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Biden’s foreign policy: new style or substance?

Joe Biden’s presumed victory in the US presidential elections arouse a sign of relief in many countries around the globe. The expectations among majority of the US allies are that the world’s most powerful country will again be more predictable, less inclined to announce policies on Twitter and more willing to seek common solutions in multinational institutions.

However, it is doubtful things will suddenly be the same as before. At least some of the trends of the Trump era will continue, not least because they had been there way before President Trump went into the White House. The only difference was that Trump’s style and hyperbole brought them on top of the political agenda.

Among of the issues of crucial importance for Europeans are security and American view of alliances. For instance, almost three in four Americans say they support the U.S. commitment to NATO; however, “more than half (57%) of those polled by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs support the [Trump] Administration’s summer 2020 decision to reduce U.S. forces in Germany, with another 16% favoring a complete U.S. troop pullout from Germany.” Such opinion prevailed in spite of wide ranging criticism from the leading foreign policy and security experts on Trump’s proposal to pull out American troops. Hence the polls reveal that Trump’s push for Europeans to spend more on defense, even if harsh, has a considerable support among Americans.

While there is no doubt Biden will attempt to restore the public image of American commitment to NATO, he will also continue to pressure European governments to contribute more to the common causes (as was done by Bush and Obama administrations). The assumption from countries such as Poland and the Baltic states is that such pressure will be combined with a more practical engagement. For instance, Trump’s decision to reduce the number of troops in Germany (not yet implemented) also meant that some of these soldiers could be moved to Poland (or even in the Baltic states).

It was attributed to Trump’s personal warm relationship with leaders in Warsaw, as well as ideological alignment of the U.S. President and the Polish ruling party. Leading Polish expert Slawomir Debski believes that Biden has less incentives to favor Poland over some Western European countries. However, it is still expected that more American troops will be coming to Poland. Such move would enable Biden to show that his administration takes into account the risks for the region that directly neighbors still-assertive Russia; hence, the president-elect might be keen to reveal his willingness to strengthen deterrence on the Eastern frontier. After all, Biden has significant political experience dealing with the issues related to the geopolitics of Central and Eastern Europe; his team will also likely be consistent of experienced diplomats.

Hence it could hardly be expected Biden’s administration will be keen on another ‘Reset’ with Russia. On the opposite, Biden will most likely support diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia, some of which were expanded during the Trump’s administration. Biden will also be more critical of Vladimir Putin’s personality which was not necessarily the case over the last four years. It is no wonder Putin did not use an opportunity yet to congratulate Biden. It remains to be seen whether Biden, who wants a closer dialogue with Germany, continues with a strong insistence on sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that is to connect Russia with Germany and increase European dependence on Russian gas. However, Biden’s room for maneuver might be limited by Congress, where there is strong bi-partisan support on additional sanctions that might halt the construction of the pipeline.

One possible point of engagement with the Kremlin at the very beginning of Biden’s term is going to be the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that aims to reduce the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals; in spite of almost no bilateral dialogue on any issues, both countries seem to have enough incentives to seek an agreement before the current deal expires next February.

For the European Union, such stance, as well as Biden’s deep personal connections with leaders such as Angela Merkel mean a more stable and predictable relationship. It is quite likely the confidence levels of the U.S. president, currently down to historic lows, will grow again. Yet it is to be seen whether than brings a lasting change in areas beneath America’s return to the Paris Climate change agreement and some other diplomatic overtures.

For instance, there seems to be a growing skepticism in the U.S. on the issue of a free trade. According to the Gallup poll, while “Americans' broad view of trade is the most positive it has been in more than a quarter-century”, it is also notable “Americans value favorable trade deals on par with preserving national security, and prioritize it over international rights and cooperation.” Controversies surrounding the costs and benefits of globalized trade led to a collapse of support for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016; while Joe Biden has won each of these states in 2020, the region became a battleground for both parties.

Hence it is no surprise that Biden openly states the need to “ensure the future is “made in all of America” by all of America’s workers”, believing that “American workers can out-compete anyone, but their government needs to fight for them.” With that in mind, a comprehensive trade deal with the EU seems unlikely, with the memory of Obama’s attempt to sign The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) fading away. The EU recently announced plans to impose $4 billion in tariffs on U.S. goods; even if the move is regarded as a retaliation to previously imposed American tariffs for the EU goods, it shows it will take time for things to change. Hence while more tariffs are unlikely in the near future, a new substantial trade deal seems quite far-fetched. Not least because Biden’s administration will be overloaded with domestic issues at the beginning of the president’s term.

That is not good news for the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson seeks to sign a new trade agreement with the US, proving that Brexit means better trade deals with third countries. However, it does not seem to be on top of Biden’s political agenda, at least initially. Moreover, Biden “stressed his support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, which was brokered by President Bill Clinton and ended decades of sectarian bloodshed”; hence, if the break-up with the EU does not go more or less smoothly, the deal with the US could also face additional burdens.

With China, a breakthrough is unlikely. A poll this year has shown that there is a bipartisan unfavorable view of China, with 83% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats being critical of the second biggest global economy. With issues such as geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, trade and tariffs, 5G and human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong looming, it seems that the tensions will remain. While Biden could be less volatile, he talks on the rivalry with China; for instance, his campaign states that “to win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, we must sharpen our innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices.” Tariffs imposed by the Trump administration are also unlikely to go away soon.

With Turkey, Biden administration might have to decide whether to sanction Ankara because of its state-owned bank’s non-compliance with the US sanctions on Iran. Moreover, S-400, an advanced missile system that Turkey bought from Russia, is seen as a threat to NATO’s defence systems. Yet both the Biden administration and Turkey could be willing to seek a pragmatic dialogue. With the US President-elect being more openly critical of Russia, and in need of an ally in the Middle East, Turkey’s significance becomes obvious. It is not a way-one traffic, however. Hence much depends on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s readiness to yield on some major issues.

US foreign policy also depends on the Senate race. Two Georgia races will decide which party controls the Senate. If Republicans retain majority, Biden will struggle with political appointments that depend on the Senate confirmation. Moreover, his legislative agenda might be obstructed. Therefore, Biden’s political power might be significantly diminished even before he is inaugurated.

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