Foreign affairs veteran Biden is 'Kennedy-era internationalist' – and 'an adult'

·11-min read

US foreign policy is poised for a stark change in January, when Donald Trump – who took office in 2017 as an undiplomatic dilettante on world affairs – finally passes the torch to Joe Biden, the former vice president and longtime Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair. Biden brings experience and a steadier pair of hands, but what will that mean for global relations?

French geopolitics specialist François Heisbourg is senior advisor for Europe at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies and special advisor at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. He spoke with FRANCE 24 on Monday about what foreign counterparts can expect of the erratic outgoing commander-in-chief and of a successor very familiar to some.

FRANCE 24: Should world leaders be concerned about this awkward period? Donald Trump is a lame duck – and already quite volatile, so to speak.

François Heisbourg: It's 72 days [until the inauguration]. A lame duck doesn't have to prove that it can fly. Trump's not going to be re-elected. So he's entirely free. And that's very scary.

FRANCE 24: What could he do?

Heisbourg: Well, he can issue executive orders, that's always possible. Or he can just do nothing. If he plays golf every day, who's going to run the Covid-19 pandemic? My assumption is, it's going to be very difficult to have a coordinated approach on the pandemic. The Americans are basically two weeks behind Europe in terms of the increasing caseload. It's getting rapidly worse. By the end of the month, you'll have an increase in the fatalities and so on in the States.

Problem B is that the lame-duck Congress and the lame-duck secretary of the Treasury may or may not agree on the stimulus package before January 20th. It's not going to be a great time for the American economy – and, by ricochet, for the European economy, either.

FRANCE 24: In terms of foreign policy, what concerns are there about how to deal with Trump in the interim? Or will leaders just hang on until Joe Biden takes office?

Heisbourg: They'll wait until the new man comes in. What can you negotiate with Trump at this stage? I assume nothing much. I don't expect any policy decisions from Trump in that area. But we don't know that a foreign country is not going to do something which will stress America's decision-making capability.

FRANCE 24: Something that requires a response and doesn't get one?

Heisbourg: Yes. It could well happen. So, the transition is going to be really long.

FRANCE 24: Turning to President-elect Biden, former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker says things are going to get a lot easier because Biden understands Europe better than Trump. Is that your sense?

Heisbourg: He knows Europe and the Europeans know him. Biden is very much part of the furniture. All of us have met Biden at one time or another in the last 48 years [laughs]. We've learned to know each other. And, of course, Biden is an adult. He may not be a perfect adult, but he is an adult, and that in itself is a great relief [laughs]. It's a big change. It's an enormous change.

Whether Biden will be wise and constructive, I don't know. But he clearly will want to improve relations, to re-establish relations with the Europeans on a cooperative basis. When Biden crafts his China policy, he'll try to do it in as multilateral a manner as possible. So all of these things are essentially to the good. But, beyond that, we don't know yet what the content of his policy will be.

America has not grown in strength over the last 10 years, relative to a rising China. The US policy of strategic prudence in the Mediterranean will continue, meaning: The Americans are not going to do it for us. If you look towards Eastern Europe [in the last decade], the Ukrainian account was handled essentially by the Europeans, with the Americans in the background. The key players [in 2014] were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande, not Barack Obama. There is little reason to expect that to change.

So it's not going to be back to the world of American leadership. It's going to be back to what I call "Obama minus".

FRANCE 24: Obama minus?

Heisbourg: Yes. That is, focus on China and let other people handle the other stuff. In a friendly manner – but if people are expecting American leadership, they're probably not going to get it. I don't see why Biden, who was Obama's vice president, would take a higher profile [in foreign affairs] than Obama did. And Trump to a very large extent – in terms of attitude, not implementation – was very much a continuity president in the Mediterranean.

[Consider] the stuff the French have been doing in the eastern Mediterranean over the last few months. It's not as if the Americans were absent, but they are no more present than the Egyptians or the Emiratis. The Russians and the Turks are definitely more present.

FRANCE 24: In Europe, Merkel is winding up her term just as Biden arrives; Emmanuel Macron will start getting to the less constructive part of his term should he seek re-election. What can Biden's arrival mean for them?

Heisbourg: A return to civilised relations. That in itself is very important. If they expect American leadership, I don't think they'll get it. But if they expect a civilised, cooperative relationship with the US, I think they will. And that's not trivial.

There is this sort of feeling [here in France] that we shouldn't get carried away with expectations. That's actually a pretty good thing because big expectations will be disappointed. If one expects a return to civilised relations and that there will be all sorts of issues on which it will be possible to consult, concert and sometimes even agree, then expectations will be met. And that hasn't happened for a long time.

