Goodbye America First — and say hello again to multilateralism

Tim Marshall assesses how US president-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy will differ from President Trump's

November 12, 2020 09:48

There’s personality and there’s policy - and just because Joe Biden’s personality is so different from Donald Trumps’, it doesn’t follow that all of his foreign policies will be. Some, notably Iran and climate change, will see Biden attempting to reverse Trump’s decisions. A few, such as the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he will quietly let lie. And others he will continue. What will be different in all cases, though, is tone - and tone matters.

So goodbye ‘America First’, welcome back ‘American Multilateralism’.

First, the changes, most of which dovetail with the return to multilateralism. The president-elect is on record as saying he will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord on “day one” of taking office. That is in his gift but his ability to meet a target of reducing US emissions to net zero by 2050 could be hampered by his own Democratic party. Some Senators will block measures they fear are unpopular in their own states. Still, Biden means business, he’s said, “we’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity, meet this moment in history.”

That’s music to the ears of Boris Johnson, who is hoping to welcome the new president to the major climate change conference he’s hosting in Glasgow next November. He, and most other western leaders, are also hoping that Biden can breathe renewed confidence into NATO after four bruising years in which Donald Trump first cast doubt on its future and was then, at best, lukewarm in his support. Joe Biden, like Mr Trump, will demand the Europeans spend more on defence but he’s unlikely to undermine the alliance.

He will also try to take the US back into the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was agreed between Iran, the EU, USA, China, Russia, UK and Germany in 215 but Trump pulled the USA out in 2018. It won’t be easy to get back in.

Next year Iran has its own presidential election. The hawks in Tehran may not be in the mood to make concessions until after the summer. After that, they may deal. President Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has helped destroy the Iranian economy and so one concession Tehran will want from Washington is a lifting of sanctions.

In return Mr Biden will need Iran to come back into full compliance with the JCPOA and allow verification that it is not building nuclear weapons. Privately the Americans may also want assurances that Iran won’t seek revenge for Mr Trump’s decision to use a drone strike to kill General Qasem Soleimani, a close friend of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and others will be watching closely. They remain alarmed about Iran’s attempts to dominate the Middle East and are sceptical of the JCPOA’s ability to constrain it from secretly building a nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, there’s still no substitute for America’s defence umbrella and all will try to remain close to the superpower even as they watch it slowly disengage from the region over the next few decades. The long switch from fossil fuels, and pivot to Asia, means the US focus is turning elsewhere.

However in the short to medium term it still has interests there. Mr Biden is unlikely to embarrass Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman about his alleged role in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but the young de facto ruler will be put on notice to end his impetuous behaviour. President Biden’s foreign policy will also occasionally use two words rarely heard in the White House for the past four years: “Human Rights”.

There’s no reason for him to unpick the recent Donald Trump brokered UAE/Israel peace deal, especially as more may be coming. Nor is he expected to move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv or rescind the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan.

Joe Biden‘s support for Israel is well known. He opened a speech in 2015, on the 67th anniversary of the state, with the words: “My name is Joe Biden and everybody knows I love Israel.” However, that support will not be as open ended as was Mr Trump’s. We can expect the re-introduction of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and the re-opening of the UN consulate for Palestinian affairs in Jerusalem.

Mr Biden will not countenance talk of annexation of the West Bank and will be under pressure from the left of his party to take a hard line on settlements. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated the three-year PA boycott of the White House is coming to an end, saying, “I look forward to working with the President-elect”.

Elsewhere, we can expect a robust approach to both China and Russia. The American political class is mostly hawkish on China and Beijing is probably disappointed that victory has gone to a president who will seek to pull together the allies President Trump has spent four years alienating. Mr Biden has described Russia as America’s biggest threat and we won’t see any doubting of the usefulness of NATO from the new man. However, he will need to move quickly to establish a relationship with President Putin because the ‘New Start’ nuclear reduction treaty between the two countries runs out in February.

That, North Korea, Afghanistan, Covid-19 and a host of other issues means the US/UK trade deal is unlikely to be top of his in-tray. It is important to America because the UK is its 7th largest trading partner and biggest inward investor. But in the flurry of activity of the first 100 days a quick deal will be difficult and a hard Brexit would probably make it impossible.

Mr Biden is said to hold a dim view of Boris Johnson believing that Brexit helped lead to Trump and that he was a “kind of physical and emotional clone of the president”. In September he warned the prime minister about the dangers of a no deal Brexit, tweeting: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.” The clock is ticking. Legislation known as the Trade Promotion Authority means that a US/UK deal could be fast tracked through Congress if it gets there by April. If not, it could get bogged down by amendments.

Nevertheless, ‘Uncle Joe’ is said to be the ‘Great Conciliator’ and is pragmatic enough to forge a working partnership with Mr Johnson. The US/UK relationship is now only one of several which are ‘Special’ but it transcends the countries’ leaders and there are enough bridges already constructed to ensure it continues.

All American Presidents put America First. But the President-elect, unlike the incumbent, is a multilateralist who does not always play the zero-sum game, believes in the benefits of co-operation and speaks in a softer tone — while still carrying a big stick.


November 12, 2020 09:48

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