From climate to China, how Joe Biden is plotting America’s restoration

Simon Tisdall
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

By any measure, Joe Biden is old in the ways of the world. As Barack Obama’s vice-president, he met all the big international actors. As chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, he helped direct US foreign policy.

After four years of Donald Trump’s manic leadership, the Democrat offers a steady, dependable hand on the tiller. Biden’s grand aim: a glorious American restoration, at home and abroad.

But his long experience cuts both ways. For many on the left, Biden’s conventional global outlook represents not so much a new dawn as a return to the Washington establishment-led policies of the pre-Trump era.

Those hoping for radical action on pressing issues such as the climate crisis, global inequality, or confronting authoritarian “strongman” leaders could be disappointed.

If he wins, Biden’s supporters say, America will be back in charge at the global helm. Normal service will resume. Biden’s critics say he is but a pale shadow of his old boss – a cautious, centrist politician like Obama but lacking the latter’s vision.

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In either case, who Biden selects to be his secretary of state, national security adviser and defence secretary could be crucial.

Pressure from Democratic party progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren pushed Biden leftwards during the campaign.

The twin health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic also shifted his thinking. He now talks about “reimagining” America’s relationship with the world.

Whether his views have really changed remains to be seen. And for all his foreign policy expertise, it’s clear Biden’s primary focus, if elected, will be domestic.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year, he set out a “foreign policy for the middle class” whose top priority was “enabling Americans to succeed in the global economy”.

Strengthening the US at home was a prerequisite for restoring global leadership, he said. His priorities were plain.

The idea that America must and should lead internationally, and that Trump “abdicated” that duty, is nevertheless hard-wired into Biden, a child of the cold war.

This assumption of supremacy is challenged nowadays by those who believe post-1989 and post-9/11 US leadership, and particularly its armed interventions abroad, have served neither the US nor the world. They point to Iraq – a war Biden supported.

US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Joe Biden, like Trump, has said he’d like to bring US troops home. Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP via Getty Images

“If you liked US national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy,” wrote historian Andrew Bacevich, a former army colonel. “Install him in the Oval office and the mindless pursuit of ‘dominance in the name of internationalism’ will resume.”

Bacevich argues foreign policy-making – for example, decisions about sanctions on Cuba or Iran – should be taken out of the hands of the foreign policy elite, publicly debated, and democratised.

Biden’s is more a top-down approach. To be fair, he says he will rebuild alliances, nurture multilateralism, and always try diplomacy first.

But the worry remains that his grand project could become a restoration tragedy, heralding a return to old-fashioned, high-handed American exceptionalism.

Climate & health

Wind turbines in Carthage, Maine
Wind turbines in Carthage, Maine. Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP

Trump abandoned the Paris climate agreement last year; Biden has pledged to immediately rejoin it, committing the US to meeting international global warming targets by cutting national greenhouse gas emissions. In July he announced a $2tn, four-year plan to invest in a range of climate crisis solutions and a separate scheme to decarbonise the electricity sector by 2035. On the pandemic, Biden has said the US will rejoin the World Health Organization and restore funding. He has proposed a US-led coalition to coordinate the search for a Covid-19 vaccine and new treatments.

Democracy & values

Biden says the world is caught in a battle between democracy and authoritarianism – and that the US must be at the forefront. “As a nation, we have to prove to the world that the US is prepared to lead again – not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. He says he will convene a “global summit for democracy” within his first year in office “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world”. He has vowed to ensure the US presidency is again seen as a principled defender of open and fair elections, judicial independence, human rights, and free speech.

Britain & Europe

Angela Merkel, Joe Biden
Biden with German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

As a man proud of his Irish roots, Biden is strongly opposed to any Brexit outcome that jeopardises the Good Friday agreement or threatens peace in Ireland. Even if such concerns are allayed, a swift US-UK free trade deal, as promised by Trump, is likely to prove harder to achieve. Given Boris Johnson’s perceived Trump-style brand of rightwing populist politics, Biden is expected to call on Berlin and Paris, rather than London, as preferred partners on European issues. Like Obama, he favours a strong, united EU that makes common cause with the US. Biden may be the undertaker who finally buries the “special relationship”.

China

Despite Trump’s repeated claims to the contrary, Biden says he will be tough on China, citing its threats to Taiwan, its “unfair” trade practices, and its habit of “robbing” American companies of technology and intellectual property. To do so, he proposes “to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations – even as we seek to cooperate on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, non-proliferation and global health security”. He has been notably critical of Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Nuclear proliferation

North Korean missile fires
A North Korean missile launch in March 2020. Photograph: KCNA/Reuters

Biden plans to revive the system of nuclear arms control treaties with Russia degraded during the Trump years, starting with an extension of the 2010 New Start strategic arms treaty negotiated by Obama. He also says he will rehabilitate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, if Tehran recommits to observing its terms. On North Korea’s nuclear weapons, he has little new to say. However, the modernisation of the US’s own nuclear arsenal, begun by Obama, looks set to continue.

Conflicts

Biden says he wants to reinvigorate Nato and strengthen alliances in Asia; will adopt a strong deterrent stance in the face of Russia’s anti-western machinations; will try to revive the Israel-Palestine peace process short-circuited by Trump; will end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen; halt family separations on the Mexican border and reform immigration; and support the UN and international law. Like Trump, he also vows to end what he calls “forever wars”. “We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our missions as defeating al-Qaida and Isis,” he states. Another Middle East war, in Syria, is rarely mentioned.

Diplomacy first

“Diplomacy requires credibility and Trump has shattered ours,” Biden says. “In the conduct of foreign policy, a nation’s word is its most valuable asset. As president, I will elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy.”