Following weeks of tension and unpredictability, Joe Biden has officially begun his term as president of the United States. Now, the rest of world is watching to see what new direction the US might take to approaching a complicated state of global affairs. We had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Garret Martin to get a better idea of what to expect from the new administration’s foreign policy agenda. Dr. Martin is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University’s School of International Service, and also Co-Director of the school’s Transatlantic Policy Center. He has worked extensively on the subjects of US foreign policy and Transatlantic relations.
Q: The state department from the previous administration was quite active in its final months of service, most notably announcing various agreements between countries in the Middle East. Are there any foreign policy decisions made by the Trump administration that might tie Biden’s hands or limit the options available to him?
A: I think that is true for any administration, that you do inherit a certain baggage from previous administrations, and you have to decide in some cases if you are going to undo the legacy of the previous administration or if you are going to use the opportunity afforded by them. In relation to the Abraham Accords, I would be surprised if the Biden administration tried to actively undo them, and to be fair, it is also a dynamic that was happening in some respects regardless of what the US was doing. Behind the scenes rapprochement between some of the Gulf states and Israel to counter Iran was happening anyway. I think where it may complicate things is in finding balance with the attempt to also return to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. That was a deal that was not welcomed among some allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, and so I think that is a complicating factor for the Biden administration.
The other question is what will the Biden administration do with the attempted rapprochement with North Korea and Kim Jong Un? There was certainly criticism of the way it happened, but now that the platform has been established, do you pick up on it and try to improve it and try to maybe address it in a different way but still maintain it?
From a broader sense, the biggest constraint for the Biden administration in terms of legacy I think is the relative unpopularity. The sense that the US has been a bit dysfunctional at home and also the fact that US politics seem to oscillate quite wildly. I think that is a big concern for the Biden administration. To what extent will other partners trust that the US can abide by any agreement it makes in the long run and can it survive more than one administration? That is a big legacy. It is a Trump legacy but it goes even beyond that. It is an issue of the polarization of American politics.
Q: At his inauguration, Biden strongly stated that “democracy prevailed,” and shortly after was quick to publicly denounce the recent coup in Myanmar as an attack on democracy. Will promoting democracy remain a centerpiece of US foreign policy? If so, does the fragility of the current state of American democracy weaken that stance?
A: I do think that the focus on democracy will remain and it will be an important centerpiece. That said, as always, the devil is in the details. What does that actually mean in practice? And there is a question of priority as well. Is the focus on democracy mainly centered at home and on trying to repair the divisions and tension of the last four years? And therefore, you do that because you believe the best way to promote democracy is if the US itself brings its house in order? Or do you take a more active, assertive approach where you are going to view rejuvenation of democracy at home and promotion of democracy abroad as two sides of the same coin? That is not entirely clear to me yet, I do not know if it is necessarily clear to the Biden administration themselves. But that is going to be a big question. We know that there is a planned summit of democracy that the Biden administration has touted. The question there is who do you invite? Is it a very inclusive event, including countries that do not necessarily have a stellar democratic record? Or do you keep it a very tight knit group of, let us say, more recognized, advanced liberal democracies? So again, like for everything, the Biden administration has not yet had to make significant, serious choices on the foreign policy front that would involve trade-offs. So that remains to be seen.
Q: During the Obama administration, Biden was part of a foreign policy agenda centered around the idea of a “pivot to Asia.” Are there any examples of successful policy from that era that might inform his policy in the region today? Or any failures that might serve as lessons?
A: I think unfortunately the most important initiative, I would argue, was the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was I think an important achievement in creating a coalition in Asia that did not include China. It was also an important way of trying to set certain norms and regulations in trade. And the fact that one of Trump’s first decisions in office was to renege on that, I think, was a missed opportunity. I do not know if that can be resurrected. Also, the needle has moved. On trade, there is more domestic reticence on these large trade agreements and Biden has promised to try and achieve a foreign policy that serves the interests of the middle class. And it also remains to be determined what that means.
