Isolationism has taken the shine off the perception of the US. But its foreign policy remains tightly interwoven with much of the world. As a new president takes office, what do its allies want?
There’s one thing that Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree on: that the days of the US acting as the world’s police force are over. “A muscular, interventionist foreign policy is not appropriate for the world we’re in today – both sides get that,” says James Jay Carafano, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
That reduced role has suited some world leaders and regions just fine; for others it poses a danger as the vacuum left by the US leaves them vulnerable to attack or meddling by foreign powers. So what can the world demand from president-elect Biden? Anja Manuel, a former US state department official and now director of the Aspen Strategy Group, says that Biden’s approach is likely to prioritise playing an intermediary role in shuttle diplomacy over hard-power military solutions. “He’s more in the realist camp, rather than [having] an ideological need to make the world safer,” says Manuel. “We can expect more nuanced, modest foreign policy.”
Trump’s departure from institutions such as the World Health Organization has allowed other countries to dictate proceedings; expect Biden to reassert US leadership. But Trump also “highlighted that many of the international institutions are a bit ossified and in need of reform,” says Manuel. “I hope that the next administration can start the process of change.”
On the matter of the South China Sea, the US state department’s official policy is crisp: “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
China’s claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea has set it on a collision course with the other claimants – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – but the issue reverberates far beyond. An estimated $4trn (€3.4trn) of trade passes through the sea every year, including oil vital for the huge economies of Japan and South Korea.
Asian governments watched in dismay as China concreted over a succession of reefs in the South China Sea and turned them into static aircraft carriers. The Association of South East Asian Nations has shown itself to be divided on the matter and few member governments are willing or able to tackle China head on. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a grouping of Asia-Pacific’s big four democracies (Japan, Australia, India and the US) – is an irritant to China and, so far, is largely symbolic but it does signal unity of opposition.
Given those regional weaknesses, Trump’s aggressive stance on maritime security has been welcomed by Asian allies (if less so on trade); many will be dismayed if the policy is reversed. Biden can’t easily undo China’s recently built military installations in the South China Sea but the US does have a pivotal role to play in keeping international waters open to all through its freedom of navigation operations. That would ensure the long-standing US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is maintained.
Every UK government has the same, simple desire when it comes to relations with the US. “We want to feel loved and important,” says David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project. “It has always been a bit weird: this idea that, ‘yes, we know there are other countries but can we be first among equals?’”
Over the past four years there had been the potential for that love to be extra strong. Trump openly backed the Brexit camp in the UK’s 2016 referendum and promised a swift and favourable US-UK trade deal. Four years on, a trade deal is still elusive. Going forward, focus, at least initially, is likely to lie elsewhere. “At least in terms of trade, the special relationship is always destined to slightly disappoint because the US has bigger fish to fry,” says Henig. “Any president is going to put dealing with the EU and China ahead of the UK; they’re just more important.”
“At least in terms of trade, the special relationship is always destined to slightly disappoint because the US has bigger fish to fry”
The EU will be looking to rebuild its own difficult relationship with the US on a more equal footing. “The Trump presidency brought Europe to the point of saying, ‘We are going to have to do more on our own, whether with China or trying to get the global climate-change agreement back on board,’” says Quentin Peel of Chatham House.
On issues of climate change and others, such as Iran, Peel notes that the UK’s interests have been more closely aligned with Europe than with the US. Whatever happens with Brexit and trade, these are areas where the UK and the EU could present a united front, both in standing up to the US and in partnering with a Biden administration that will be more open to collective climate action and reforming multilateral institutions. “After all, it’s incredibly difficult to get these things to work without US support,” says Peel.
Latin America is sometimes defined by strong co-operation between nations. At other times it simmers with economic and political tensions and rivalries. And after four years of Trump in the White House, there is no consensus in the region on the way forward when it comes to US policy. That’s in part because of a shocking breakdown within Latin America of co-ordination on issues such as trade, immigration, health and the environment.
