2020 U.S. Election Geopolitics Part Deux: If Biden Wins


2020 U.S. Election Geopolitics Part Deux: If Biden Wins

This is the second installment of a 2-part series on the geopolitics of the upcoming U.S. election. If you missed part 1, you may want to go back and read it before diving into what we think U.S. foreign policy would look like in a Biden administration. While most of that post is about what a second Trump administration would mean for the world, it also contains some key caveats about the limits of a U.S. president’s power – limits that constrain Republicans and Democrats alike – that we won’t be repeating here.  Also note, Jacob Shapiro will be joining Kathleen Lucente from Red Fan Communications LIVE on Thursday to discuss geopolitics and communications.  More details here, we hope y’all can join us.

Joe Biden has been remarkably candid and specific about what he will do if elected president. The most telling of his enumerated priorities is what he has called a “Summit for Democracy.” Biden has promised that during his first year in office, the United States will host this global summit “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” Biden imbues the word “democracy” with all the hope and faith he has in the United States as a political project. If democracy were an ice cream flavor, it would probably be his favorite. For Biden, democracy is “not just the foundation of American society” but also the “wellspring” of U.S. power. A President Biden will be driven by an insatiable drive to “renew core values.” This is one of the key differences between Biden and former President Barack Obama. Obama spoke the language of idealism but practiced the policy of pragmatism. In wonky foreign policy terms, Obama is what is known as a “realist.” Biden is cut from a very different cloth.

Joe Biden is not a foreign policy realist, nor should one expect that his ideals will be sacrificed on an altar of expediency. Biden is a neoconservative. “Neoconservative” became a dirty word in the United States after the George W. Bush administration and its merry band of neocons invaded Iraq, hoping to remake that fractious country in its own image. But “neoconservative” is not necessarily a synonym for “war-hungry Republican.” A neoconservative is simply one who thinks that U.S. foreign policy is at its best when the U.S. is using its power to spread liberal democratic values. Biden would depend far more on international institutions and multilateral agreements than the Bush administration, which will give his overall approach an air of liberal internationalism. But make no mistake: under Biden, the U.S. will practice an ideological foreign policy. Trump’s approach from day 1 has been “America First.” Biden’s approach will be “Democracy First,” and he will have little patience or sympathy for rivals he considers illiberal.

That is why in practical terms, some of the over goals of American foreign policy under a Biden administration will not differ that much from the Trump Administration. After all, it was U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said this past July that “maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.” Like President Trump, Biden sees China as a significant threat to U.S. interests. Indeed, Biden has openly called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug”  who “doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.” The other top priorities of Trump’s foreign policy have been Russia, Iran, and North Korea. All three will figure prominently in Biden’s foreign policy as well. As we’ve written previously, Biden sees Russia not just as a peer competitor, but as “brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy.” Biden also sees the Iranian and North Korean regimes as significant challenges, not just because of their respective pursuits of nuclear weapons, but because they represent their people good old-fashioned American democracy.

The “what” under Biden would not change that much. It’s the “how” that would change – and boy would it ever. Biden would dispense of what he might call “America First malarkey” on day 1 of his presidency. Because of his faith in U.S. principles, Biden believes the U.S. must be a global leader, and you cannot be a leader unless you are willing to lead. Unlike the Trump administration, which has engaged even with close American allies and partners on a transactional basis, a Biden administration would prioritize investing in U.S. allies in partners. Biden has spoken at length about how the U.S. needs to get tough on China and how Trump’s version of piecemeal tariffs that pass increased costs onto American consumers were counterproductive. (Considering China’s trade gap with the U.S. was 43 percent bigger in September than when Trump took office, it’s hard to argue with the former Vice President on that score.) Biden would not tell U.S. allies what to do – he would try to work with U.S. allies and to deepen U.S. partnerships with like-minded countries, i.e., those suspicious of Chinese or Russian intentions.

If he wins, Biden has his work cut out for him. Broadly speaking, the Trump administration has divorced trade relations from strategic relations in U.S foreign policy. Biden would put an end to that practice right away. The first two countries Biden will need to focus on mending fences with are South Korea and Germany. Under Trump, the U.S. has put tremendous pressure on Seoul to pay the cost of hosting U.S. forces in the country. The U.S. has also straight-up insulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and engaged in a mini trade war with the European Union which does little more than raise the cost of French cheeses and Italian wines for U.S. consumers during a global pandemic in which we are desperately in need of more of both. That would all change under a Biden administration.

Biden will try to rebuild U.S. alliances, and if he is able to cobble together enough support in Congress, he would likely try to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Aside from rebuilding these relationships, Biden, like Trump, will try to deepen relations with potential partners like India and Indonesia, though Biden’s emphasis on “shared values” may make this harder in practice than Biden thinks, or else force him to compromise on his more ideological instincts. Ditto American interests in Latin America and Africa – regions with complicated memories of previous U.S. attempts to marshal their resources and “shared values” in a global struggle for democracy.

One of the starkest differences between Trump and Biden will be their approach towards the Middle East. Biden has already promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement if Iran is compliant with its requirements. Even if the Democrats win the Senate, Biden will likely not be able to count on a 2/3rds majority to give the JCPOA the force of a treaty, meaning a Republican challenger could as easily leave the deal again as Trump did in 2020, but for the next four years, Iran will be dealing with a vastly more cooperate White House than it has been under Trump. It is also bad news for U.S. partners like Turkey – Biden has called President Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” – and Saudi Arabia, support for whose war in Yemen Biden has also promised to cancel. The Middle East is becoming increasingly less important to U.S. foreign policy, however – even if it generates strong feelings. Biden’s priority will be following through on Obama’s pivot to Asia and on rebuilding the alliance and multilateral mechanisms necessary to isolate China rather than just unilaterally tariff-ing it and hoping that China will magically fall in line and open up its markets to U.S. companies.

But perhaps the starkest difference will be Biden’s emphasis on climate change. If Biden loses the election, no doubt many will point back to his comments at the end of the second presidential debate, when he talked about needing to “transition from the oil industry.” According to Biden, the U.S. “will rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one of a Biden administration and then convene a summit of the world’s major carbon emitters, rally nations to raise their ambitions and push progress further and faster.” Here is where the neoconservative and the Democrat in Biden converge, as he will hope to use American influence to further climate goals whilst hoping the Democrats take the Senate so he can pass huge stimulus bills and federal investment in the infrastructure of the 21st century, like broadband, highways, rail, the energy grid, smart cities, and education. If the Democrats do take the Senate, Biden will have a two-year window to marry his domestic vision for the U.S. with his foreign policy priorities in a manner similar to the way Trump completely upended U.S. foreign policy during his first two years. Without the Senate, Biden will still look to revamp U.S. foreign policy, but some of his more ambitious desires will be curtailed.

A Biden victory would mean a return to more traditional American foreign policy, and certainly to a more predictable U.S. approach to allies and rivals alike. Ironically, however, while Biden would likely calm the surface waters, his policies would only serve to exacerbate some of the deeper geopolitical rivalries that have emerged in a multipolar world. Biden might be more predictable and more willing to engage on climate, trade, and nuclear proliferation issues, but just the very act of attempting to assemble anti-China, anti-Russia, and perhaps even anti-Turkey coalitions will be read as threatening in Beijing, Moscow, and Ankara. If there is one thing those exposed to geopolitical risk must do in the event of a Biden victory, it would be to reject the idea, however comforting, that 2020 in particular and the Trump administration, in general, was an aberration and that a Biden victory would mean a return to normalcy. Great power competition is here to stay, Biden just promises to fight a little differently.