The transition of presidential power finally began this week — for America, and for the world. Donald Trump has yet to accept defeat. But markets cheered the go-ahead for co-ordination between his administration and Joe Biden’s team, and a string of reassuring nominations from the president-elect. For US allies the Biden slate marks a return to more traditional US engagement — and a welcome sign the “grown-ups” are back in control. Yet there will be a tension between the incoming team’s desire to restore US leadership, and what large portions of the American people may be ready to accept.
With Janet Yellen poised to be named Treasury secretary, John Kerry as climate envoy, and Antony Blinken at State, Mr Biden’s choices project experience, competence and predictability, with a dash of youthful talent in Jake Sullivan as national security adviser. Add in Avril Haines as director of national intelligence — like Ms Yellen, the first woman in that role — the Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas as homeland security secretary and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American, as UN ambassador, and the team is the most diverse in memory.
Many of those named are known for their commitment to multilateralism, free trade and an active American role around the world; many held positions in the Obama-Biden administrations. They represent a restoration of the Washington policy establishment after the four-year rupture under Mr Trump — and a more or less explicit aim to reverse much of the Trump agenda.
Several, however, were associated with an Obama-era foreign policy that had its share of failures — from its prevarication over the Syria civil war to its inability to constrain North Korea, and its abortive “reset” with Russia. The free-trading, internationalist values they espoused, moreover, were precisely those rejected by Mr Trump’s “America First” agenda that propelled him to power in 2016 — and drove 73.9m to vote for him again this year.
Their trickiest task will be melding those liberal values with fresh thinking to reflect how America, and the world, have changed — and repairing the perceived disconnect between the Washington view of US interests and middle America’s more immediate concerns for its physical and economic security. Three areas will pose particular tests.
One is climate. Mr Kerry’s ability to coax others into signing up to tougher curbs on emissions at next year’s Cop26 talks may be undermined by constraints on what the Biden administration can achieve at home unless run-offs in Georgia give the Democrats control of the Senate. Another is trade. With China signing up to big deals such as a recent pan-Asian agreement, a vital part of rebuilding American influence will be re-engaging with global free trade. Making deals acceptable to Americans wary of the impact on jobs, however, will be challenging.
Relations with China itself will be the toughest test. A Biden team accustomed to more amicable ties in the Obama era must contend with a Beijing that is more assertive, more overt in challenging US dominance, and more dismissive of human rights. It must balance, too, the pressure to play a role in defence in Asia — in stepping up naval operations around Taiwan, for example — with domestic weariness with America’s role as global policeman.
The new administration will enjoy broad goodwill among US allies, and an opportunity to show that a rethought American internationalism can repair some of the damage of populist nationalism. But it will have to tread a fine line to avoid sparking a counter-reaction that risks returning Trumpism to the White House in four years’ time.
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