As a senator and vice-president, the president-elect spent decades upholding the global order that Trump tried to destroy. That means he has a chance of repairing old relationships – but it also means he has baggage to overcome in the Middle East and beyond.
“America is back,” Joe Biden declared shortly after his election win, ready again “to lead the world.” But the world that awaits Mr. Biden is very different from the one he dealt with as vice-president, or during his long career as a senator focused on foreign relations.
Four years of Donald Trump battering diplomatic norms tweet by tweet, in addition to pulling the United States out of several painstakingly crafted international agreements, have dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape, and the U.S. role in it.
Mr. Trump also badly bruised the image of American democracy – the source of the soft power that once made the U.S. admired around the world – when he incited his supporters to storm the Capitol Building last week to protest against his election loss.
Assuming Mr. Trump’s supporters are unable to block the Jan. 20 inauguration, Mr. Biden’s arrival in the White House will indeed mean a return to something like the pre-Trump norm, at least in terms of how foreign policy is conceived and executed. Many of Mr. Biden’s picks to fill key foreign and national-security posts are well respected fellow veterans of Barack Obama’s administration, in which Mr. Biden served as vice-president.
But undoing what Mr. Trump has done on the global stage may prove even more difficult than removing him from office.
Mr. Biden will be “a more familiar president in a more unfamiliar world,” said Robert Malley, who served with Mr. Biden on Mr. Obama’s national-security council. The new world order, Mr. Malley said, is one of “new threats, a different balance of power, and different ways of looking at the U.S. in particular – and that has been accelerated by President Trump in many ways.”
No president has begun a first term with the wealth of foreign-policy experience that Mr. Biden has accumulated. His 36-year Senate career included two stints as chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. As vice-president, he was Mr. Obama’s point man on several key international files, including Iraq.
In the wake of his November election win, two black-and-white photographs surfaced on social media that illustrated just how long the 78-year-old president-elect has been on the international stage.
In one, he’s seen shaking hands with Andrei Gromyko, one of the most senior officials in the Soviet Union, shortly after the two superpowers agreed in 1988 to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that they had pointed at each other. In the second, he’s chatting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shortly after the 1979 signing of the landmark peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
The photographs are relics of the international system that Mr. Biden operated in for much of his career. They reveal a world where international agreements were usually binding – and where the United States was a force for promoting peace and democracy around the world.
Viktor Prokofiev, who was the translator – and the only other person in the 1988 photo – remembers Mr. Biden as a skillful diplomat who knew the nuclear proliferation file well.
Mr. Prokofiev says he hopes Mr. Biden’s experience will help him deal with what will be one of the first issues on his agenda: extending the New START treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear launchers Russia and the U.S. can possess, and which is set to expire on Feb. 5.
“Keeping channels of communication open is an important thing, and I believe Biden has the experience under his belt that would allow him to tackle that in an able matter,” said Mr. Prokofiev, who is prevented by non-disclosure agreements that he signed while working at the Soviet Foreign Ministry from revealing what Mr. Biden and Mr. Gromyko said to each other.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to harbour a grudge against Mr. Biden (who told the Kremlin boss in 2011 that he shouldn’t run again for president), many leaders are indeed glad to see the return of the kind of U.S. president they knew before Mr. Trump. But carrying on as before, as though the past four years didn’t happen, isn’t an option.
“The test of experience is whether you can adapt it to new realities,” said Mr. Malley, who was a high-school classmate of Antony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, and now heads the International Crisis Group think tank.
Mr. Malley said the Mr. Biden he saw at work in the Obama administration was indeed someone willing to adapt, often using his deep knowledge of foreign policy to ask “first-order” questions that challenged assumptions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with such a long political past, Mr. Biden has a chequered track record, particularly in the Middle East.
The photograph with Mr. Sadat, who headed a military junta in Egypt, shows Mr. Biden’s comfort in dealing with dictators, as long as they supported U.S. interests.
In January, 2011, as the Arab Spring uprisings rippled across the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Biden, then vice-president, gave an interview to PBS in which he described Egypt’s military ruler Hosni Mubarak as “an ally of ours … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Mr. Mubarak was ousted barely two weeks later. Those who struggled to overthrow him haven’t forgotten which side Mr. Biden came down on.
However, they were happy to see him defeat Mr. Trump, who had cultivated warm relations with Egypt’s current military ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom Mr. Trump described as “my favourite dictator.”
“I don’t think in any sense that [Mr. Biden] is some human-rights activist who got elected to the White House. But we’ve had such four bad years that anyone who replaced Trump would be better,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent Arab Spring activist.
The biggest blemish on Mr. Biden’s Middle East record is the vote he cast in favour of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a war that was launched on false premises, churningwaves of extremism and violence that are still rippling through the region. It’s a vote Mr. Biden has repeatedly sought to explain and apologize for.
The vote in favour of authorizing then-president George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq – which Mr. Biden says he supported only as a means of increasing the pressure on Saddam Hussein – was one in a series of decisions where Mr. Biden alternately played hawk and dove on issues of war and peace.
