Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Winners and Losers of a Biden Presidency


Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the global winners and losers of the incoming Biden administration. It was conducted via email over the last week. 

Brad Nelson: Now that the dust has settled on the recent US presidential election, it's time to take stock of the possible impact of a Biden administration. In short, who wins and who loses with Biden in the White House? Let's start with the “winners.” Many scholars and analysts argue that EU and NATO members will get a big boost with Biden in office. Do you see it that way? And do you see any other winners from a Biden presidency?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Biden is a traditional type of leader, surrounded by the usual "blob" that has the same strategic outlook of pushing for multilateralism, cooperating together to get the best result. And NATO/EU are basically traditional US partners in multilateralism. Unlike Trump, who doesn't give a darn about getting everyone on board, Biden will make concessions, cajole, etc. Thus NATO/EU will be a big winner.

ASEAN will get more respect and attention from the US. Like Obama, Biden will push for more engagement between the US and ASEAN, but the problem is that ASEAN is not likely to get closer to the US, fearing antagonizing China. So, I suspect the US will push for more engagement, but ASEAN probably won’t reciprocate. 

BN: Yes, I agree with your choices and I agree with your rationale. To your discussion on institutionalism and multilateralism, I'd add the UN. The UN is also poised to benefit from a Biden administration. Biden is already making promises to beef up its cooperation with the UN on things like covid-19 and climate change. The UN won't be as hindered and hemmed in by the US for the next four years. And I've read reports that suggest UN Secretary-General Guterres--who clearly preferred Biden over Trump--wants to take advantage of this potential opportunity by embracing a more ambitious agenda going forward. In addition, it’s likely that the WTO, the WHO, and other global organizations pilloried and pushed aside by Trump will get a breather and possibly more from a Biden presidency.

There are two other things to keep in mind. First, Biden is pro-alliances. Biden and his incoming administration (particularly Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken) view the Trump White House as weakening and undermining many of America's traditional alliances, because of his insistence on treating them as transactional tools and protection rackets. Biden is going to restore the relationship with its partners, or that's his plan anyway. So, yes, EU and NATO members will get a boost in time and attention from a Biden presidency. So will Japan and South Korea and Australia. 

Second, it looks like Biden's going to make a big push for an enhanced role for shared democratic values and ideas in US foreign policy. That's not very surprising, given the Trump administration's record. His White House has reduced the role of political reform, human rights, and democracy promotion in US policy, and Trump himself has arguably treated America's democratic allies in Europe very roughly and harshly--both of which has generated widespread criticism of that on the left. The democratic push is part of Biden's plan to "restore" normalcy in US foreign policy. Biden plans on convening a major conference with the world's major democracies fairly early in his administration. I'd also expect Biden to keep the Quad and even build off it. We may even see a return to democracy promotion efforts, albeit in a far less militarized fashion. I also anticipate Biden and his administration to openly critique the human rights records of countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and so on--something the Trump WH rarely did. Given all of this, I'd say the winners here are, once again, America's democratic allies, but also countries like India and Indonesia, human rights and political reform organizations and activists, and the foreign policy establishment in the US.

YS: The problem with “human rights” is that many states, including Indonesia, see this less than the US upholding values than a carte blanche to get involved with other states' internal affairs. Thus Indonesia is largely silent about China's mistreatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, fearing that it could create a precedent that can be used against Indonesia in places like West Papua. A Biden administration with human rights' guns blazing from the start will cause fear that Biden will become another American crusader. And it will actually be detrimental to America’s interest in facing China's threat in South China Sea.

On Climate Change: I think the US will go back and rejoin the Paris agreement. The question, however, is whether the US will go all in on a climate change agenda or simply kick the can down the road as most US presidents do, especially considering that China's economy keeps growing.

BN: Let's turn to the potential “losers” of a Biden presidency. As I see it, there will be many. To begin, Biden's likely emphasis on alliances, institutions, and renewed US engagement in the world means that the neo-isolationists, America Firsters, and pro-unilateralists in the US--a group that cuts across the left and right--will be pretty unhappy. This could also ruffle some feathers in Russia and China. After all, governments in both nations will probably face a more sustained, collective push back from the US and its allies after four years of American diplomatic retrenchment under Trump. 

Biden's move back into the Iran nuclear deal will surely tick off Iran hawks in the US (of which there are many), Israel, and the Sunni powers. 

