Anne Hidalgo, the first female mayor of Paris, succinctly framed the global reaction to Joe Biden’s election. “Welcome back America,” she tweeted. For all the past resentment, envy, or fear of American power, most long-standing allies, and even many adversaries, have yearned for an end to the unnerving pettiness, whimsy, and personality-driven policies of Donald Trump. “Almost all countries are happier with Biden than Trump, even those that made it look like they were close to him, like Japan,” Robin Niblett, the director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or Chatham House, in London, told me. “Trump’s unpredictability and reliance on bilateral bullying to get his way built up deep resentment.”
The President-elect may prove more popular abroad than he is at home, partly because of his global experience. Between his first election to the Senate, in 1972, and becoming Vice-President, in 2009, Biden did two stints as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, travelled for decades to conflict hot spots and disaster zones, and met with nearly a hundred and fifty foreign leaders from almost five dozen countries. The President-elect is a well-known commodity. So are his views.
“Certainly Biden is the most well-versed American President in the sausage-making process of foreign policy, and in terms of learning about every country and how each functions,” Douglas Brinkley, a scholar of the Presidency at Rice University, told me. “Nobody’s had the experience on foreign policy that Biden has had.” Given the political constraints at home, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate, Biden may also end up having more impact on the rest of the world than he does on the U.S., Brinkley added. “Biden will be hamstrung to move the meter domestically, but he has the opportunity to be one of the greatest foreign-policy leaders,
as everyone in the world is extending their elbows because he stands for global democracy,” Brinkley said. “He will be treated as a folk hero in Europe and Asia.”
For all his experience, however, Biden has also backed controversial policies and made bad calls during his decades in foreign policy. As a senator, he opposed authorizing Operation Desert Storm, to oust Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait, in 1991; it succeeded with lightning efficiency. He then supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; it was an epic failure that dragged on for years. In 2006, he co-authored a widely criticized Op-Ed in the Times that proposed the division of Iraq into autonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish statelets—the kind of territorial split that ISIS achieved by carving out a Sunni caliphate between 2014 and 2019. Biden is “a man of integrity” who is “impossible not to like,” the former C.I.A. director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his memoir, in 2014. Gates then said of Biden, “He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
And Trump didn’t get everything wrong. He was right “in calling out China for its trade practices, in supplying lethal arms to Ukraine, in striking an updated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, in brokering normalization between Israel and several Arab states,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Affairs this week.
Although Biden has not announced his full foreign-policy team, the seven pillars of his foreign policy are already well defined. First, the West is back. A pragmatic realist on most issues, Biden is almost a romantic about the transatlantic relationship—and Europe wants it that way, especially amid the strains of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. Most of the twenty-seven nations in the E.U.—with the probable exception of autocrats in Hungary and Poland—are somewhere between relieved and ecstatic about his election. “It’s time to get back to building bridges, not walls, ” the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, tweeted. The very concept of the West “has meaning again—in the sense that Biden’s pledge to convene a summit for democracy, in 2021, will be a clarion call for the centrality of protecting (and sometimes promoting) democracy in U.S. foreign policy,” Niblett, of Chatham House, said. A senior European diplomat in Washington told me that the atmospherics of dealing with the United States are changing completely.
One of Biden’s top priorities is to breathe life back into the eroding transatlantic alliance with Europe, which, until Trump took office, had provided the foundation of U.S. interests since the Second World War. The Trump doctrine of “America First” weakened an alliance that for decades has been Washington’s most powerful global tool. “We have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges,” the French President, Emmanuel Macron, tweeted. “Let’s work together!” The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, chimed in: “We want to invest in our cooperation for a new transatlantic beginning, a new deal.”
The second pillar of Biden’s worldview is pooling resources, particularly on shared threats. He is expected to work quickly to repair relations with NATO—the world’s largest military alliance, representing almost a billion people—after four years of bashing by Trump. He will almost certainly push to adapt and broaden its mission (and potentially its membership) for twenty-first century challenges, such as military technology and cyber. In a statement, the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, “warmly” welcomed Biden’s election, writing, “We need this collective strength to deal with the many challenges we face, including a more assertive Russia, international terrorism, cyber and missile threats, and a shift in the global balance of power with the rise of China.”
The third pillar stems from Biden’s belief in international treaties and institutions. He wants to rejoin accords that Trump abandoned. Among his early acts, Biden intends to return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement that was designed to save the planet, and to reëngage with the World Health Organization to shape a stronger global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of his foreign-policy advisers told me. Biden plans to extend New START, the only remaining arms-control treaty with Russia that limits nuclear weapons, which expires in February. Biden also wants to work with the three European powers—Britain, France, and Germany—as well as Russia and China to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal that was originally negotiated in 2015, and that Trump abandoned in 2018. On Sunday, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that Biden’s election provided “an opportunity” for the United States “to make up for the past mistakes and return to the course of commitment to international obligations.”
The fourth pillar is built around human rights. Biden has judged countries on their track records, which may make autocrats more hesitant to crack down on dissidents, as Saudi Arabia did with the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and Russia tried to do by poisoning the opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Even as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the U.S. election a “spectacle” and a sign of liberal democracy’s “demise,” Iran temporarily paroled Nasrin Sotoudeh, an imprisoned human-rights lawyer who has been championed in the United States, on the day that the U.S. election was called. Rival and emerging powers may initially be less expeditionary in forcibly widening their influence, as Russia has been in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya; China in the South China Sea; and Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
The fifth pillar of Biden’s foreign policy is toughness on undemocratic regimes and dictators. He won’t glad-hand autocrats, whatever their resources or power, as Trump did when he made Saudi Arabia his first foreign visit or when he crossed the border into North Korea. Authoritarians like the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, and the Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, who both supported Trump during the campaign, won’t find a friend in the White House willing to look the other way. During the campaign, Biden openly warned autocrats. He publicly scolded the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, for arresting, torturing, and exiling dissidents, including one who was imprisoned for almost five hundred days just for holding a protest sign. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’,” Biden tweeted, in July. At the same time, the Democratic Party platform states that the Biden Administration does not believe in “regime change.”
