Joe Biden has promised to put an end to Donald Trump’s isolationist, disruptive approach to global relations.

But a Biden administration bid to restore American leadership will require time and political capital just when the superpower’s global role stands in doubt at home and abroad.

While diplomats are not likely to hear the phrase “America First” for a while, Mr Biden will face challenges including countering China, re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran, resetting relations with Europe and dealing with the fallout of Brexit on the relationship with the UK.


What Biden wants Keen to rebuild the European alliances that Mr Trump has repeatedly snubbed, Mr Biden is likely to be the most Atlanticist US president in a generation. He prides himself on his Irish heritage and will move away from Mr Trump’s overt hostility to the EU. Mr Biden will also be a strong backer of the Nato military alliance.

The new president is opposed to Brexit, though has accepted it as a fait accompli following the UK’s departure from the EU single market in January.

Mr Biden has also promised to harden the US line on Russia and “impose real costs” on the country for violations of international norms. His support for a strong Nato is explicitly aimed at countering Moscow’s aggression, and he has vowed to stand with Russian civil society against what he calls President Vladimir Putin’s “kleptocratic authoritarian system”. However, he will have to quickly open negotiations with Moscow to extend the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty before it expires on February 5.

What they want While many European officials accepted that Mr Trump was a blunt messenger for structural change — including more defence spending from Nato allies and a withdrawal of US troops from Germany — they still see the US military might that underpins Nato as essential to Europe’s security. They would also like Washington to engage more in dealing with regional crises from Belarus to the eastern Mediterranean. 

European defence spending has only increased marginally duringTrump’s first term, Spending ($bn)

Upshot Expect 18 months of happy hand-holding events that put the postwar alliance system back at the heart of US relations with the rest of the world, starting with efforts to lead a global response to coronavirus. But the crunch could come over trade and China, after the EU rushed to sign an investment deal with Beijing last month.


What Biden wants President Biden has promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal Mr Trump withdrew from, if Tehran comes back into compliance with the multilateral accord designed to curb its atomic ambitions. He has also vowed to reset relations with Saudi Arabia, which he has called a “pariah” state.

But like Mr Trump, Mr Biden wants to end America’s wars and plans a shift in US loyalties in the Middle East. The Democrat will not move the US embassy from Jerusalem, where Mr Trump relocated it from Tel Aviv in 2018. He has no plans to push for a two-state solution. Mr Biden’s top advisers have also made clear his foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere.

A couple walks by the entrance to the new American embassy in Jerusalem © Spencer Platt/Getty

What they want Iran wants compensation for its treatment at the hands of the Trump administration and all sanctions lifted as the price for its return to the nuclear deal. At present, Tehran is still developing its missile programme and has ramped up its uranium enrichment in breach of the accord.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is concerned a Biden administration could halt arms sales and impose a renewed chill on relations.

The United Arab Emirates would like to see the US take a harder line against Turkey and, if Mr Biden agrees to re-enter the Iran deal, to ensure Tehran’s missile programme and support for militias in the region are also addressed. It also wants a seat at the negotiating table with regional powers on any Iran discussions.

Upshot There is likely to be a timing crunch because of Iran’s presidential elections in June, which could hand power to hardliners with whom it would be more difficult to negotiate. A new Biden administration will have to work fast to agree on a new approach to Iran with the accord’s European signatories: the UK, France and Germany.


What Biden wants One Biden adviser described the president’s foreign policy priorities as “China. China. China. Russia”. Team Biden will inherit a US foreign policy establishment that views Beijing with far more concern than it did during Barack Obama’s presidency. However, it remains unclear what combination of co-operation, competition and confrontation Mr Biden will use to engage with America’s rising power rival.

While he will probably refuse to endorse a new cold war that could put the US’s leading global role under threat, he will seek to push back on conventions governing technology and investment. He will also maintain a robust US military presence on China’s doorstep.