There is no way Biden will give Kim Jong Un a private audience or even hint at granting him any kind of meaningful concessions. Biden's probable policy of strategic patience, which harkens back to the Obama days, won't respond to every North Korean outburst, will deemphasize America's public attention to NK (unless Kim makes an olive branch opening), and will treat the North Koreans as a nuisance. Kim's window of opportunity to strike a deal with the US is over for the foreseeable future, and Kim is accordingly going to be very frustrated by this situation. 

The world's dictators will find a much more skeptical and highly critical America under Biden. I expect Saudi Arabia to find life much more difficult with Biden in the White House, particularly compared to the esteemed status it held in US foreign policy during the Trump years. Besides reviving the Iran deal, the US will end support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, criticize the Saudis on their human rights record, try to rein in MBS's reckless foreign policy, and aim to distance itself from Riyadh and the Middle East more generally as it ramps up its efforts to deal with China.

YS: Good points, but at the same time, I wonder how much Biden is going to wreck what Trump has done. If he is restarting the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump shredded, the risk is that Iran would demand more compensations, which may hurt Biden's standings both domestically and in the Middle East. If he alienates the Saudis, both Israel and Saudi may look at other "patrons" -- not that they are going to align themselves with Russia or China as they are too deeply embedded to the US security alliance (e.g. US military bases & weaponry), but they will be much open cooperating with Russia/China and that will hurt the US national interest. And as we see with Turkey, even though Turkey is a member of NATO and has a close security relationship with the US, Erdogan can still make life difficult for the US, though you can argue it is due to Trump's indifference/naiveté towards Erdogan.

In Kim Jong Un's case, I don't see life will be that different for him with Biden office compared to Trump as president. Keep in mind that despite meeting Trump twice, and everyone screaming that Trump was going to be played like a fiddle, giving up everything to Kim, so far the US hasn't given any major concessions to North Korea. Biden may want to resurrect the Six-Party Talks, but with both Russia and China's relationship currently in deep freeze with the US, I doubt it would be successful. In fact, Biden could be seen as more likely to give concessions, like the Obama administration (of which he was a member) did to Iran, leading North Korea to raise tensions to eleven to gain concessions. 

I think Biden will find that after Trump, people will think him as either pushover or as too willing to push for human rights, and that could make major headaches for his foreign policy.  

BN: Biden is inclined to keep more of Trump's Middle East policy than any other of his regional policies. So the idea of Biden "wrecking" Trump's Middle East gains is probably a bit hyperbolic. He's not going to move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. He's going to continue the push for regional normalization with Israel. I wouldn't be surprised if he continued Trump's draw down from the Middle East. I suspect Biden is going to be somewhat sensitive to what the Saudis and Israelis think of the Iran deal. In part, to undercut and diffuse their opposition, at least a bit, and in part because Biden knows there are going to be other divisive issues that will come up in the coming years. Getting off on a very wrong foot immediately on the Iran deal--Biden's going to rejoin the deal early on--will make life more difficult for him then and later on. That won't stop Biden from trying to resuscitate it, but he won't run over the Saudis and Israelis in the way that they perceived Obama as doing. 

Not sure that Biden will be seen as a pushover--either in a vacuum or in comparison to Trump. Maybe, but maybe not. Look, Trump has largely been seen as someone who's desperately looking to withdraw the US from the world. He's made decisions to cut and run (Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia) or withdraw (Paris Accords, TPP, various UN agencies, like the WHO, Iran deal, etc.) without getting much of anything in return. To me, that sounds like a pushover, and I suspect many in the world look at Trump similarly. Conceivably, a more engaged and assertive US under Biden could correct some of these weaknesses in US foreign policy. 

However, if the world thinks the US public is more aligned with Trump on foreign policy and that the Democrats--especially the progressive wing of the party--don't have the stomach for global re-engagement, then Biden's intentions and policies--no matter how good or thoughtful--will founder and struggle to produce the kind of results he's looking for. 

YS: Well, I am saying Biden will be seen as a pushover if he bends backward to get a nuclear deal with Iran. And no, Trump's withdrawal from the various accords like Paris Accords, TPP, etc., was not seen as a sign of a pushover, it is more a sign of irrationality--that the US has squandering its global leadership. But by the end of the day, states adapted to Trump, including Japan. And it will depend on what kind of assertiveness/engagement that Biden will do to bring American leadership back to the international arena. A return to the discussion on TPP, climate change, and the WHO will be appreciated, for sure. But the question from everyone will be: What kind of public goods Biden is going to supply to the world? And as you noted, does the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have the stomach for global re-engagement?