Biden’s mix of principle and pragmatism may be best reflected in the relationship he establishes with Vladimir Putin. “The Russians are not recognizing Biden’s victory yet, as that’s part of their policy to support as much polarization and division in the U.S. as possible,” Angela Stent, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and the author of “Putin’s World,” told me. Yet in the final weeks of the campaign, Putin also seemed to be hedging his bets, notably when he said that he saw nothing wrong with Hunter Biden’s business dealings, which was something that he didn’t have to say.
The Russians know Biden, too. The President-elect has met Putin several times. Biden announced the Obama Administration’s reset with Russia, at the Munich Security Conference, in 2009, which worked while Dmitry Medvedev was the President. Relations deteriorated when Putin returned to the Presidency, in 2012. “Biden has had tough rhetoric on Russia,” Stent said. “So they’re wary of him.” Yet the Russians realize that a Biden Administration is willing to restore the traditional diplomatic channels that were disrupted during the Trump Administration. Stent added, “Biden will be more predictable, even if he imposes more sanctions and, of course, puts more of an emphasis on human rights and democracy.”
On the flip side, some long-standing allies may be jittery about relations with Biden. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was one of Trump’s closest allies. As President, Trump fulfilled some of Netanyahu’s wildest dreams—recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy there, and proposing a peace plan that heavily favored Israel and all but abandoned the Palestinians. Netanyahu tried to make nice in a tweet on Sunday (albeit taking his time to react). “Joe, we’ve had a long & warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel,” the Prime Minister said. But Biden knows the weaknesses and political preferences of leaders in the volatile Middle East, too. “It’s true that @netanyahu has known @JoeBiden for nearly 40 years,” Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, tweeted, on Sunday. “But it’s also true that @JoeBiden has known @netanyahu for nearly forty years.”
Biden’s foreign policy will also be more respectful of countries with few resources and little power, a sixth pillar. In dozens of countries across five continents, many politicians and even more among the general public hope that Biden will show interest—beyond real-estate values. He won’t refer to Africa as a continent of “shithole countries,” as Trump did. Biden has been to Africa multiple times over four decades; Trump never set foot on the continent as President. Zitto Kabwe, the leader of Tanzania’s opposition group Alliance for Change and Transparency, tweeted that Biden’s win was a sign of hope for democracy “at a time when many other parts of the world are seeing that light diminishing. It gives hope that integrity, honesty and perseverance still matter.” At the same time, the Biden Administration will also have to make progress at home on racial issues to be credible in pushing human rights anywhere else in the world.
Finally, Biden is an unapologetic globalist, which will be central to his approach on issues ranging from the pandemic to a worldwide economic recovery and terrorism. Yet he faces a challenge convincing the rest of the world that America still deserves the power it once yielded. “In the halls of power and in boardrooms around the world, the quiet conversation is about whether the United States is slipping on the global stage,” Kurt Campbell, a former diplomat who is now the chairman of the Asia Group, said during a Center for a New American Security live stream this week. The Biden Administration will need “to summon American will, power, cunning” to argue that the United States “still can, and should, and will play a leading role.” Gyrating U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades—from Bush to Obama to Trump—has led to a sobering recognition among allies that foreign policy by executive order is “precarious and ephemeral,” Niblett said. Durable U.S. policy requires congressional support; foreign pacts will require Senate ratification, so that future Presidents cannot abandon them, as Trump did with the Iran nuclear deal. Allies “hope that Biden’s greater legislative experience will enable him to craft more durable foreign, as well as domestic, policies,” Niblett said.
Trump still has ten weeks to leave his imprint—or further shape the world that he wants to leave behind. In his first act since the election results, he fired—“terminated,” as he put it—the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, on Twitter. Esper, a West Point graduate, had been the rare voice in the Administration to publicly disagree with Trump’s desire to deploy active-duty military troops to clear protesters in American cities over the summer. In an interview with the Military Times published on Monday, Esper acknowledged that Cabinet officials had to carefully “pick [their] fights” with Trump—and worry about who might replace them if they are fired. “Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.” One looming question is whether Trump will try to order larger or faster withdrawals of U.S. troops from Germany, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or South Korea—moves that would be harder and costlier for Biden to reverse.
Other heads may roll. For weeks, Washington has been rife with rumors that Trump wanted to axe the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray. Now officially a loser, Trump may not want his appointees to have a more honorable or gracious end than he does. “If Trump moves on to fire the head of the CIA and the head of the FBI, both true professionals and patriots, we are going to be in uncharted waters for the next 90 days,” retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, tweeted on Monday. “It all has terrible ‘burn it down’ on the way out feeling. It is playing with fire with our nations security.”
Yet there is an undercurrent of relief in many parts of the world that American leadership is back. “Biden is an excellent choice both for us and the free world, which is facing complicated challenges,” Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister of Israel, wrote in Haaretz over the weekend. “It certainly won’t hurt to have a mensch as the leader of the free world.”