The Biden Effect: what his election means for the world

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election has sparked very different reactions in the geopolitical arena. For Atlantic allies, this is a victory and a possible return to multilateralism. On the other hand, Asian leaders seem to be on alert, hoping for a radical change from the policies of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

The return to multilateralism and its testbeds

In his 4 years in office, Donald J. Trump has definitely shaken the geopolitical balances, starting with those of the Atlantic. The difference is that Biden will probably build transnational coalitions and exert influence within a multilateral framework. It is a completely different programme from that of Trump, with Biden’s more globalist political philosophy. With Trump, the United States embarked on an atypical isolationist path, characterised by his strong repulsion of international bodies. 

The return to multilateralism, however, does not consist of a simple political reset, but requires added value from the US. The starting point will be the restoration of relations with the World Health Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Also a renewed adherence to the Paris climate agreement, and treaties on the use of nuclear energy. The change in rhetoric will be a relief for US allies. 

The added value could, or perhaps should, be expressed primarily in economic terms. Many Atlantic countries share some of America’s trade concerns. The period of economic recession generated by the Covid-19 pandemic calls for a step forward by what is, again and again, the first global economy. A possible step-up approach would first of all favour Washington. The goodwill that will come from a more collegial approach could help Biden achieve more of what the US is after, even compared to the aims of his predecessor.

For example, there is the possibility of renewing relations with Europe, a continent still emotionally attached to the United States (and in some ways still in debt to Washington since the time of the Marshall Plan). EU officials quickly congratulated Biden, confident that they could work more positively together. From a European point of view, Trump was polemical and obstructionist. He has made life difficult in virtually every policy area and the resulting agendas — from international security to climate change. Biden seems intent on restoring and improving America’s global reputation. But in doing so, he may also take the opportunity to renegotiate some key terms, such as budget allocation in NATO.

The EU, in particular, will support Biden’s determination to host a global summit for democracy and to reject authoritarianism and corruption, while promoting human rights. Other US objectives, agreed with this new momentum, may find less support among the Atlantic allies. These include the adoption of a foreign policy more congenial to the middle class. This concept, which is based on US global economic leadership, in turn stems from decisions on tariffs with China, and possibly with Europe.

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already spoken of a renewed partnership between the two sides, without even waiting until Biden and Harris have taken up their duties at the Oval Office.

The British Question

Europe could especially benefit from Biden’s arrival on one specific dispute: Brexit. In the final stages of the election campaign, the newly elected President made it clear that the US attitude towards the UK will depend almost entirely on two factors.

First, the United Kingdom’s ability to build bridges with the EU, both diplomatically and commercially. While Trump and Johnson shared a deep-rooted aversion to Brussels, Biden expressed deep regret that the United Kingdom had left Europe.

Then also, a more careful handling of the Irish border issue. The potential impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement is a matter of importance to Biden. A UK agreement with the EU, although fragile, is alive and in its final phase of analysis. But for there to be a chance for Washington to exert a positive influence, Johnson will have to overcome his deep mistrust of the new US administration.

The institutional reconnection with Beijing

In the case of China, the change in US policy towards Beijing may not be automatic. In the last four years, the Trump administration has expressed strong opposition to the Dragon — first on the issue of international trade and involving the WTO, and then on China’s responsibility for the current pandemic. Trump has seen Xi Jinping as an enemy, without ever opening up to the renewal of institutional relations. That  attitude has been embraced by some Hong Kong citizens, the North Korean government, and the Chinese dissident fringe.

Although Biden has yet to explain his political agenda regarding relations with Beijing, it is clear that he focuses on human rights in his approach to China. If the parties succeed in renewing their relationship, there will be room for a win-win trade strategy for both sides. In this case, duty relief for Chinese suppliers would benefit trade across the WTO. This future decision will also be based on Biden’s approach to the technological war started by Trump against Beijing, made famous by his diatribes against  Huawei and Byte Dance (the latter being the owner of TikTok).

Pending the definition of Biden’s agenda, China has taken its time to congratulate the newly elected president. In fact, according to trade forecasts, it is not certain that Biden wants to change the trade policies inaugurated by Trump. For Beijing, therefore, the presidential change may not be entirely effective for its strategic interests.

