The Reaffirmation of U.S. Foreign Policy

The Reaffirmation of U.S. Foreign Policy
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

This presidential election has been the most tumultuous in modern American history. Many Americans worry that American democracy is being irreparably damaged, and that our country's best relationships around the world are in grave danger. 

Such concerns are simple common sense. Yet there are good reasons to believe that the exact opposite is true: the country is coming through to the end of a painful episode in its history. No reasonable person can believe that life is or should always be easy. 

Faced with Donald Trump's thuggish attempts to overturn his defeat, President-elect Joe Biden's conduct is all the more remarkable: tempered, courageous, reassuring and imbued with respect for America's institutions and political culture. It is a good sign for the country and for our friends and allies that he's proving to be so resilient. 

On Wednesday, the House and Senate will register Biden's victory. The political courage of state and local election officials in battleground states — especially these past few days in Georgia — will have protected constitutional and institutional integrity. It's been nerve-wracking for everybody, and not a few people still worry that something catastrophic could occur. But the all-but-certain outcome is, simply, ratification of Biden's victory. 

And so the world is on notice that, despite several years of uncertainty, Trump did not wreck American democracy. He did not destroy America's credibility as a country where the rule of law has primacy. Nor has he set the U.S. on a path to authoritarian, strongman government. Our international relationships are not forever altered. Foreign policies can change from one administration to another, but the country will have outlasted the demagogue. Let's remember that no government is eternal, and it's not a bad thing but a good thing that a democracy is sorely tested from time to time. The essential thing is to meet the moment, and we are almost there.   

This reaffirmation of a post-Trump politics can be the basis for a coherent foreign policy, some of it bipartisan. What is the geopolitical situation that awaits President Biden? 

Let us first consider America's allies and friends: Contrary to predictions that the United States has lost its NATO allies and European Union partners, those countries are already organizing themselves around patterns of policy and behavior they took for granted for decades. Europeans are once again warning each other that they must "get their act together"—appear as willing partners with shared positions—if Washington is to take them seriously. The Europeans are no longer able to question whether the United States is for or against them, no longer in a position to complain about American bullying. Transatlantic diplomatic formalities are once again de rigueur.  

In Asia, the governments of Japan, South Korea, and, less visibly, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Asian countries, are reassured that America is still a permanent Pacific power as well as an Atlantic one. The United States will no longer implicitly threaten to abandon them if an "America first" calculation of interests recommends doing so.

China is rightly concerned about finding itself encircled geopolitically, even if the mainland’s economic and financial power is a powerful and growing weapon in Asian international relations and beyond.

Beijing is glad to see Trump gone, but it realizes that the United States, its allies, friends and half-adversaries now see that standing up to Chinese economic and political influence is not impossible, that Chinese primacy is not inevitable. This psychological reversal of mentalities concerning China may be Trump’s major geopolitical legacy.

Beijing also knows that in Washington itself, a more resilient attitude toward China is a bipartisan given. And this attitude extends around the globe: China's reputation worldwide is much diminished from what it was only a few years ago. This is partly due to what Beijing did or did not do early on in the pandemic, and partly because Trump’s swashbuckling frustration of Chinese policy inevitably gave the others a new measure of courage.  

The details of a Biden policy toward Russia remain an open matter. Certainly Biden will be more resistant to Moscow than Trump was. Russian President Vladimir Putin expects this and can reckon with it, but he will also have to deal with European governments that are less open to forging standalone deals with Moscow.

Putin knows that Russia's future lies in the West rather than with China, even if Russia's relationships with Continental Europe will as always be dialectical; they will hinge on old tensions inside Russian psychology between what in the 19th century was termed Westernizing and Slavophile instincts. 

In the Middle East, Trump's solid support for Israel has accelerated positive geopolitical developments, albeit at the expense of unrealistic Palestinian hopes. The Abraham Accords between Israel on one side and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the other are material indications that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over. Saudi Arabia has every reason to sign on to this development. Riyadh will profit directly from normalized relations with Israel. Most important, Arab-Israeli alignment amounts to a de-facto alliance against a hostile Iran.

The Biden administration will doubtless return to "two-state solution" rhetoric but few people, including  Biden and the Palestinians themselves, believe it is relevant anymore. But fig leaves are necessary while underlying processes work themselves out, one way or another and however long it may take. Some sort of future Palestinian self-governing institution is an open question.  

As Biden takes office, problems big and small abound. But the gravest issues are not potential wars between major powers. Controlling the Covid pandemic is the most immediate domestic and international problem, along with broadening economic recovery. Globally, the moment is propitious for serious measures to deal with climate change. Biden will immediately rejoin the Paris Accord and many governments will welcome a return to “American leadership”. A few governments will not.  

In foreign policy, a return to post-WWII, pre-Trump American diplomacy is a foregone conclusion. But there will be a few updates.

A hadline policy toward China is now a bipartisan approach, thus also a foregone conclusion. So is America’s re-entry into global multilateral initiatives and negotiations. Dealing with climate change will have primacy. And because no country is exempt, the biggest ones least of all, this is a basis for working together with China, one measure of cooperation to balance another measure of clashes of national interest.

The beginning point is, of course, that Biden is not Trump, that Trump is gone. And that, as Trump was fond of repeating, elections have consequences.

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