agreement to end the Iranian nuclear program and the Paris climate agreement. Biden has promised to host his own climate summit in his first 100 days and set higher goals for the world’s largest carbon-polluting countries.
“Just think of the positive signals a government could send immediately about climate change,” Kerry said. “Of course he said he would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement immediately, but I think he will send the signal at the next COP in Glasgow, Scotland [climate change conference] that the world must increase its ambition. Paris itself was a destination, not a guarantee. “
“He saw his son sent to a war zone.”
Biden was never fully involved in Obama’s foreign policy. He broke up with his boss in the White House, particularly over the decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan. In the Senate, where Obama was a new member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was particularly far removed.
Over the years, it has been difficult for Biden to break down the use of American force. He voted against the Gulf War in 1990 because it did not promote US national interests. But he voted to invade Iraq 12 years later after his preferred option of prioritizing diplomacy failed. Between those two votes, Biden became a liberal hawk in the Senate, pushing for military action against Serbia over its ethnic cleansing wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Where is Biden today?
“We have to retract the Hawk-Dove frame. It’s counterproductive, ”said Kerry. “What was Joe Biden in the Balkans? He was the guy in the Senate who cracked down on his colleagues and a democratic government to urgently stop the genocide. How is this called? The thread that runs through all of these areas is that Joe Biden wrestled with facts and values, grilling people who agreed with him and those who disagreed with him, testing everyone’s assumptions for pressure. “
“He’s the guy who saw his son sent to a war zone. He knows what it’s like to live with that worry. So he is healthily impatient with countries that benefit from the sacrifice of our troops but allow politicians to waste these sacrifices. You tell me: is that a hawk or a dove? “
If Biden promises a return to the familiar lines of American foreign policy, he will in a world that has changed significantly in the past four years. Trump’s presidency has encouraged authoritarian regimes and weakened democratic controls around the world.
Biden says he will hold a summit for democracy in his first year in office to “strengthen democratic institutions” and “defend against authoritarianism”. The Democratic candidate has made it clear that he would face Russia, where Trump is making every effort to do the opposite. However, Biden was less vocal in declaring that his approach would put an end to normal business with Saudi Arabia as well as continued tensions with China.
“He would never praise dictators. But guess what? He knows how to work with people to resolve disagreements and still get things done in areas where you really need to work together, ”said Kerry. “Think about China. The world’s two largest economies need to work together on climate change. You can do this at the same time as a mature president has serious problems in that relationship. “
In practice, Biden’s version of American foreign policy can only succeed with increased foreign aid budgets to halt the decline in democracies and confront regimes that seek to accelerate that decline.
Biden’s work in the so-called northern triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras included $ 420 million in aid to contain a new wave of migrants by strengthening good government, the rule of law and food security.
These programs were cut by the Trump administration, which instead spent $ 11 billion on a partial wall along the Mexican border.
“You have to tackle the underlying problems that drive mass migration and caravans, but your leadership has to go further and faster,” said Kerry. “It is not easy to repair 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 judiciary.
“Guess what? It’ll never get fixed unless there is trust and respect at the highest level. The United States is part of this great business. The biggest house on the block has to help run the neighborhood watch.”