<Series: America's Choice in 2020>
① Foreign Policy Stance of the Biden Administration: An Arrival of “Reset 2.0 Era”
[Sejong Commentary] No. 2020-24 (November 11, 2020)
Dr. LEE Sang Hyun
Senior Research Fellow,
The Sejong Institute
The 2020 U.S. presidential election now ended with Joe Biden’s de facto victory. The U.S. ends the “America First” era of Donald Trump and welcomes a “Reset 2.0 Era.” Major U.S. media news outlets have called this election the most important one in the entire U.S. history, for it was held when the future of the U.S. and the international order stood at a crossroads in many ways. This election has a significant meaning in the assessment of the future course of the U.S. global leadership. Americans chose to return to the traditional role of a provider of global public goods instead of continuing neo-isolationism under the banner of “America First” and accelerating the fall of the U.S. hegemony. Furthermore, this presidential election meant an important test of American democracy. The political divide worsened since Trump came to power, and the ability of American democracy was questioned over the management of the electoral process. The image of an ideal democratic state of the U.S. was severely damaged, and even the possibility of a civil war was raised. President Trump as a head of the U.S. abandoned the role of the state of protecting American values and voicing the world’s conscience, which was valued by former presidents; however, Americans chose to return to normal diplomacy and hope for democracy.
The basis of the Biden administration’s foreign policy can be seen in advance through the party’s presidential platform. Proposed platform of the Bidem camp reflects almost all the traditional agenda of the Democratic Party of the past. The Democratic Party placed recovering from COVID-19 first on the agenda. The platform focuses mainly on domestic politics, such as constructing a strong and fair economy, providing universal health insurance, reforming the judicial system, responding to climate change and realizing environmental justice, restoring and strengthening democracy, introducing advanced immigration systems, and reforming education.
Foreign policy related issues are presented at the last part of the platform under the category of “Renewing American Leadership.” It mentions the importance of diplomacy, the reinvention of alliances, the respect of international institutions, the use of foreign development aids, the strengthening of military power, the transformation of armed force for the 21st century, the coordination of international responses to transnational challenges such as climate change, new technology, nonproliferation, terrorism, democracy and human rights, and regional strategies to promote U.S. interests. In terms of policies with Asia, it mentions strengthening ties with key allies such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia, and expanding cooperation with Thailand and the Philippines. It further highlights that cooperation with these allies and diplomacy with North Korea can prevent the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and other regional provocations. The platform proposes to continue and coordinate diplomacy with care in order to denuclearize North Korea with a long-term perspective, while providing humanitarian aids to the North Korean people and pressuring North Korea to cease serious human rights abuses.
Unlike Trump, who emphasized America First, Biden emphasizes the restoration of U.S. leadership as an overall basis for his foreign policy. Biden has criticized President Trump for renouncing U.S. leadership in dealing with new global crises and moving away from democratic values that strengthen the U.S. and unite Americans. Thus, Biden, as his first mission as a president, affirmed to restore American democracy and alliances, protect the economic future of the U.S., and let the U.S. lead the world again. He emphasized three specific agendas. The first is to innovate democracy at home. The second is to pursue foreign policies for the American middle class. The third is to restore the U.S. position as a leader in the international community. Biden’s agendas reflect the general direction of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. Biden argues that Trump’s undermining of diplomacy, pursuit of unilateralism, and failed foreign policies during his four years in office destroyed the U.S. alliance system, and that it is time to reconstruct alliance relations.
Based on such observation, the transition from the Trump era to the Biden era is expected to result in significant changes in U.S. diplomacy. However, America Firsterism and hard-line policies on China are two stances that may not change despite the opening of the Biden administration. White identity politics, deep-rooted in American history, has become a characteristic of American society as a whole throughout the Trump era. It is difficult for whoever becomes the president to turn away from the class damaged by globalization—especially the working class of the Rust Belt—that mostly consisted of white middle classes with low educational background. It is inevitable for the future U.S. president to send a message that these classes remain well engaged as the president prioritizes national interests. The hard-line stance that the U.S. has taken on China may not dramatically change either. Americans’ general perception of China is based on the theory that the past engagement with China over the last 40 years failed to transform China in a positive direction yet only helped China to grow to become a strategic competitor against the U.S. today. And now China poses all-round challenges. First, China’s state-led protectionism and state capitalism run an economic risk. Second, China challenges American values. Third, it raises overall security challenges. The conflict between the U.S. and China, which began as a trade war, has now escalated into a full-fledged hegemonic competition and has expanded into competitions for values and systems. Nonetheless, the Biden administration is expected to show different rhetoric and approaches toward China. Instead of directly pressuring China like Trump, Biden will deal with China through multilateral pressure through coordination with allies and friendly nations. As a result, it becomes more important for South Korea to decide the stance it will take between the U.S. and China.
Although Biden won the presidential election, he did not necessarily defeat “Trumpism.” The domestic and international political challenges that Biden has to overcome are formidable. Despite numerous scandals, corruption, and failed policies over the past four years, Trump won about 48% of the general vote, which signifies nearly 7 million more votes than in 2016. The support of Latin and African Americans has also increased. Americans still support Trump, a white supremacist, a habitual liar, and the cause of a serious health crisis with failed COVID-19 responses. Biden may have won the election, but is expected to face an important task of overcoming the assessment that the U.S. is still overwhelmed by Trumpism and achieving national unity.
※ Translator’s note: This is a summarized unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.
※ This article is written based on the author’s personal opinions and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.