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WORLD | 14-11-2020 10:49

After four years of chaos, Biden faces tall order reviving Washington's global role

US President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to restore America’s moral authority in the world but after four years of norms-shattering by Donald Trump, he will have his work cut out for him.

US President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to restore the United States' moral authority in the world but after four years of norms-shattering by Donald Trump, he will have his work cut out for him.

After his narrow victory over Trump, the 77-year-old Biden will be the most experienced new president in decades on foreign policy, but he is also facing questions from the left of his Democratic Party on whether his worldview has kept up with the times.

In a speech on foreign policy after he announced his candidacy, Biden denounced Trump for his flirtation both with autocrats abroad and white supremacists at home.

"As president, I will remind the world who we are. The United States of America does not coddle dictators. The United States of America gives hate no safe harbour," Biden said in New York.

Writing later in Foreign Affairs, Biden said that for the next president, "picking up the pieces will be an enormous task."

The new president "will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership and mobilise our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges. There will be no time to lose," he wrote.

Biden vowed to hold a summit of democracies within a year and promised immediately to step up international cooperation on the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.


Tougher on 'values'

Biden's election is welcome news for many close US allies, especially in Europe, who have been shellshocked by Trump's abrasive approach and his enthusiasm for tariffs.

The Democrat is expected to get tougher on some of Trump's close partners such as Saudi Arabia, which the defeated tycoon courted even after the brutal killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

Biden has promised to reassess relations with the kingdom, saying he will make the United States "will be sure the United States "does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil."

Saudi Arabia held back from Trump's pressure this year to join other Gulf Arabs in recognising Israel – giving the kingdom a card to play with the new Biden administration.

A senator for 36 years and vice-president for eight more, Biden has a comparatively cordial relationship with another Trump ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the president-elect has also promised to work to create a state for the Palestinians, a goal abandoned in all but name by Trump who delivered a wish-list for Netanyahu.

Katrina Mulligan, managing director for national security and international policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said there was a chance for Biden to act on US values rather than just raw interests.

"I think Israel's a very important relationship to the United States, but I do think that there should be consequences in terms of the foreign policy relationship for actions that violate our values."

Turkey has already denounced Biden, who has openly spoken of backing the opposition to counter the NATO ally's increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


New thinking?

Left-wing activists will be watching Biden's appointments closely and have urged a "fundamental rethinking" of US foreign policy. 

A Biden administration "presents an opportunity to begin to challenge the institutions and groupthink that have led to a disastrous, overly militarised, unilateral approach to foreign affairs," said a letter by groups including Justice Democrats, founded by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders.

Biden initially backed the 2003 Iraq invasion but he was an early advocate of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He agreed with Trump on ending the nearly 20-year war, although he is unlikely to be as tied to the outgoing president's campaign promise to remove all troops by the end of the year.

An early diplomatic signal will be on Iran, on which Trump slapped punishing sanctions as he pulled out of an accord negotiated by Obama under which Tehran drastically scaled back its nuclear work.

Biden has vowed to return to diplomacy. But he has limited time as Iran is widely expected to elect a hardliner in June elections after its moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, was badly burned after betting on improved relations with the United States.

As vice-president, he invested extensive time building a personal relationship with Xi Jinping before he became China's leader.

US views across the political spectrum have hardened on China since then as Xi tightens control at home and is increasingly assertive abroad.

Bill Burns, a veteran US diplomat on speculative shortlists for a post under Biden, expects Biden to be clear-eyed about competition with China but also to take a more nuanced approach.

The goal is "not so much to prevent China's rise, which I think is beyond the capacity of the United States, but to shape the environment in which it rises and to avoid lazy assumptions about the inevitability of confrontation," Burns said before the election.

Burns warned that Biden would not be able to "just flip a switch" and restore US influence to before 2016.

"I think that's an illusion, because the world has shifted," he said.


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