THE outcome of the US presidential election in November will have a significant global impact. Will it mean more of the same or usher in changes in American foreign policy? Will it bring an end to the disruptive effect that the Trumpian approach has had at an unsettled time in international affairs?
With elections just over three months away, Democratic contender Joe Biden has a two-digit lead over President Donald Trump whose approval ratings have plummeted due to his mishandling of the pandemic and a weakening economy. This lead will likely narrow as the campaign advances with the race expected to be close. An unusual election in the midst of the continuing pandemic means greater unpredictability especially in view of Trump’s efforts to set the stage to challenge and delegitimise the outcome if he loses.
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It would be instructive to consider how different the foreign policy approaches of the two contenders will be, based on what they have said or done so far. Foreign policy cannot of course be divorced from the domestic situation. If foreign policy is a reflection of the internal strength and cohesion of a country, the US is no exception to this. Trump’s divisive and combative leadership and his controversial policies on race and policing have left his country in a state of disarray, division and dysfunction. This has damaged America’s reputation and global standing and eroded its soft power — weaknesses that will be reinforced if Trump is re-elected. A Biden presidency will seek to heal these internal divisions and try to reverse its deleterious fallout on America’s global image. That would represent the first fundamental difference between them.
Their general approach to foreign policy will also be appreciably different. Biden’s will be more conventional and predictable in sharp contrast to Trump’s whimsical and disruptive handling of global affairs, which will remain his style of conducting foreign relations if re-elected. Indeed, Trump’s blustering posture always exceeded the power his country could mobilise to secure compliance from other nations. It didn’t take long for targeted countries to figure this out and push back effectively against such perceived bullying. Cases in point are North Korea and China.
Trump can be expected to continue his ‘America First’ unilateral policy, rejecting multilateralism, abandoning more international organisations or agreements, showing disdain for traditional alliances including Nato and disregarding allies on key fronts. Biden, on the other hand, has long dealt with foreign policy and defines himself as a “liberal internationalist”. He will seek to revive America’s multilateral credentials, rejoin global bodies, restore partnerships in Europe and Asia, repair ties with allies and strengthen Nato, as a longtime supporter of the alliance. In a recent interview, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, reiterated this faith in the principles of liberal internationalism.
On the Iran nuclear deal, a Biden administration is expected to rejoin it and seek to “improve” it. Biden regarded Trump’s 2018 abandonment of the agreement as disastrous, which left the US “much worse off”. He has repeatedly declared he would re-enter JCPOA if Iran abided by it and then work to strengthen it with partners. He has also said that “Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish US credibility, signalling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something”.
On the world’s most critical bilateral relationship — between the US and China — a re-elected Trump would likely continue on a course of confrontation making future ties turbulent and marked by more provocative actions. He will try to refashion the trade equation between the two global powers but in the face of a more confident and assertive China. The anti-China mood in the US will be reinforced during the campaign as both candidates portray themselves as tough on China. The two camps are already accusing each other of being soft on Beijing.
As the popular and political consensus in America now sees China as a manipulative adversary, this will also shape Biden’s policy approach. Most of his foreign policy advisers are hawks on China. Nevertheless, while adopting a tough stance towards Beijing and engaging in strategic competition as well as containment, Biden may be less combative than Trump and seek areas of cooperation such as climate change and North Korea. He may also try to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On Afghanistan, Trump has made plain his intention to withdraw all US military forces as committed under the Doha agreement between the US and Taliban. While his administration is making efforts to start intra-Afghan talks that can negotiate an end to the war, he is set on an American exit from Afghanistan regardless of whether a political settlement is reached. Biden is unlikely to shift course on this. He has long been engaged on the Afghan issue and understands regional dynamics well. As vice president, he opposed president Barack Obama’s military surge in 2009 and argued instead for a narrower counterterrorism mission. Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars provides detailed insights into Biden’s thinking at the time and his views on both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Asked this February what he would do on Afghanistan he said he would bring American troops home during his first term. It is unclear how he might act if he listens to those in the US establishment who warn that a swift withdrawal could bring chaos.
South Asia is not expected to be a high priority for either of the two contenders but both are likely to strengthen ties with India to balance China. A Biden administration would however recognise problems in the relationship because of India’s increasing authoritarianism and not shy away from speaking on human rights. This is already reflected in his campaign platform which stated last month that Biden understands the pain Muslim-Americans feel on issues including Kashmir. It also called on India to “take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir”.
Biden, who has visited Pakistan several times, is expected to be favourably disposed to engagement with Islamabad and in a more predictable way than Trump. Much will also depend on how proactive and imaginative Islamabad is in engaging his administration. A detailed assessment will follow in a later column.