Almost all of the 20 countries that make up the region have elected new leaders since the 2016 US presidential vote. Today, Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing president of Brazil, refuses to speak to Alberto Fernández, his leftist Argentine counterpart, while the populist president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico decided to avoid travelling to the rest of the continent altogether in 2020. Latin leaders even failed to agree on a candidate for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank, allowing the US to break the longstanding tradition of reserving the top job for a Latin American and handing it to a Trump advisor instead.
So where does this leave Washington? In a region that has become increasingly fragmented, there is a strong desire for the US to return to a “constructive” role, says Evan Ellis, a research professor and policy expert with the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute in Washington. One of the more worrisome trends during Trump’s tenure has been the move away from a strong embrace of democracy and multilateral engagement. For some, Trump has been reminiscent of the caudillo, a charismatic Latin strongman. But for many others the US has lost sight of its leadership role in the region. The vast majority of governments there, regardless of where they sit politically, would still seek a partnership with a Biden administration that re-engages and is respected internationally.
Nations that are geographically closer to the US, such as Mexico, will want assistance on immigration and trade – two areas where support has been hard to come by in the past four years. Those further away, such as Colombia and Brazil, will be looking for a responsible actor in the US that backs them on security issues and presents the Americas well to the world.
Venezuela is sure to be on the agenda too. Mass migration of Venezuelans to all corners of the continent continues, exacerbating rising poverty from Mexico City down to Montevideo as the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic kicked in. As a result, almost all governments would see benefits from a continued hard line against the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Making inroads against Maduro’s grip on power and helping to stop the flow of migrants would be a surefire way to make friends down south.
Over the past four years some of Trump’s biggest foreign-policy wins have arguably been in the Middle East – from a (conservative) US perspective at least. The Trump administration has stood firmly behind Israel, cementing the normalisation of relations with its Arab neighbours through the Abraham Accords and going against international law to recognise Jerusalem as the capital. Trump has also resisted greater involvement in any of the region’s wars, further isolated Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah and overseen the assassinations of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It has also bolstered ties with Gulf states, in part by shrugging off human rights abuses such as the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In terms of a broader doctrine, the US has eschewed its former role as a human-rights defender in place of a more cynical, pragmatic approach that favours strongmen along the anti-Iranian axis and wealthy partners with whom it can do business. For many major players in the region, a continuation of this would be hugely welcome.
“For a lot of regional powers, such as Turkey and Russia, this is a blessed thing as they feel they have less of an American watch over them,” says Joseph Bahout, director of the Lebanon-based Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. “The big question is who will replace the US and what will it mean for global security? Many are preparing for a new non-US era in the Middle East.”
Ordinary citizens across the region, however, hope that a Biden administration will change tack. The US might have a chequered history of intervention in the region but its retreat from more forceful dedication to values, including democracy and human rights, has created a vacuum that has allowed some leaders to act with increasing impunity.
Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu were particularly invested in Trump’s hands-off approach and potentially have the most to lose from a Biden presidency. Still, while the US’s diplomatic style might change, the substance of its policies will likely stay the same.
“The withdrawal of responsibility from the Middle East started with the Obama or even the late Bush administration,” says Hassan Mneimneh of the US-based Middle East Institute. “Trump has just been blatant about stating it. Biden is more susceptible to see the value but the US is still not likely to take the lead in this again.”
“Trump is presidential,” joked The Daily Show host Trevor Noah back in 2015. “He just happens to be running on the wrong continent.” Noah presaged an irony: that a leader who would never make an official visit to Africa, had dismissed its nations as “shithole countries” and stoked racial divisions at home, was nevertheless familiar to Africans and, among some, even popular.
“The continent’s authoritarians love Trump,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor at the University of Birmingham and founder of the Democracy in Africa initiative. They find “peace of mind” in an inattentive White House. Also, some of Africa’s grotesquely rich are beguiled by Trump’s gold-plated swagger.
But what Africa wants from the US depends on which Africa we’re talking about. For the continent’s switched-on, social media-savvy youth, a humbler America would be welcome: one that acknowledges its failings, especially on race.
“American credibility has taken a tremendous hit,” says Nanjala Nyabola, a writer living in Nairobi. “The amount of goodwill that has been burnt in the past four years is going to be difficult to recover.”
