The hallmark of the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been for America to always come first but, if the President fails to win re-election, the world could see a return of a global leader, writes Steve Shaw

The 2020 US Presidential Election is set to be one of the most important for decades – not just for Americans but for the US’ allies, partners and enemies.

Four years of President Donald Trump’s chaotic and unpredictable ‘America First’ policy has seen the nation retreat from international commitments, lose its position as a global leader and reshape traditional alliances.

Trump has burnt bridges with Iran, contributed to greater tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taken major unilateral decisions without considering allies and significantly stepped up aggression towards China and Central America among others.

These actions are described on the White House website as restoring American sovereignty and “peace through strength”. It goes on to insist that the President’s biggest achievement in foreign policy is to be “the first American leader since Ronald Reagan not to start a war”. One theme is always consistent – America comes first.

But if Trump loses to Joe Biden, it is likely that many of these nationalistic policies will be reversed and the world will see America move back toward its more traditional role in the world. Like Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, Biden is an internationalist and as Vice President under Obama he was instrumental in helping to carve out many of that administration’s foreign policies.

He has already promised to re-join the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, which Obama called the world’s “single-best chance” at tackling climate change, as well as reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation.

Speaking to an audience in New York last July, Biden said that domestic policy and foreign policy were a “deeply connected” set of choices that the country makes about how to “advance the American way of life” and develop a vision for the future.

“American foreign policy has to be purposeful and inspiring,” he continued. “Based on clear goals, by sound strategies. Not by Twitter tantrums and the purpose of our foreign policy, I believe must be to defend and advance our security, prosperity and democratic values.”

While his message is hopeful and optimistic, it is worth noting that Biden has been caught up in a number of foreign policy controversies that are contrary to his comments in public. One of the most significant was his support for the Iraq War, which he championed as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was later forced to admit that supporting the war, which led to the death of 4,500 American service members and an estimated one million civilians, was “a mistake”.

Biden was also working with the Obama administration when it launched an unprecedented war on whistleblowers that saw more people investigated and prosecuted for leaks than under all other US presidents combined. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed that Biden was instrumental in pressuring a number of countries such as France, Germany and Ecuador to refuse him asylum, forcing him to remain in Russia. 

“They would say, look, we don’t know what the law is, we don’t care if you can do this or not, we understand that protecting whistleblowers and granting asylum is a matter of human rights and you could do this if you want to,” Snowden told US news channel MSNBC. “But if you protect this man, if you let this guy out of Russia, there will be consequences. We’re not going to say what they’re going to be, but there will be a response.”


Repairing Alliances and Taking on Dictators

For the UK, a Trump defeat may not be the best outcome of the election.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has found an ally in the President over some of Britain’s most complex issues – notably Brexit. Trump views the UK’s withdrawal from the EU as something that echoed his America First ideals and his administration said it was keen to do a trade deal as quickly as possible. But the Democratic Party under Obama warned the UK would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deal with the US if the country chose to leave the EU. 

It is unclear if Biden shares Obama’s views on Brexit putting the UK at the back of the queue, but he has publicly stated he would not allow peace in Northern Ireland to become a “casualty” of Brexit and that any UK-US trade deal has to be “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement.

If Biden chooses to follow in Obama’s footsteps, it is likely that his priority will be on improving relations with the EU rather than on a US-UK ‘special relationship’. This will likely centre around Germany, where the Obama administration became immensely popular due to its close cooperation with Chancellor Angela Markel over trade, climate policy and the conflict in Ukraine.

An analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations also notes that “if Joe Biden is elected as President, the US will return to its role as a leading actor in the multilateral system”, rebuilding European alliances and working with allies on major global decisions. “Biden would take a similar position to the European Union on the promotion of human rights, possibly seeking to re-join the Human Rights Council, and would coordinate with European allies to fight China’s efforts to water-down human rights norms across the UN system.”

However, for all of Trump’s inconsistencies and problematic policies, Biden is going to have to work hard to win the approval of the numerous ethnic groups and communities in Asia which have been impacted by China’s growing authoritarianism. From day one, Trump took a highly aggressive stance against China, becoming something of a hero to many people facing oppression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. 

In Hong Kong, the Trump administration took the lead in publicly pushing back against Beijing’s erosion of the city’s freedoms and introduced sanctions against top officials including the city’s top leader Carrie Lam. Trump became so well regarded during the city’s pro-democracy protests that demonstrators painted images on walls of the US President standing atop a tank and heroically rolling on to the shores.

Trump also won the approval of the Tibetan community when he stood up for the largely forgotten nation by passing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act which blocks Chinese officials from setting foot in America if they have been involved in restricting US citizens, including the media, from entering Tibet. It is likely that Trump would take these policies even further if he is re-elected.

Biden has labelled Chinese President Xi Jinping a “thug” and promised to continue economic pressure on Beijing, but has been seen taking walks and holding private dinners with Xi Jinping in the past. The New York Times noted that Biden “made a quick personal connection with the Chinese leader” and spent more than 25 hours dining with him privately.

Biden’s policy towards North Korea – one of China’s biggest allies – could be where Trump and Biden deviate most significantly. While Trump started off pushing relations with North Korea to what some believed could be the brink of war, he quickly reigned it back. After a series of one-to-one meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he began to publicly state that the two men were friends. However, he failed to resolve a stand-off over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Biden – who the North Korean leader has called a “rabid dog” – is likely to take a stronger stance, which he indicated during an October debate in which he compared Kim Jong Un to Hitler. He insisted that he would not be willing to hold any meetings with him unless he agreed to back down over nuclear weapons.

Another US adversary Biden intends to take on over nuclear weapons is Iran. Trump famously pulled out of Obama’s landmark nuclear deal, which he called “disastrous” – a move that reignited tensions in the region and renewed aggression between the two nations. Biden on the other hand is likely to join the UK, France and Germany in attempting to rescue the deal which was regarded as one of the Obama administration’s biggest achievements. However, he will only have a short window to do so due to Iran’s 2021 elections next June. A combination of political repression and a failure to adequately handle the COVID-19 pandemic could see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – an advocate of the deal – beaten by hardliners keen to end relations with the West entirely.


The Next Great Success Story

Like Trump, Biden has expressed an interest in tackling immigration and the problems in Central America but he intends to do it without using the same hardline approach.

His campaign website notes that, from the first moment Trump announced his candidacy for President, “Trump has insulted and bullied our closest neighbours and demonised as less-than-human migrants and the people of our partner nations throughout the region”. He goes on to call Trump’s policies a “complete failure” of American leadership.

He believes that it is possible for the western hemisphere to be “secure, democratic, and prosperous from the northern reaches of Canada all the way to the southern tip of Chile” by focusing on improving three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These countries, which are struggling with “violence, transnational criminal organisations, poverty, and corruption”, are key to addressing immigration.

Biden says that he believes the solution is dealing with those problems directly rather than implementing “draconian” immigration policies. This could see the creation of a $4 billion regional strategy that will address the core factors driving migration.

“If the political will exists, there is no reason Central America cannot become the next great success story of the Western Hemisphere,” he adds on his campaign website.


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