FRANCE 24: What about Brexit? Should British PM Boris Johnson be quaking in his boots at the arrival of this pro-Ireland US leader?

Heisbourg: When you look at the spin from Number 10 [Downing Street] and Her Majesty's Government, yes, clearly they have woken up to the painful revelation that there are more Irish people in the States than there are in Ireland [laughs]. And now one of them happens to be the president [laughs]! I think Johnson will really come to regret not having stuck to the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

FRANCE 24: Has Trump damaged any global relationships irreparably?

Heisbourg: Yes. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is: We now know that the US is a deeply divided society and that anything can happen by the end of the current electoral cycle. Biden may not run in 2024; Trump got 4 million more votes than the last time!

FRANCE 24: Would leaders be wise to brace themselves for the return of Trump-ism?

Heisbourg: No, it's not so much that. It's not that there is a specific fear. It's simply that – from basically the beginning of the Cold War until Trump was elected – the outside world could assume that the US was going to stick to the basic choices it made at the beginning of the Cold War. That is: An alliance system in Asia and Europe functioning as an influence and force multiplier for the US and which implied a certain type of relationship between the US and its Asian and European partners. And that whatever the colour of the American president – even George W. Bush – that that would be the case.

Indeed, one of the reasons why former French president Jacques Chirac and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were ready to oppose Bush the way they did in 2003, during the Iraq crisis, was because they felt safe in their assumption that, whatever happened, the US would still function on the basis of that alliance relationship. That the risk being run was limited.

Trump, of course, wanted to un-build the alliance relationship. And of course it's a great relief to know that he's not been re-elected because, if he had been, it's fair to assume the US would have left NATO by the end of his second term, de facto or de jure. That's no longer on the cards. But we are no longer safe in assuming that the US is going to stick to its 70-year-old alliance policy. The US has become an unpredictable quantity in terms of its basic foreign policy choices. That's where the damage from Trump may be irretrievable.

FRANCE 24: Where might we see continuity with Biden?

Heisbourg: Oh, continuity on the China account, of course. Biden will do this in a much more cooperative manner, much more multilateral, but also much more consistent – and presumably more difficult for the Chinese.

Trump spent a lot of his time zigging and zagging on China. There were days where he was saying beautiful things about [Chinese President] Xi Jinping; there even were days when he was asking Xi Jinping to help him find dirt on Hunter Biden [the president-elect's son]. When you think about it, it's sort of amazing [laughs]. So Trump's policy vis-à-vis China was brutal and erratic.

Biden's approach to China is going to be less brutal and presumably much more consistent and therefore more powerful. And that's going to be priority number one for Biden – as it would have been for Trump or indeed for any other US president at this stage of play.

You also have continuity in the Mediterranean. What did Obama's press people call this during the 2011 Libyan crisis? "Leading from the back"? Which is not leadership. When Biden says "no more forever wars", he's essentially saying the same thing as Trump and Obama.

FRANCE 24: For all of Trump's erratic behaviour, has he advanced the ball in any useful way for Biden?

Heisbourg: One area in which stuff has happened is the recognition of Israel by a number of Arab countries. We still don't know the full story – at least I don't – but it is quite impressive to see how the Emiratis, the Bahrainis, now the Sudanese and probably the Omanis have gotten into that game ... There has been progress. Whether this is something Trump ever really gave any thought to, I don't know. But clearly there were people around him who worked hard enough to actually pull this off.

It's not as big as [former US president] Jimmy Carter during Camp David on Egypt, or even the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan under [former president] Bill Clinton, but still ... If you're looking for an achievement, there you have one.

FRANCE 24: What about North Korea?

Heisbourg: I, like others, wouldn't fault Trump for trying an approach nobody else had tried. Since all other approaches have failed, it wasn't entirely irrational to try another one. But if you're going to do it, you [have got] to do it with your eyes open. And Trump was anything but eyes open. He just gave a green [light] to the North Koreans so that they could pursue their missile programme.

FRANCE 24: You've met Biden personally, if only in passing. What is your sense of the man as far as his competence, his interest in global issues, his aptitude?

Heisbourg: Oh, he's very interested. He likes this stuff! He's in the mould of a Kennedy-era internationalist. That's the way I'd describe him. And he's been around for long enough to accumulate both knowledge and experience. That's probably a good thing – provided that he doesn't simply become his own national security advisor. That was one of Obama's problems. Obama enjoyed foreign policy so much that he tended to reduce the role of his national security advisor. And that was a mistake, because there are so many balls to keep in the air that you really need a strong national security advisor to backstop and not try to do it all on your own. I suspect Biden will have that temptation.

This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.