Political violence, unrest on the streets and leaders questioning the legitimacy of elections are familiar to people across Africa’s mostly young and fragile democracies, but seeing the same dynamics in the US has undermined the ideal of democracy and America’s “legitimacy as an arbiter of democratic processes,” says Nyabola. “You can’t be the custodian of democracy when you’ve made such an ass of yourself.”
For many African governments the desire is for the US to be a reliable partner – whether in trade, health, culture, aid or military – that can line up alongside other world powers seeking opportunity and influence on the continent. “African governments would like to see an engaged US with a clear Africa policy, as well as an engaged China, Russia and India,” says Cheeseman. When the US retreats, the vacuum is filled: Chinese TV dramas replace Hollywood in middle-class African sitting rooms; Russian mercenaries replace American marines; Indian rupees replace American dollars.
This is a lose-lose for Africa and the US. The continent’s demographic and economic growth is not in doubt but whether democracy will be the vehicle is less certain with every American misstep. Africans look to the world and their future and think, “American chaos or Chinese stability?”
Whoever won the US election, India was always going to be well placed. Biden is remembered for opening doors for India 15 years ago when, as a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he accepted India’s entry into the nuclear-arms club. And Trump has taken the partnership to another level. What India needs most is continuity and, one thing both political parties in the US agree on is India’s importance as an ally.
When a border skirmish between Indian and Chinese soldiers turned deadly in June, it marked the final straw in India’s shifting foreign policy. No more would it pussyfoot around incursions from its Chinese neighbours, nor would it avoid deepening its engagement with the US for fear of losing its “strategic autonomy”. Subsequently, India strengthened its military ties with the US and expects to continue down that road whether or not the US tones down its rhetoric against China.
Trade is also a key area of co-operation. While Trump made no bones about being unhappy with India’s high tariffs on US exports, new trade treaties are in the works. India also hopes that US companies will be encouraged – either through tax incentives or re-shoring subsidies – to move manufacturing into India as the US looks to reduce its reliance on China’s supply chains. If there has been one area of difference, it’s immigration: India will look to Biden for a more stable US visa regime – the Trump administration had planned restrictions on the h-1b visa programme, which many Indian IT professionals rely on.
Some in New Delhi do wonder if a Biden administration will be more vociferous over perceived human-rights abuses in India. He also has a history of working with Pakistan, which worries some. But Biden is expected to be more pragmatic in his approach: the US needs India in its corner as it tries to limit Chinese “aggression”.
While Trump’s irritations with Nato were as petulant and fatuous as his irritations with most multi-national structures, he did have half a point about the Western military alliance. He was persistently vexed that most Nato members failed to meet its own criteria of spending 2 per cent of their gdp on defence.
Though the target is a guideline and not a rule, Trump appeared to believe that it was a membership levy and that many Nato partners were delinquent. But there was no doubt that the US was, and is, making a colossal contribution to the security of Europe. Trump stated that Nato was taking the US for “suckers” and at least one official in Trump’s orbit, former national security advisor John Bolton, spoke of fears that Trump could withdraw from the alliance.
The US was, and is, making a colossal contribution to the security of Europe
What the non-US nations of Nato will want to hear from the White House in the coming year is reassurance: that the US is still invested in Nato and that it remains willing to act as a buffer of last resort against any especially outrageous shenanigans by Russia. The nightmare scenario remains a semi-deniable Ukraine-style incursion into Estonia or Latvia, challenging Western governments to fight for a couple of small towns that few of their citizens could point to on a map.
That assurance seems likely to be provided by Biden, who frequently represented the Obama administration at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of the world’s top security and defence officials. In a speech there as a private citizen in 2019, shortly before announcing his run for president, he said: “I strongly support Nato.”
Members of Nato would also appreciate some recognition that many of them have stepped up their defence spending; to the extent that Trump’s tantrums have encouraged Nato’s European members to take more responsibility for themselves – he might even have been good for the alliance. Most of all, though, the nations of Nato will want to be regarded as respected partners rather than annoying underlings, ideally by a US president who recalls that Article Five of the Nato treaty – the clause guaranteeing a collective response to an attack against any one member – has been invoked only once in Nato’s 71-year history: on 12 September 2001, in defence of the US.