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Can Biden restore US global cooperation and leadership?

Jon Shelton
November 8, 2020

The president-elect has consistently vowed to turn away from unilateralism. But to truly restore US leadership he will have to win back the trust of alienated allies and hold adversaries to account.

Demonstrators with a US flag in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Image: John Mcdougall/AFP

US President-Elect Joe Biden has vowed to restore America's leadership role in the world by reversing the unilateralism of the Trump administration and refocusing on longstanding international alliances. He says his administration will elevate diplomacy and lead by the "power of example," rather than the "example of power."  

Biden has inherited a situation in which allies are questioning US credibility, with relations between Washington and capitals around the world fraught.

The president-elect has vowed to repair as much damage as possible in his first 100 days in office by reversing a number of executive orders signed by President Donald Trump. The orders upended international agreements and alliances the president claimed were unfair to America for various reasons. Critics say the moves were counterproductive and that US isolationism has simply allowed China to expand its influence in America's absence.

Here are a few of the biggest foreign policy reversals the president-elect has vowed to make immediately:

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Trump regularly railed against the JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, as "one of the worst deals in history" and pulled the US out of the accord on May 8, 2018. He also reinstated sanctions against Iran and anyone doing business with it.

Signed with China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and Iran by the Obama administration in 2015, the signatories agreed to establish dialogue and monitoring of Iran's nuclear program in return for economic relief. The Trump administration called the agreement weak and instead pursued what it terms a "maximum pressure campaign."

Biden says Trump's policy has been ineffective and only served to escalate tensions. He has pledged to rejoin the JCPOA, but says he will only lift sanctions upon confirmation of strict Iranian adherence to JCPOA rules.

Withdrawal from Paris Agreement puts US 'at a disadvantage'

More generally, Biden could also seek to distance the US from Iran's regional adversary and Washington's biggest Arab ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Trump courted the authoritarian monarchy closely during his time in office, with the kingdom playing a key role in the president's anti-Iranian alliance. Biden could begin that distancing by ending US support for Saudi Arabia's unpopular war in Yemen.

Paris Climate Agreement

Biden, elected in part on the pledge to fight climate change, has consistently said he will immediately rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump, a climate change denier, withdrew the US from the agreement on June 1, 2017, claiming it unfairly advantaged China.

The US is the world's second largest polluter behind China and whereas Trump framed the issue in zero-sum economic terms choosing fossil fuel profits over environmental protection, Biden has promised to build a clean energy economy to finance ambitious emissions cutting programs.

Heads of government of G7 countries meet in 2018
Under Trump, the US has pursued a number of unilateral positions that have often stood starkly at odds with much of the worldImage: Reuters/Prime Minister's Office/A. Scotti

World Health Organization (WHO)

The Biden administration has pledged to immediately return to the WHO and seek to lead the body's coronavirus efforts. The US held great influence in this important public health authority, contributing a full 15% of its budget (Germany contributes 5.6%). On July 7, 2020, President Trump announced the US would withdraw from the organization — which, among other things, coordinates global vaccine testing — effective July 6, 2021.

As of November 8, the US had registered the highest single country numbers of coronavirus infections (9,957,50) as well as deaths (237,567), with global infections at 49,948,324 and global deaths at 1,252,189.

United Nations (UN)

Trump threatened to leave the United Nations, though so far the US has only left two organizations within the body: The Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The US cited unfair treatment of ally Israel in both cases.

On June 19, 2018, then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called the UNHRC "a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights," pointing to what she called its "chronic bias against Israel" and objecting to council membership for human rights abusers China, Cuba and Venezuela. The US has called for reforms to the body and often clashed with members over its defense of Israel, which critics say turns a blind eye to Israeli human rights abuses.

The Trump administration ostensibly cited conflicts in the naming of World Cultural Heritage Sites, which the US and Israel said ignored Jewish historical links, as reason for withdrawal from UNESCO. The naming of the sites also touched on deeper of issues international sovereignty by declaring the old city of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian sites.

The US left UNESCO in 1984 under Ronald Reagan and returned again in 2002 under George W. Bush. Payments were frozen for nine years under the Obama-Biden administration, but the US held its membership.

Biden is a strong supporter of Israel and welcomed recent agreements between Israel and UAE, but his administration will likely push to stop Israeli settlement building and annexations as well as being more vocal advocates for the needs of Palestinians at the UN.

The WTO, NATO and the Senate

Other issues Biden will have address include the status of trade relations as well as within bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is somewhere Biden will seek to mend fences and expand cooperation, but foreign policy objectives will remain in place.

The question is whether Biden can win back trust and successfully achieve what his stated goals: "Advance the security, prosperity, and values of the United States by taking immediate steps to renew our own democracy and alliances, protect our economic future, and once more place America at the head of the table, leading the world to address the most urgent global challenges" — or if the world has moved on over the past four years.

Biden has laid out broad and ambitious plans on many fronts, but while executive orders can be overturned, without a Senate majority anything requiring Congressional approval could prove nigh impossible to pass.

But first, he has to confront the coronavirus and economic fallout it is causing.