The just-concluded U.S. presidential campaign boiled down to a character referendum on the first reality TV presidency. There was little substantive debate about how to address the coronavirus pandemic, how to heal the country’s grievous racial wounds, or how to fix its debased political culture.
Foreign policy is rarely prominent in American elections. This time around, it was ignored altogether. An exhausted and divided public chose empathy over anger, but voters can be forgiven for not yet having a clear sense of what Joe Biden’s election means for the United States’ role in the world.
Early indications are that the Biden administration will bring back professionalism and competence to international relations. After the concerted assault of the past four years against U.S. government institutions, the next secretary of state faces a particularly daunting task to rebuild American diplomacy.
Biden has signaled an end to U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, and he’s unlikely to treat the Middle East as an arms bazaar. He has pledged to end the Trump administration’s “Muslim Ban” and dramatically increase the annual refugee admissions cap.
His government will seek improved relations with Canadian, European, and Asian democracies. The expected downgrading of ties with authoritarians and wannabes — from dictators like Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Mohammed bin Salman to illiberal populists like Benyamin Netanyahu, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and Rodrigo Duterte — would be a welcome development.
There are also less promising signs. Unlike other Democratic challengers, candidate Biden dismissed calls for accountability for Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. He declined to call for reductions to the bloated Pentagon budget, which is larger than the combined spending of the next ten countries, many of which are U.S. allies. Though eschewing Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric against China, the Biden campaign was scarcely less hawkish.
The Biden administration seems unlikely to seek confrontation with China. Indeed, the wreckage of the last two decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East — in which force projection and military dominance became geostrategic ends in themselves, leading the United States to become embroiled in devastating wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen — shows the profound risks of applying a militaristic approach to East Asia.
There will certainly be voices both inside and outside government advocating for a hawkish U.S. military posture in the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf. With U.S.-China relations at their lowest ebb in a generation and U.S.-Iran tensions dangerously close to a boiling point, a new strategy is needed. Reducing the risk of a U.S.-China cold war or a military conflict with Iran requires not just repudiating Trump’s jingoistic transactionalism, but also breaking from decades of pre-Trump militarism, rooted in white supremacy and imperialism, under the guise of American exceptionalism.
Those looking for the seeds of a less militaristic U.S. posture might take encouragement from Joe Biden’s own personal narrative. Drawing on his own tragic life story, Biden campaigned on a simple message of compassion and healing among and between Americans. He has spoken of the need to address systematic racism and to restore public faith in American democracy. As a Senate staffer for Joe Biden for the five years preceding his election as vice president in 2008, I saw this ethos of empathy first-hand. I believe it could hold the key to devising a distinctive foreign policy that can begin the difficult process of restoring trust with allies, while creating a constructive agenda with China.
The miserly boorishness of the Trump era is a new look for the United States, but it is hardly more appealing than the traditional role of moralizing hegemon. The Biden administration will need to act with more humility and restraint as well as a greater appreciation on the limits of its power.
The global distribution of power is changing, and most of the world would like the United States to behave less arrogantly. An ethos of empathy requires appreciation that other countries — not just allies, but rivals as well — have their own interests. It also means distinguishing governments from their citizens and recognizing the critical role that civil society plays in tackling shared global challenges.
This points to the need to identify a small number of overarching international priorities, which intersect with and amplify the Biden domestic agenda. Three issues seem particularly acute — international cooperation to control the pandemic and address climate change, as well as a U.S. reentry to the Iran nuclear agreement.
No foreign leader will take inspiration from the disastrous U.S. response to COVID-19. There will, however, be an urgent need for a global effort to ensure that the world’s poorest regions are not left behind as vaccines become available. The Biden campaign recommitted to the World Health Organization and signaled a willingness to work to offset the costs to developing nations. It could join the international COVAX facility to pool resources for the equitable procurement and distribution of coronavirus vaccines. It could seek funding to help vaccinate health care workers in the world’s poorest countries. Biden has similarly prioritized the re-entry to the Paris climate agreement. Catalyzing an effort to move the world’s largest economies toward net-zero emissions by 2050 will require concerted and sustained coordination by North America, Europe, and China.
Elevating global public health and climate change to core national interests can help to expand our understanding of national security to include challenges that feel more tangible to American citizens than internal conflicts in distant lands. These priorities would require updating the 20th century toolkit of statecraft — so heavily reliant upon economic, diplomatic, and military coercion — to include new forms of international cooperation and to create opportunities to engage new, younger, and more diverse voices into the foreign policy process. It is not an accident that the Pentagon will be a supporting player, rather than a driving force, in each of these issues.
Lowering the temperature with Iran will be another priority for the president-elect, amid concerns that the Trump administration will use its remaining weeks to undermine such an outcome and is even considering airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Both Joe Biden and the Iranian government have signaled a desire for a “compliance-for-compliance” agreement that would allow the United States to reenter the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.
This requires the United States to remove sanctions in exchange for a return to Iranian compliance. However, the mechanics and sequencing of such an arrangement will be difficult for both sides, and an incremental, transactional approach is likely to fail. There is no guarantee that a bolder diplomatic initiative with Tehran will succeed in salvaging the nuclear agreement. But at the very least, it would dramatically reduce the risk of war with Iran and it could help create the context for a much-needed broader diplomatic process on Gulf security issues.
Improving frayed international relationships requires more than lip service. Goodwill will only be earned through concrete action. Executing on these three priorities — COVID-19, climate change, and Middle East nuclear nonproliferation — can demonstrate that the United States is no longer a malign actor on the global stage. By laying out a clear agenda that begins to close the gap between foreign and domestic policies, Joe Biden has a chance to chart a new course that is better matched to the significant challenges of the 21st century.