In terms of failure, I do not know if it was a failure, but more of a cautionary tale, which is that Obama was set on the pivot to Asia, on reorienting or recalibrating American foreign policy to a certain degree. And events have a way of affecting best intentions. I think the events in Crimea in particular pushed that administration to spend more time again in Europe. Events in Syria as well forced the Obama administration to spend more time and focus on the Middle East, probably despite its best intentions. That is something also to keep in mind, that events have a way of messing with grand strategic plans.
Q: In Europe, there is at once a sense of optimism that Biden will bring the US back to taking a multilateral approach, and also a realization that they are caught between the US and China in their struggle for power. How do you see the US-EU relationship playing out over the next four years?
A: I have written recently on that precise question, which is to try and think about the choices the Biden administration could take towards Europe. And my co-author and I tried to outline three major models. There will of course, as a preamble, be noticeable differences with Biden, and we have already seen them. In terms of the rhetoric, we are not going to see him calling out the EU as a foe, insults via twitter, and so forth. And we have seen some symbolic actions that I can imagine were welcomed in many parts of Europe; rejoining the Paris climate accord, rejoining the World Health Organization, and talks about rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. So, all that is great and I think the rhetoric is different and there are people who are committed transatlanticists in the administration. That is the easy part. The hard part is to navigate all the other challenges they face. How much bandwidth do they have to deal with Europe? There are many problems at home, and you have the looming great power competition with China.
So, we tried to think of three different paths. One path we called “benign neglect,” which is this idea that on the surface, the US will be nicer and friendlier, but China will be all consuming. On the negative side, relations with Europe will primarily be viewed through the lens of competition with China. And I do not think that is the position that the EU would be happy with. My reading is that they are very worried about being sort of caught between or forced to make choices.
The second path, and we would argue probably the most likely, is that the US would try to return to a position of primacy of leadership, of being the uncontested leader of the transatlantic alliance. The downside of that is, what does it mean for the EU’s aspirations we have seen over the last four years for strategic autonomy? Would the EU chafe at being viewed as kind of a junior partner? We argue that is the most feasible path of what the Biden administration will try to do because it is sort of deeply ingrained in the DNA of the American foreign policy establishment.
The third path, which we would think would be more desirable but harder, would be a far more dramatic reform of the transatlantic partnership. By that we mean that the US would take a more humble, more chastened approach in understanding that the challenges are so significant that there has to be more of a division of labor with key partners and especially Europe. The other side of the coin is that there would be more expectation of what Europe does. But here the US would view strategic autonomy not as a threat, but as an opportunity to be cultivated and encouraged.
Of course, these models are not meant to be perfect, they are meant to help conceptualize. But I do think, again, given the number of challenges the Biden administration has, and old habits will probably mean that we will return to more of a model of primacy. I do not think it is all bad. There will still be more investment, more of a care in Europe, but there will still be important frictions that remain over burden sharing, over issues of digital tax, and issues of trade, as I think the EU and US in some respects are still economic competitors.
Q: And finally, now that they have officially left the EU, the United Kingdom is seeking to establish new relations around the world. Did the result of the US election change the course of the new US-UK relationship? If so, how?
A: I think Boris Johnson and the Conservatives put quite a few eggs in the Trump basket. So that is an issue. Additionally, I do not think the US-UK trade agreement is necessarily a priority for the Biden administration. They will still continue the negotiations, but I do not think there is going to be a significant urge to make those happen quickly. So I think that is one issue. I think there is also a little bit of frustration, animosity might be a strong word, but discontent amongst the Biden administration with the questions over Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement being threatened by the Internal Market Bill and Brexit. So, I think there is a little bit of lingering discontent. That being said, the close partnership between London and Washington is still deeply rooted, it has longevity, and there are habits of cooperation at the mid-level that are not going to disappear tomorrow. I think also the UK has shown some signals of moving more towards a hardline on China, which I think is an approach that will gain favors in Washington. And I also think, ultimately, Biden is pragmatic. I do not think he is going to punish or be vindictive towards the UK, I just do not think it is going to be a key priority either.
This interview was conducted by Nicholas Pellett, research assistant at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC), and an M.A. student in Political Science and Public Affairs at Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: G. Martin (2021), “With Biden at the helm, is America truly ‘back’?”,http://crisesobservatory.es/with-biden-at-the-helm-is-america-truly-back-g-martin/
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