With Democrat Joe Biden defeating Donald Trump in the race for the United States presidency after a divisive campaign, many leaders in Europe are hopeful that a shift in American foreign policy awaits.
Trump, who has yet to concede and has launched some election-related legal challenges in key battleground states – and has promised more – has spent his time in office aggressively pursuing his so-called “America First” agenda.
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He insulted US allies and praised autocrats. He strained security and trade relations with the European Union while portraying the bloc as a threat to US interests.
Most European leaders will be “relieved” at the prospect of Biden in the White House, according to Giovanna De Maio, a fellow at Washington, DC’s George Washington University.
“The dialogue with the US will be more open and cooperative, with the idea of pushing cooperation forward,” she told Al Jazeera.
Biden has pledged to immediately rejoin a number of initiatives that Trump dumped, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, if Tehran also complies. He also vowed to reverse the US’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
In stark contrast to Trump, who denounced NATO as “obsolete”, Biden has pledged to restore and expand the 1949 alliance. When asked late last year which foreign leader he would call first if he won the election, Biden said he would call a meeting of NATO leadership to “make clear that we’re back”.
Rather than promising cuts to the Department of Defense budget as Trump did, Biden has indicated spending could increase. “I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” he said. “We have to focus more on unmanned capacity, cyber and IT, in a very modern world that is changing rapidly.”
Trump’s pledge to get NATO’s 30 members to pay their “fair share” – and spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defence by 2024 – will likely continue under Biden, Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said. But, unlike Trump, he will not threaten the alliance’s members, said Shapiro.
Trump has said he would not automatically defend NATO countries from an attack if they did not live up to their financial obligations.
One of Biden’s primary foreign policy goals will be restoring the trust in US leadership that has been eroded over the past four years, analysts said.
A study from the PEW Center in September 2020 noted that the number of countries with a favourable view of the US was as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago. Germany, for example, now sees its relationship with China as equally important as its relationship with the US.
“Europe has lost a sense of America’s ability to be there for it,” Shapiro said.
But officials and analysts say a Biden presidency alone would not reset America’s image as a reliable ally.
“We should not think that if there is a new American president, the situation is as it was before President Trump was elected,” Clément Beaune, French minister of state for European affairs, told a group of reporters in October.
The spectre of Trumpism remains
Analysts noted that the margin of Biden’s victory appeared to be narrower than many opinion polls had projected and did not represent a definitive rejection of Trumpism. As of Sunday, The Democrat had secured some 50.6 percent of the popular vote, according to data from the Associated Press news agency, while Trump was at 47.7 percent.
The percentages are expected to shift in Biden’s favour as vote counting continues in a number of states over the coming days and weeks, but the margin is unlikely to grow to the high single-digits projected in many pre-election national opinion polls. It also appears that the Republicans could potentially retain control of the Senate, depending on the outcome of two Senate run-offs in the state of Georgia.
The Democratic candidate’s narrow victory shows that the “American public did not repudiate Trumpism, and that has been disappointing for European leaders,” says Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. “What’s not clear yet, is whether Trump’s NATO-scepticism and anti-European policies will stick around in other Senate Republicans.”
Shapiro said: “Even with Biden as president, making the right noises, Europe will sense that the US may return to some form of Trumpism in the next four years.”
Europe is, more than ever, aware of the need to “broaden and strengthen its own international posture without constantly relying on the United States” De Maio said. It is safe to assume that leaders in Europe would try to cooperate “to ensure that multilateral institutions like the WHO work, even without the strongest member, to be reactive.”
Biden, Brexit and trade
Establishing a trade deal with the US is a key pillar of the UK government’s “Global Britain” agenda as it nears the end of the transition period to fully exit the EU and seeks to deepen international ties.
While Trump, an ideological ally to Brexit, had lauded the prospect of a “big trade deal” with the UK, Biden has expressed his personal opposition to Brexit and intent to defend the interests of Ireland.
There are concerns that new legislation drafted by the UK in September relating to Brexit jeopardises the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which largely ended decades of political and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and to which the US is a guarantor.
The Democratic candidate – who said his Irish roots have “shaped” his entire life and represents a country where 10 percent of the population identify as Irish-American – warned that any trade deal “must be contingent upon respect for the Good Friday Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border” in Ireland.
A trade agreement with the UK – negotiations for which started in February – is unlikely to be a priority for Biden.
But analysts say there is little economically at stake for the UK. A trade deal with the UK is more of a “political favour” from the US, Hoyt Bleakley, an economics professor at Michigan University said. It is a way for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to show he has “pulled a win” from Brexit, he said.
The US is already the UK’s largest trading partner outside of the EU, and the UK Department for International Trade said in March that a trade deal with the US would boost the UK economy by just 0.16 per cent of GDP, or 3.4 billion British pounds ($4.5bn), 15 years on from any agreement.
While a US trade agreement would not be transformative for the UK, it could have a significant impact on certain industries. Jennifer Revis, a trade partner at the law firm Baker McKenzie, wrote last month that at a time when UK car manufacturers face potential restrictions on trade with their biggest market [the EU], “an ambitious US trade deal has the potential to provide a significant offset to Brexit”, winning the industry about 5 billion British pounds in export revenue.
A Biden administration will not give special treatment to a post-Brexit UK as it will “pursue stronger relations with the European Union”, De Maio said.
Biden will seek to end the “artificial trade war” Trump launched with the EU, a top adviser to the Democratic candidate has said. In recent years, Washington has angered European officials by introducing tariffs on steel and aluminium, on the basis that imports from Europe pose a threat to national security by degrading the American industrial base.
“Biden is certainly not going to impose punitive tariffs that use a security justification. He’ll be looking to relieve those tariffs,” said Shapiro.
As European leaders look to Biden for better trade relations and support on security on a range of issues, from deterring Russian misbehaviour to counterterrorism, analysts said a Biden administration’s key priorities are likely to be domestic.
Faced with a COVID-19 epidemic that has claimed nearly 240,000 lives in the US and plunged millions into unemployment, together with social unrest over racial inequality, Biden will have to simultaneously address foreign and domestic urgencies.
In his first major foreign policy speech in July 2019 as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he said that strengthening America’s role in the world will require that the US first put its own “house in order”.
“Domestic foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy,” he said.