China’s President Xi Jinping and then US vice-president Joe Biden walk down the red carpet on the tarmac during an arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in 2015 © Carolyn Kaster/AP

Mr Biden will seek to strengthen co-ordination with European partners on investment screening, intelligence sharing and emerging technologies in an effort “to get on the same page with our allies regarding China”, a Biden official said before the EU decided to go ahead with an investment deal with Beijing last month.

He will also try to strengthen regional partnerships with allies given short shrift under the Trump administration, such as South Korea.

What they want Some experts think China will breathe a sigh of relief with Mr Biden at the helm. Europeans are hoping for less aggressive public rhetoric than during the Trump years, but many officials expect little let-up in private pressure by the US.

Upshot Some Democrats say Mr Biden underestimates the threat posed by China’s military, economic and diplomatic ambitions. Most European officials insist they do not see themselves as equidistant between Washington and Beijing — but they are also eager to preserve economic relationships with China and the potential for partnerships in other areas such as climate change.


What Biden wants Mr Biden has some of the same protectionist tendencies as Mr Trump. He proposes making federal agencies procure only US services and goods, and has floated a tax to penalise American companies for moving jobs and manufacturing overseas. Like Mr Trump, he has argued that the World Trade Organization needs to be reformed and better able to deal with non-market economies such as China. 

However, although Mr Biden has signalled he will continue to be tough on China on the trade front, he is unlikely to replicate the confrontational tariff regime fostered by Mr Trump. But the extent to which he will remove or lower tariffs — or apply further tariffs — is unclear.

The US trade deficit with China continued to widen through most of Trump’s first term, net trade in goods, rolling 12-month total ($bn)

In line with his broader foreign policy, Mr Biden wants to lower trade tensions with Europe. But this means resolving some big disagreements, including the decades-long row over aircraft subsidies and the debate over how to fairly tax big tech companies.

What they want The immediate hope for foreign democracies will be that a Biden administration will join with the consensus of other member states in backing Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new director-general of the WTO. The current administration is blocking the appointment of a new leader. 

Europe and the UK are also seeking progress in talks on aircraft subsidies and the end of related US tariffs on European goods including cheese, wine and olives. Those same countries will also aim to sort their disagreement with Washington over digital taxation, and will work to have tariffs on European steel and aluminium lifted.

Gantry cranes stand idle at the China Shipping Container Terminal at the port of Los Angeles © Tim Rue/Bloomberg

The UK, which left the EU single market in January, will try to close a trade deal with the US once Mr Biden takes office, but the Biden campaign has said this will not be at the top of the new president’s priorities.

Upshot Substantial issues remain with Europe. Trade tensions with Beijing, too, are likely to persist. Experts expect trade wars to continue — but ones that will be waged in back rooms and not over Twitter.


What Biden wants Mr Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, from which the US withdrew in November. He plans to integrate climate change targets across every aspect of US foreign policy, national security and trade. He has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 for the US and has vowed to rely entirely on — and even export — clean energy.

He has also said he would lead a global effort to ensure every significant carbon-emitting country raises its own ambitions for domestic climate targets, with transparent, enforceable goals — with China particularly in mind. 

Until the onset of the pandemic, domestic production of both oil and gasincreased under Trump. Crude oil, US field production, three-monthrolling average (million barrels a day); Natural gas, US dry production, three-monthrolling average (tn cubic feet)

What they want EU countries need the US to come back into the international coalition to fight climate change. The UK, which is hosting the COP26 gathering in November, hopes to use the UN climate summit to reduce tension over Brexit between Mr Biden and Boris Johnson, the prime minister. 

Upshot China and Japan both recently laid out hefty new targets for themselves to go carbon neutral by 2060 and, in Tokyo’s case, by 2050. That puts the pressure on Mr Biden to improve US goals and to find a bright spot in US-China relations, even as Mr Biden will seek to reclaim the leadership mantle in global climate diplomacy. 

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