Biden’s Toughest Task: Linking Foreign Policy to a Changed America

Joe Biden at Bethel AME Church Wilmington DE
Joe Biden, right, the likely Democratic Party nominee for US president, and community leaders at Bethel A.M.E. Church, Wilmington, Del., June 1, 2020. Besides the pandemic, a wrecked economy and public protests nationwide, Biden will have to repair US international relations if he wins the race. ADAM SCHULTZ/BIDEN FOR PRESIDENT

With Joseph Biden taking an unassailable lead by June 7 as the Democratic Party’s choice for president of the United States, many Americans foresee a desperate, ugly political campaign for re-election by Donald Trump coming. The magnitude of his damage to America’s role in the world will be an issue for Democrats, along with the disastrous Republican handling in the US of the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread public protests over economic inequalities and police offenses.

Biden is expected to win formal approval by his party’s nominating convention in mid-August. The presidential election is scheduled for Nov.3.

Biden would bring to the race a longtime interest and considerable experience in international affairs, as a US senator and as vice president under Barack Obama, for whom he served as a global adviser and troubleshooter.

So much goodwill has been lost abroad in the Trump years, that Biden’s first foreign focus would seem to be damage control. But this election will likely play out against  the government’s bungling responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and images of historic mass civil society protests in the streets of American cities, which could complicate the task of foreign outreach first.

“We have done things that have offended just about everybody in the world,” said Colin Powell, a former national security adviser and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, who expressed strong interest in improving relations around the world.

In an interview on June 8 with Jake Tapper of CNN, Powell announced that he would be voting for Biden in November.

“Our friends are distraught with us,” said Powell, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants and the first black American secretary of state, who had also served as head of the military joint chiefs of staff. “Just about everywhere you go, you will find this kind of disdain for American foreign policy that is not in our interests, and we have to get on top of this. We have to start acting seriously.”

Powell pointed to international commitments that Trump has broken, threatened or disrupted, mentioning disputes with NATO and the recent withdrawal from the World Health Organization. “We’re not that happy with the United Nations,” he added, referring to reduced American involvement with the UN over the last three and a half years.

Under Trump, the international experience and skills of US ambassadors to the UN have not matched the qualifications of most of their predecessors. Security Council stalemates have frequently happened when US envoys try to press actions demanded by Trump and Michael Pompeo, his secretary of state.

Since January 2017, when Trump officially took office, the ruptures in American engagement globally have been mounting. Among the components of the UN system or related institutions stripped of US membership and financial contributions are the Population Fund, the UN Human Rights Council, Unesco, the Universal Postal Union, an open skies treaty, agreements on climate change and an international deal for forestalling or limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and ability.

Separately, Trump has backed away from or failed to renew arms-control treaties with Russia and exited two important free-trade pacts: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The World Trade Organization may be next.

Even Unicef, probably the most popular UN agency among Americans, has been threatened twice with the loss of US funds in White House budget proposals, which Congress has so far rejected. Unicef USA, an American public-fundraising group, has stepped in to help. Donations of money and gifts in kind provided $568 million for Unicef in fiscal year 2019, the group said in its most recent annual report.

In China, where US policy has been erratic and confusing, depending on Trump’s whims and political expediency, a foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, remarked to reporters recently, “The U.S. has become addicted to quitting groups and scrapping treaties.”

Biden has some vocal critics abroad. In the Middle East, he has been accused in some media for being too close to the Israeli government and Saudi monarchy.

“Biden has already staked out drastically different positions from President Donald Trump with vows to reassess US-Saudi relations and re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, as well as his opposition to Israel annexing the West Bank,” Bryant Harris wrote in Al-Monitor, a media site in Washington, D.C., launched in mid-April 2012 by an Arab-American businessman, Jamal Daniel. “But as always, the devil is in the details.

“Will Biden fully undo the decades-long US-Saudi security partnership?” Harris asked. “What about the troubled US-Turkish alliance? To what extent and at what pace is he willing to move to lift Iran sanctions? How will he stop Israel from annexing the West Bank without using military aid restrictions as a pressure point?”

Rajan Menon, a leading political scientist at CUNY, the City University of New York, considers Biden to be “by temperament an internationalist, and he cares a great deal foreign policy,” he said in an interview with PassBlue.

“But I think the mood of the country has changed and not because of Covid, but because of a whole combination of forces,” added Menon, who is a prolific author on international policies and holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer chair in political science at City College, the centerpiece of the CUNY system. “There is a sense — shared by the left and the right, although not on what to do about this problem — that something has gone off the rails. . . . There’s a hunger for setting things right at home.”

“The most difficult challenge Biden will face is that he has to meet two competing needs,” Menon said.

“On the foreign policy front, first of all, what’s required is simply a change of persona,” he said. “We need to have on the international stage a president who is dignified rather than boorish or worse, who actually believes in information [and is not] denigrating science. And somebody who interlocuters take seriously.

“The most tragic thing about Trump is that while he preens about what a great leader he is, those who meet him in other countries are incredulous because they’ve never dealt with anyone like this before,” Menon continued. “While [President Ronald] Reagan wasn’t terribly effective, he surrounded himself with people — whether you agreed with them or not — who were well informed. With this kind of wing-it president, foreign leaders are perplexed at how you deal with somebody like this.

“So Biden, if nothing else, will change that — that is, how the country presents itself to the world as a whole,” he added. But questions abound as to how Biden will deal with domestic policies and social change and make foreign policy relevant to them.

“However much people were critical of Senator [Bernie] Sanders and Senator [Elizabeth] Warren, I think they understood this in a way, and I’ve often thought, what would have been the outcome if Bernie Sanders had run against Trump,” Menon said. Sanders and Warren, he suggested, have a better sense of how and why things are “slipping away” in American life.

Beyond a welcome personality change in dealing with foreign leaders, Menon said, there is a litany of dangerous issues that have festered “where this administration has been in denial.”

He mentioned climate change and nuclear arms control. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in less than a year, and Trump has already walked away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). “How do you resurrect arms-control talks between Russia and the US? How can the US prevent increasing flashpoints between Moscow and Washington turning into open confrontation? How do you finally deal comprehensively with China as a rising power?

“With splits in the Democratic Party between the left wing and moderate center, Menon said, “one could hope for a division of labor where you have a cabinet that has people willing to move [left] on the domestic front. The trick is, I think, for Biden to say, What I am doing overseas is not disconnected from the needs of Americans, is not disconnected from what my domestic team’s doing. There has to be a sense in which foreign policy connects with the quality of life Americans lead.”

While talking about a potential Biden presidency, Menon advises never to count out Trump and what he has done to the Republican Party as the national election nears.

“He is quintessentially a creature of privilege and a member of the elite . . . who convinced large numbers of Americans in the working class and lower-middle class that he was one of them,” Menon said.

He pandered to them with French fries, profanities and foreign enemies, first Mexicans and then the Chinese, Menon noted. And he has turned them into an obedient flock who may stand firmly behind him when polling stations open in November.

“Here’s a man who had no history with the Republicans,” he said, “and he has kind of reduced the Republican Party to the status of the North Korean Workers’ Party — that it will do his bidding no matter what.”

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Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a board member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of "So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas," "The Great Hill Stations of Asia" and a Foreign Policy Association study, "India Changes Course," in the Foreign Policy Association's "Great Decisions 2015."

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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