What is next for US foreign relations?

Sgt. Charlotte Carulli, Wikimedia Commons

In crisis, without fanfare, the Trump era has drawn to a close. But Trump’s term in office has left a lasting impact on the United States, namely on its place in the world. Among President Biden’s many immediate tasks is rebuilding America’s relations – and that will be no small feat.

From Throwing Eggs to Treading on Egg Shells

Given the isolationist road down which the United States has embarked over the last four years, many world leaders probably breathed a private sigh of relief as Biden swore his oath of office. Even world leaders whose own politics are not too dissimilar to those of Trump, like Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Japan’s former-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have previously found themselves at the mercy of Trump’s now-suspended Twitter account.

On the world stage, Biden is Trump’s antonym. He believes in a globalist, internationalist, collaborative United States that takes centre stage in the world. This was perfectly demonstrated when, within hours of taking office, Biden took the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement and halted the country’s exit from the WHO (World Health Organisation). 

The United States is now taking its first tentative steps back into the world – and Germany could well be a priority for the new president.

From Washington to Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: Raimond Spekking, Wikimedia Commons)

Germany is the behemoth of Europe – and that is something that Trump neglected

Since WW2, West Germany, and later a reunified Germany, had enjoyed warm relations with the United States. But, during the Trump years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel even went so far as to describe the state of relations as “complicated”

As the United States retreated from the world, Merkel de facto became a figure of stability. In some ways, Merkel’s Germany stepped into the gap left by Trump’s America. She strove to save the Iran nuclear deal, corral Turkish expansionism and stabilise the Eurozone during Sino-American trade wars and a pandemic.

Even though she was not always successful, Merkel at least attempted to plug the large United States-shaped hole left in the global affairs. 

The sudden shift towards Germany was even acknowledged by Merkel herself, who is normally viewed as a calming force on the world stage. 

In 2017, Trump stated that the United States might not continue to meet its NATO obligations should other countries not increase their payments to the bloc. In response, Merkel stated in a speech that “the times in which we [Germany] could depend on others…are over. We…have to take our destiny into our own hands.”

Put simply, Biden will need to convince Merkel, as far as is possible, that Trump’s retreat from the world was but an anomaly. Increasing American participation in NATO, the UN and the WHO is a good start.

More crucially, the end of Twitter diplomacy and an aggressive foreign policy towards Iran will help matters as well. But if assuaging Germany is difficult, then dealing with China will be an uphill battle.

Forging a New Partnership

President Biden’s new foreign policy advisor meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping, August 2020 (Photo: US Department of State, Wikimedia Commons)

China is an emerging superpower. The speed of its ascent has only been heightened by its booming economy. China is no longer a country that the United States can expect to hold in its gift, as it tries to with North Korea. 

Biden will need to treat China as the United States’ equal – and repair the Sino-American relationship along those lines.

Throughout his time in office, Trump engaged in trade wars with China that hit the global economy and even the pockets of his own voter base. He also used the presence of the American military on Japanese and South Korean shores to ramp up tensions in the South China Sea. 

Although Beijing normally plays its cards close to its chest, they might well be cautiously optimistic about the new administration. But China’s current domestic policies do complicate things.

In the north-west of the country, the Chinese government is continuing its cultural cleansing of the Uyghur minority. A Turkic-Muslim people who mostly live in the Xinjiang region, the Uyghur are reportedly being held in government “re-education” camps. The Trump administration called this a genocide. The UN has also expressed deep concerns about the Chinese government’s actions against the Uyghur people.  

Elsewhere, Beijing is continuing to take an axe to Hong Kong’s special status. Police crackdowns and political prisoners jailed through hasty trials held under the justification of loosely-worded laws have also drawn international condemnation – including from the United States’ special partner: the United Kingdom.

A Return to Atlanticism

The warm working relationship between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump will likely be cooler under President Biden. (Photo: Shealah Craighead / The White House, Wikimedia Commons)

The deep ties between the United States and the United Kingdom has long been known as the Special Relationship. Through good times and bad, the two countries have stood shoulder-to-shoulder, presenting a united front on many issues – foreign and domestic. 

But Trump’s general lack of respect towards Theresa May during her premiership damaged that.

It might seem as though the fact that Trump is no longer in the White House will put pay to the Special Relationship once again. But there is still one other obstacle: Boris Johnson. 

During his time as Mayor of London, Johnson made a number of controversial statements about Obama and his administration, of which Biden was second-in-command. The most inflammatory of these came in 2016, when Obama came out as an opponent of Brexit. 

Johnson wrote a newspaper column that stated that Obama’s Kenyan ancestry meant that the President had an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire”. Johnson refused to apologise, instead doubling down on his comments. 

Johnson’s controversial approach to transatlantic relations does not appear to have diminished. On the day of Biden’s inauguration, the Prime Minister casually referred to the new president as “Joe” in an interview. The Biden-Johnson relationship is already going to be an interesting one as, privately, neither President Biden nor Vice-President Kamala Harris particularly care for Johnson. They view him as being a ‘British Trump’

The United Kingdom’s desperate want for a transatlantic trade deal now that Brexit has been completed will only compound this dynamic. 

Winning the War

When it comes to reclaiming the United States’ role in the world, Biden will not have it easy. Trump’s leadership has been controversial in many parts of the global community. It will take a lot for Biden to overcome the distrust that many now hold towards Washington.

Over the next four years, Biden may well not win every battle on this front. But he is a known quantity through his eight years served as Vice-President. This reputation might just help him win the war.

Luke Sandford

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