At last year’s Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of military chiefs and political leaders, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a promise to America’s allies: “This too shall pass,” he assured them, “we will be back.”
There was little doubt as to what “this” referred to — Donald Trump’s America — or who would be coming back. Biden, now running for president and ahead in opinion polls for November’s vote, might just have the opportunity to make good on his pledge.
Yet returning the U.S. and its alliances to a time before Trump is probably unachievable, and only in part because he has changed the U.S. since his January 2017 inauguration in ways that may be irreversible. Just as important, the rest of the world changed too.
More U.S. allies have their own versions of Trump in office, from Poland to the Philippines, while others have absorbed at least elements of his nationalist agenda. Even close partners have learned to be wary of a less predictable U.S. partner.
Above all, China has shed its former reticence to confront Washington — including through a recently reported deal to bankroll and arm Iran — creating a radically altered geopolitical landscape for any White House occupant.
“Even under Biden, as old-school Atlanticist as you can get, it will be a long road back for the United States, and some things have changed forever,” says Adam Thomson, a former U.K. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who now heads the European Leadership Network, a think tank that draws on former defense officials from across the continent.
“Europeans will never be quite so sure of the U.S. security guarantee; Iranians and many others will never completely trust a U.S. signature on a treaty; and everyone will want to be less dependent — if they can — on U.S. trade and the U.S. dollar,” Thomson says.
For sure, a Biden victory would be celebrated in many capitals, even if initially only because it would mean an end to dealing with the current administration. It’s an open secret in Berlin that Chancellor Angela Merkel has given up on trying to work with Trump. Plus, Biden has said he would seek to repair damage. His campaign pledges to recommit the U.S. to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, from which Trump withdrew U.S. support, and convene a global Summit of Democracies aimed at renewing a sense of common purpose.
In the Middle East, the former vice president says he would oppose the Israeli government’s drive to annex about 30 percent of the West Bank and “reverse Donald Trump’s undercutting of peace” there. He also says he’d take a more skeptical approach to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and recommit to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump left in 2018, so long as Iran returns to compliance.
While such action would ease some significant areas of discord, it’s unlikely to be enough.
The Democratic candidate recognizes there would be a deep hole for him to dig out of, from economic recession deepened by mishandling of the pandemic to abandoned arms control treaties with Russia, weakened alliances and lost time on climate change, according to campaign adviser Jeff Prescott.
Merkel, for one, is well aware that relations with the U.S. can’t go back to the old normal, according to a high-ranking German official who asked not to be named discussing bilateral relations. Too many things have happened and the world has moved on, the official said.
Take the tussle over Nord Stream 2, a 1,200 kilometers (745 mile) marine pipeline that would allow Russia to send more natural gas direct to Germany, robbing Ukraine and other eastern European countries of transit fees and undermining the ability of U.S. liquid natural gas to compete. Opposition to the project in Washington goes well beyond Trump. A group of Democratic and Republican Senators proposed in June to expand sanctions aimed at preventing the pipeline’s completion. Germany considered asking the European Union to retaliate, should that become U.S. law.
Nord Stream 2 is just one of several areas that have caused Europeans to wonder how much of the changing U.S. treatment of allies in recent years was just about Trump and how much is permanent, according to Jonathan Hackenbroich of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s a completely new thing that the U.S. would go as far as sanctioning German officials because of ultimately economic transactions,” said Hackenbroich, who heads the ECFR’s Task Force for Protecting Europe from Economic Coercion.
The result is a long term push to reduce the dollar dependency that makes even close allies vulnerable to economic pressure from the U.S. Treasury. The European Commission has begun to design dollar avoidance vehicles with the aim of curbing the power of the greenback.
The most important change since Biden left office lies in China. President Xi Jinping has been tightening control at home and asserting power abroad in ways that would make the more cooperative, Obama-era U.S.-China relationship difficult to reproduce.
“When it comes to trade, either we’re going to write the rules of the road for the world or China is,” Biden wrote last year, attacking Trump for his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal for Pacific Rim nations aimed at balancing Beijing’s economic influence.
Current and former officials in Beijing say the Communist Party leadership would prefer to see Trump win in November, fearing that Biden would be better able to unify Asian allies to resist China’s influence. And according to Biden’s campaign team, they’re right.
“He’s been very clear we have to rally our allies to take on China’s behavior,” said Prescott, Biden’s adviser. “We can’t insult our friends to do that.”
Core U.S. allies aren’t quite what they were, either. French President Emmanuel Macron last year called the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance “brain dead” and echoed Trump in casting doubt on the collective security guarantee at its heart. Macron’s been pushing for EU member states to integrate their defense and foreign policy resources so they’re less reliant on U.S. security guarantees.
The U.K., caught between the economic dislocation threatened by Brexit and a coronavirus-induced recession, is likely to lack the means to continue as America’s go-to military partner for far flung operations.
Certainly the prospect of strategic U.S. re-engagement under Biden would be widely welcomed in Africa, which Trump dismissed in 2018 as home to “shithole countries,” said Andrea Zanon, a former head of Middle East Risk Management at the World Bank. “The U.S. is well placed to offer an alternative to China by bringing development, technology and capitalism together,” he said. “Biden will have to be bold.”
Yet how bold Biden could afford to be at a time of twin health and economic crises at home is open to question. “If Biden were to be inaugurated in the third week of January at the age of 78, he would be facing interlinked challenges that are an order of magnitude greater than a young and energetic Obama had to face in 2009,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Indeed, according to Biden’s campaign his top priority, and his top tool for addressing foreign policy challenges, would be investing at home.
The next president will “have to address the world as it is in January 2021,” Biden wrote in a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year. “Picking up the pieces will be an enormous task.”