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Foreign Policy

Biden’s View of the World

Dec 04, 2020
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations

In an article published in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Joe Biden detailed his foreign policy platform, which turned out to be one reason he was nominated for president at the Democratic National Convention in August. 

The article, “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” explains Biden’s foreign policy agenda. “President Donald Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners. He has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats … As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances … and once more have America lead the world,” Biden said.

To this end, he will, first and foremost, strengthen ties with NATO which he said was “at the heart” of U.S. national security”. Specifically, Biden promised to “make the investments necessary” to ensure that the country continues to have “the strongest military in the world.” Meanwhile, Biden said, he will ensure that NATO members increase their defense spending.

Second, he said that during his first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global “Summit for Democracy” that will include “civil society organizations from around the world that stand on the front lines in defense of democracy.”

According to the article, summit attendees will “mobilize collective action on global threats.” High on the agenda is to “counter Russian aggression” and “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms.” At the same time, the summit will “build a unified front” to deal with a China that is “extending its global reach.” Since “the world does not organize itself,” the United States must “play a leading role in writing the rules,” just as it did in the past, it said.

The article indicated that the focus of Biden’s foreign policy plan will be to strengthen the country’s military power, enhance its ties with allies and upgrade democracy as an ideological weapon. The ultimate goal is to effectively contain geopolitical rivals, such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and reestablish the leadership role of the United States in the world.

Biden’s victory in the presidential election confirms that political elites in the United States no long approve of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, which they think has failed. More important, the policy fails to empower the country to address pressing domestic issues.

At the Democratic National Convention in August, Biden said the United States is facing four historic crises: climate change, the pandemic, an economic crash and the need for racial justice. Although he describes China as “the biggest competitor” and Russia as “the most serious threat” in the speech, the most pressing issues faced by the U.S. come from the country itself, not China or Russia.

Biden was elected to Congress in 1972 and amassed extensive diplomatic experience during his long tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming vice president in the Obama administration in 2009. But the foreign policy plan that Biden outlined in Foreign Affairs is not his personal vision alone — in fact, it is the brainchild of more than 20 working groups, with input from more than 2,000 foreign policy experts and security advisors.

Nor is it merely a Democratic plan. During the convention, more than 130 senior Republican officials announced their support for Biden’s foreign policy in a joint statement. Many international experts believe that Biden’s foreign policy platform is essentially the same as Trump’s, albeit with some adjustments in form, style, approach and priorities. There is much truth in this argument.

But it would be naive to believe that such changes in U.S. foreign policy will make no substantive difference. The U.S. is in a critical period of economic recession and social unrest, and any important changes in its foreign policy will have a significant impact on international affairs and the interests of all countries in the world. Therefore, these changes merit more attention.

China is the most enduring and powerful engine driving a multipolar world order, and China has increasingly become, for the United States, the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Over the past few years, Trump’s policy of containing China by means of trade warfare, technology blockades and ideological attacks has not produced notable results.

In a mid-October article titled “Why Did Trump’s Trade War Fail?” the well-known American economist Paul Krugman said the U.S. should engage in normal trade negotiations with China. Citing a wealth of trade data, he proved that Trump’s trade war with China has actually hurt the U.S. economy, and that Trump’s attempts to sever bilateral economic ties not only makes no strategic sense but is also costly.

Over the next few years, the U.S. will face severe economic difficulties, and a Biden administration will inevitably experience some bumps in the road. This means that it will be necessary to relax tensions with China and pursue bilateral cooperation. In addition, Biden has made it clear that the U.S. will counterbalance China by building alliances and “a united front.” In other words, he prefers to seek a “mini detente” with China and adopt an approach of “selective competition” — that is, confront China militarily and ideologically, compete with it in economic and high-tech sectors and cooperate with it in such areas as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and global pandemic response. 

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