The possible contrast with the Kremlin

Like China, Russia long avoided congratulating the newly elected President, waiting for the certification of the elections. Joe Biden’s previous relations with the Kremlin were not positive, as occurred when he was Vice President in the Obama administration. For the moment, Dmitri Peskov has said he is in favour of the resumption of institutional relations, based on constructive dialogue. Waiting for pragmatic feedback on the approach taken, Russian magazines are divided between those who envisage a US Russophobic policy, and those who think of a possible period of institutional thaw as occurred during the time of George W. Bush. 

Unlike Trump, Biden does not see Moscow as a potentially useful player in America’s commercial and political polarization with Beijing. During Trump’s administration, Biden’s policy approach did not seem to favor Russia. During the previous four years, in fact, he had criticized the Kremlin for its cyber assaults on Western democratic institutions. Biden has repeatedly described Moscow as an authoritarian government, and an economic, military and political threat that should be contained. 

The forty-sixth American president has, in fact, promised to impose new economic sanctions against Moscow, as well as to refuse a new Russian entry into the G7. He also proposed strengthening NATO, in conjunction with the creation of an international Atlantic body to block Russian expansionism in its neighbouring areas. In this regard, Biden, already during the Trump administration, supported the decision to support Ukraine militarily, as well as to promote the accession of Georgia and Ukraine to the Atlantic Alliance.

The fragility of the Middle East

Relations with the Middle East could be among the most fragile elements of the Biden presidency. The management of foreign relations with the region passes through four key countries: Iran, Israel, Libya and Syria. 

In the case of Tehran, relations will depend on the nuclear agreement and, above all, whether the agreement will be preserved until Biden enters the Oval Office. The newly elected President has made it clear that he intends to pursue a diplomatic path with Tehran and return to the JCPOA, provided Iran returns to full compliance. This approach is compatible with that of the Atlantic allies, such as the UK, France and Germany, who aim to preserve the nuclear agreement after four years of damage by Trump. US allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are likely to oppose Iran’s return to the JCPOA. 

In the case of Israel and Palestine, America’s Atlantic allies are hoping for restoration of peace talks after the upheaval of the status quo during Trump’s presidency. A key and necessary action for this process is the reversal of Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The Atlantic allies could help in this case by supporting a renewed diplomatic commitment with the aim of generating a long-term transformation of the conflict, based on legal equality, political emancipation, and an end to Israel’s military occupation. 

On the Libyan issue, Biden’s team has suggested a change from Egyptian, Turkish and Emirati unilateralism, humanitarian violations, and the general deterioration of UN and US interests in the region. In the coming months, this could push Libya and the intervening powers, such as Turkey, to accelerate their position on the ground in the hope of securing advantage before the US can redirect. 

Finally, Syria has been a topic unaddressed during the Democratic presidential campaign. Biden has limited himself in recent months to confirming his decision not to withdraw troops. In fact, he seems to maintain a similar approach to that of his predecessor. This means maintaining a small military presence in northeastern Syria, with increased support for Syrian democratic forces dominated by the Kurds, assisted by support for the UN political process, and continuing sanctions on Damascus. 

Turkey

Erdogan seems not particularly happy with Biden’s election. He waited several days before sending an institutional message to the winner of the US election, while thanking Trump for his work. In recent years, the so-called Sultan of NATO has pursued a very aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, to the point of being called neo-Ottoman. From the wars in Syria and Libya, to the disputes with Greece and France, passing through Nagorno. All this was made possible by the uncharacteristic reticence of Washington, which has allowed Ankara to become a robust regional player.

The link between Trump and Erdogan has been so strong of late that in November 2019 Trump said he was a “big fan” of the Turkish Head of State and considered him a good friend. And yet there were reasons for this — in particular, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system, a potentially very dangerous move for the whole of NATO. Trump had tried, in vain, to sidestep it by building favourable relations with Erdogan.

All this could change with Biden, at least in form. Over the past few months, the new American president has called Erdogan an autocrat and winked at the country’s opposition movement, triggering Ankara’s anger. The Kurdish-Syrian question, moreover, seems to be taken more into account by Biden and could be brought to the fore in US foreign policy. From next year on, relations between Washington and Ankara could be gradually tightened, while still respecting America’s need not to break with Turkey (given its NATO membership).

A few days ago, Biden wrote in a message on Twitter: “When I talk to foreign leaders, I tell them: America is coming back. We will be back in the game.”

Nations around the world are warned. Russia and Turkey, two countries that shared a particular link to Trump, are first and foremost.

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