In some ways, Joe Biden’s election victory will reverse many of the trends from the past four years, including on multilateralism, democracy promotion, and immigration.
This article is part of the series — What to Expect from International Relations in 2021.
Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in 2016 was a shock to the US foreign policy establishment. Trump questioned many of the basic principles behind the bipartisan consensus surrounding the United States’ engagement with the world: Long-term commitments to guarantee the security of US allies, a belief in the material benefits of an open international trading system, a propensity to use military force to impose US preferences around the world, an investment in multilateral institutions to manage conflict, an understanding that high-skilled immigration would benefit the US economy, and a faith in the liberalising effects of democracy and free markets.
In four years, Trump took steps towards reversing — or at least questioning — many of these policies. How did Americans gain from subsidising European, Japanese, or South Korean security? Did the American middle class really benefit from an open economic order, when manufacturing and jobs had moved to places like China? Could US expeditionary wars be interminable, coming at great cost without clear near-term objectives? How were zombie international institutions that constrained US power of any help? Were liberal immigration policies making the United States culturally unrecognisable, even if they brought material advantages? And was the promotion of democracy and free markets beneficial, when it had no effect on US competitors such as China and Russia? These were all questions that large proportions of the US electorate asked, and that US foreign policy elites did not always adequately answer.
In some ways, Joe Biden’s election victory will reverse many of the trends from the past four years, including on multilateralism, democracy promotion, and immigration. Biden is likely to reenter into multilateral entities and agreements from which Trump pulled out of unilaterally, such as the Paris Climate Treaty and the World Health Organisation. He has pledged to host a Summit of Democracy and restore the reputation of democracy at home and abroad, although — given recent developments in the United States — from a position of modesty rather than evangelism. He has spoken publicly of a more liberal immigration regime, whether for refugees, skilled workers, or permanent migrants. These approaches would all resonate positively with his own political base within the Democratic Party.
But in other areas — alliances, trade, and military interventions — Biden will find it difficult to completely reverse course. Not only has Trump shifted the conversation significantly, but the questions he has raised sometimes find resonance on the political left as well. While Biden will attempt to resurrect an “alliance-first” foreign policy, he may continue calls — more quietly and respectfully — for US allies to burden share, much as Barack Obama attempted during his presidency. While he may not obsess over trade deficits as much as Trump, Biden will prioritise middle class jobs in trade policy. Ambitious new trade agreements — such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — will be difficult to get past the US Congress. Finally, open-ended US military entanglements in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan will be difficult to sustain, both politically and financially. While the US may continue to exercise military dominance in multiple theatres, it will for the foreseeable future be wary of large-scale expeditionary warfighting, choosing to focus either on targeted operations or great power competition.
In conclusion, while many foreign policies adopted by Donald Trump will be repudiated in the wake of his electoral defeat, certain aspects of ‘America First’ will remain part of the US policy conversation for the foreseeable future, animated not just by the right but also portions of the American political left.
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