Elizabeth Olsson | 30 October 2020
“Why are Swedes so obsessed with the U.S. election?” a colleague queried during a recent e-Pomodoro session. She continued, “There are so many important things going on in the world that we are missing.” My colleague is right. The world’s attention should not revolve around U.S. politics, but there is a good reason why many across the globe are hyper-focused on the U.S. this election cycle: the results affect us all. Do not get me wrong. I am neither an adherent to the flawed maxim of “American exceptionalism,” nor do I share the view that the U.S. President is (and should be) the most powerful leader on the planet. As a U.S. citizen who has lived abroad for fifteen years, I can safely say that such egocentric statements are baseless and problematic.
Instead, I embrace the older U.S. foreign policy ideal: We are all in this together. Whether it is combating the deleterious effects of climate change, managing an ongoing global pandemic, or addressing the humanitarian crises of hunger and migration, what happens in the U.S. reverberates well beyond its borders. With this in mind, I would like to explore the global impact the Biden administration is likely to have on U.S. foreign policy. We know all too well what the world would get if U.S. voters re-elect Trump: the systemic erosion of democracy, a growing sense that the U.S. has lost legitimacy abroad, state-sponsored assassination, and the decimation of international agreements and alliances. In comparison, the Biden administration’s foreign policy is less clear simply because Biden has not yet led the executive branch. I explore the Biden administration’s proposed foreign policy below.
Foreign Policy for the 21st Century
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and current foreign policy advisor to the Biden campaign, outlined the Biden administration’s proposed foreign policy principles. He began by emphasizing the enormous impact the outcome of the election will have on the world, stating, “It matters greatly. There are two very divergent paths for the U.S. in this election.” The first path is the path of the incumbent, “the weakest American president in our lifetime, maybe in all of American history when it comes to the rest of the world.” The second path is that of the challenger whom Burns hopes will “return us to the global role that we need to play.”
Specifically, Burns argued that the Biden administration would help the U.S. address significant issues such as “climate change, the pandemic, the global economy, and getting out of the recession” through global engagement. As Burns noted, “The U.S. cannot (address these issues) alone. We’ve got to be engaged with the world, and that’s what Joe Biden represents.”
Many U.S. presidents have cultivated international alliances and agreements. However, Burns believes the Biden administration will address global challenges using cooperative strategies updated to address the world as it is today. “President Biden will project forward into the 21st century,” Burns said. What this means in practice is that the Biden administration will seek to build upon and to modernize international institutions, including the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization. As Burns aptly argued, these institutions currently reflect an out-dated and dysfunctional world order. Global leaders, including the U.S., need to alter these institutions to reflect the world as it is, and as it could be through collaborative engagement.
As Dustin Johnson points out, Biden’s stance toward nuclear weapons is a significant departure from the current administration's stance. According to Johnson, “Biden has indicated that he will scale back or reverse some of the nuclear weapons modernization and development programs initiated by Obama and Trump, reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy, revamp arms control negotiations, and initiate a ‘no first use’ policy.” If we survey the global nuclear landscape, it is clear that the Trump administration’s disregard for nuclear disarmament and bilateral agreements is propelling the world ever closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.
While it is impossible to predict a Biden administration’s future policies, Biden’s track-record in Congress supports Burns’ analysis. Biden was a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee for decades, chairing it for several years. In this capacity and his capacity as vice president, Biden cultivated “relationships with world leaders (…) based on personal chemistry and empathy,” according to Klaus W. Larres. Throughout his political career, Biden has led by building and maintaining respectful relationships. This sense of engagement is likely to permeate how he and his administration interacts with the world.
In Biden’s own words, “During my first year in office, the United States will (…) bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” Democracy and a common agenda with global partners are critical. As Biden has written, the only way that the U.S. can answer the challenges it shares with the world is through a relational foreign policy, a foreign policy based on “more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances, more democracy.”
“America First” or a Return to International Engagement?
Going back to my colleague’s question, the U.S. presidential election will profoundly affect Swedish efforts to address climate change. It will also affect Palestinians’ human rights aspirations and the prospect of U.S. wars with Iran and China. More generally, the election will affect anyone interested in effectively addressing the pandemic, racial inequality, and the unconscionable treatment of asylum seekers. It will affect anyone worried about the rise of populism and the decline of democracy. Most importantly, the results will send U.S. foreign policy in two completely different directions: the current direction of “America First” egocentrism or a new direction of relational, international engagement. While Swedes, Palestinians, and Iranians have no formal say in the outcome of the election, many are watching the U.S., hoping that voters will appreciate the magnitude of the decision they make on Election Day.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She was born and raised in the United States and studied U.S. politics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1998-2002. Click here to access her recent lecture on the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.