In 1991, he voted against a motion authorizing the use of force in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Two years later, he was an early supporter of NATO intervention as Yugoslavia dissolved into warring parties, and in 1999, he was a key advocate of using air strikes to drive Slobodan Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo, where they had been accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
A decade later, he argued against Mr. Obama’s decision to “surge” the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but supported the 2011 NATO air campaign that drove Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya.
Mr. Biden has said little about Mr. Trump’s continuing drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The withdrawal appears to square with the president-elect’s own belief that it’s time to end such “forever wars,” while leaving behind a small contingent of troops with the task of preventing a resurgence of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
On Iran – a country with which Mr. Trump often seemed intent on provoking a conflict – Mr. Biden is once more on the side of the doves, to the consternation of traditional U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. One of his key campaign promises was to return the U.S. to the 2015 deal negotiated by the Obama administration, which saw Iran agree to caps on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of U.S. sanctions.
Whether the deal, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018, can be easily put back together will be an early test of Mr. Biden’s “America is back” vow.
Mr. Biden also has a long history with China, dating back at least to an April, 1979 meeting he had with China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as part of a congressional visit to Beijing. Declassified State Department documents show Mr. Deng putting Mr. Biden on the spot by asking him whether the U.S. would sell F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to the communist state.
“I am not the president,” Mr. Biden said in an effort to evade the question. “But you are very powerful and can make suggestions to your president,” Mr. Deng countered.
“He comes across as a moderate Democrat,” said Sergey Radchenko, a Cardiff University professor who has scoured the declassified records of phone calls and meetings for a book he is writing on the history of the Cold War. He described Mr. Biden’s position toward both Russia and China as “politically astute – someone who understood the importance of big issues like arms control, but who also didn’t see this as reason to give in on other issues like human rights.”
During last year’s election campaign. Mr. Biden positioned himself as an internationalist and a multilateralist, offering a clean break – and a welcome one, from the perspective of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other like-minded leaders – from the antagonistic isolationism of the Trump years. In addition to the Iran deal, Mr. Biden has promised to return the U.S. to the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change, which Mr. Trump also withdrew the U.S. from during his time in office.
The president-elect’s belief in international treaties and institutions is also rooted in his personal history. There are photos of Mr. Biden, then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, standing in front of UN armoured personnel carriers at Sarajevo airport in 1993, shortly after peacekeepers had been deployed to separate the warring sides in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In his memoir, Mr. Biden tells of having called Mr. Milosevic “a damned war criminal” to his face during a visit to Belgrade, forecasting correctly that Mr. Milosevic would eventually be tried for his actions. (Mr. Milosevic died in The Hague in 2006, before the completion of his trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.)
Serbia is one country that was pleased with the attention – and the fresh perspective – that it got from the Trump administration, which, seeking a foreign-policy success, made a belated effort in 2020 to push Serbia and Kosovo toward a peace deal. It’s an effort that some in the region hope Mr. Biden will be willing to continue.
“For four years, we were the only ones seeing some good things happening under Trump, and now it’s all going down the drain,” said Jelena Milic, director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a think tank in Belgrade.
Ms. Milic said she was worried that Mr. Biden would come to office looking to resume the previous U.S. policy of almost unconditionally supporting Kosovo. “We need an updated, fresh view of who is who in the region, and what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Mr. Biden has thus far said little about the Serbia-Kosovo peace process. He has, however, been clear that he intends to roll back U.S. policy on another long-standing dispute – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – to where it was before Mr. Trump took office.
Mr. Trump pushed two diplomatic initiatives that sought to change the region’s politics in Israel’s favour. Mr. Biden is expected to maintain the Abraham Accords – which saw the U.S. provide incentives that encouraged four Arab countries to open diplomatic relations with Israel – though he may review some of the side deals. Those included the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and Mr. Trump’s agreement to recognize Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.
But the Biden administration is expected to walk away from the Trump administration’s effort – shepherded by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace largely on Israel’s terms.
Mr. Biden is considered unlikely to reverse some of the most symbolic pro-Israel steps Mr. Trump took – including moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. However, he is expected to attempt to reassert U.S. support for the two-state solution, and to speak out against Israel’s ongoing construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Other moves could include restoring diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority – perhaps via a reopened U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem – and resuming U.S. aid to UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency that supports Palestinian refugees in the region.
“Trump’s approach was very much ‘Israel first.’ Biden’s will be a much more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the same time, the last thing he needs right now is an open rift with Israel,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an expert on Middle East politics at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
One uncertainty is how world leaders will respond to Mr. Biden’s attempt to restore America’s previous place in the world. Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman support Mr. Biden’s vision for Middle East peace? Or will they wait him out in case another Trump-like figure ascends in another four years?
What about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Will they co-operate as the U.S. seeks to reclaim its old role or, as seems more likely, try to play spoiler?
“Outsiders are going to look at the U.S. and question whether the word of this superpower, this great power, can last more than one election cycle,” said Mr. Malley. America’s rivals and allies alike don’t know “whether each four years or eight years you’re going to see a President like Donald Trump who is willing and able to tear up what his or her predecessor had agreed to.”