For many, the attraction of Joseph Biden Jr. as a presidential candidate has less to do with what he is, but more to do with what he isn’t. He is not a fire breathing, fire wielding, populist, he is not fond of lambasting enemies on Twitter, nor is he going to be the one to upset the establishment applecart of Washington D.C.
He is a restorationist, someone who wants to ensure that Donald Trump’s tale is told as an aberration in the grander story of the United States. His presidency would likely not be characterized by great leaps forward, but rather by careful steps back and by attempts to reverse his predecessor’s path.
This is perhaps most true upon the international stage, a place that captured little of President Trump’s interest. There, Mr. Biden promises to “once more have America lead the world,” a phrase happily received by many, both in his country and beyond.
Though certainly evocative of a happier pre-Trumpian time, Biden’s pronouncement requires a more detailed look. What would a world molded in the image of the former Vice President look like?
A consultation of his campaign website provides some more clarity. It explains that Biden wishes to “lead by example” and “rally the world to meet [its] common challenges.” In practice, that would see Biden rebuild the American State Department, restoring and increasing American spending on diplomacy and development. Also, he’d like to host a “global Summit for Democracy” within his first year in office, bringing together the world’s democracies and civil society organizations to create a collective focus around “fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism; and advancing human rights.”
A far cry from ‘America First’, Biden is less likely to go it alone and more likely to use America’s network of friends and allies to address the issues of the day. For example — as Biden is equally unhappy with China’s “abusive trade practices” as its “suppression of Uyghurs” — he would rather the US put pressure and apply sanctions on Beijing alongside a broad coalition, similar to the way American Presidents past tried to target the Soviet Union.
A President Biden would also seek to “restore [American] moral leadership”, a phrase that by turns elicits consent or contempt, depending on where in the world it is received. In any case, ‘moral leadership’ would see Biden end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and, more broadly, a reassessment of the partnership with Riyadh. This courtesy would likely be extended to more of America’s less liberal allies, including Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey, as Biden and a number of his key foreign policy advisors appear less willing to hold hands with autocrats.
Though altering alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia would certainly set Biden apart from his predecessors, the longstanding American support for Israel would not end during his tenure. He is, after all, a self-proclaimed “Zionist” and though he backs a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he would not move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv or ever withhold military aid in order to force the Israelis to play ball.
Mr. Biden would also maintain, rather than reinvent, the American wheel when facing Iran or Russia. With the latter, he would be no great friend but still would maintain cordiality — renewing, for example, the New START arms treaty set to expire in early February 2021. Regarding the former, especially several key advisers, including Tony Blinken and Jack Sullivan, were instrumental in crafting the Iran nuclear deal, he would re-enter it, so long as Tehran returns to compliance.
All in all, Joseph Biden sees the United States as becoming less damned if they do than if they don’t. Donald Trump’s foreign policy was characterized less by global leadership as it was by frenetic attempts at having a ‘win’ to show for, but a President Biden would be happier as Leader of the Free World. He would work with fellow democracies to try to shape or rebuild the international order, from climate change to trade, from cyber-security to nuclear non-proliferation. Tasked with restoring ‘normalcy,’ Biden sees there to be little to lose, but a whole world to win.