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Sejong Commentary

[Series: America’s Choice in 2020] ② Global Governance
2020-11-11 View : 141 CHUNG Eunsook

<Series: America's Choice in 2020>


Global Governance


[Sejong Commentary] No. 2020-25 (November 11, 2020)

Dr. CHUNG Eunsook

Director of the Dept of Security Strategy Studies,

The Sejong Institute



On the evening of November 7, 2020 (local time), Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden delivered a brief victory speech to the citizens for about 10 minutes. In his speech, he called for national unity and cooperation between the two parties and listed measures for COVID-19, economic welfare, racial respect, minority protection, democracy, and fairness as major tasks to address. He said he is confident that the U.S. will become a role-model country in the world. As it was a brief statement, no specific foreign policy or international issue was mentioned. Although there is still a possibility of confusion in the political schedule as President Donald Trump has yet to concede the defeat in the election, this commentary briefly deals with the foreign policy and global governance of the new U.S. administration on the premise that Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the U.S. as of January 20, 2021.


The Diplomatic Heritage of America First Policy of the Former Trump Administration: Skepticism on Multilateralism and Globalism


Each U.S. administration has indeed sought to adjust its diplomatic strategy and policies under various titles, including interventionism, isolationism, engagement policy, containment policy, and isolationism, with the common goal of protecting national interests of the U.S. in ever-changing internal and external environment. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s America First policy has expressed fundamental skepticism on multilateralism and globalism more explicitly than any previous administration.


First of all, the Trump administration was critical of the UN multilateralism. Since his days as President-elect, Trump saw the UN as nothing more than a social club. He believed that the UN excessively restricts the U.S. discretion despite it being the largest donor to the UN and jeopardizes it from pursuing its national interests. In 2017, when he was inaugurated, he withdrew from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and expressed his willingness to reduce financial contributions to the UN. In 2018, the U.S. also withdrew from the global climate change agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), which the Obama administration had focused on, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA 2015), which was signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and Iran to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. He then left the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in the same year, citing “its chronic bias against Israel” and denouncing it as “a protector of human rights abusers.” And this spring in 2020, when the COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic by the UN-affiliated agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), and when the U.S. recorded the largest number of infections in the world, President Trump claimed the WHO is biased towards the epicenter country, China, and notified withdrawal of the U.S. on July 6. When the procedure is completed, the U.S. will officially withdraw from the WHO on July 6, 2021.


Experts also acknowledge there is an inherent inefficiency in multilateralism, but it will not be easy to maintain an effective global governance for transnational issues, including climate, human rights, and health care, without the strong presence of the U.S. The Trump administration believed it can contribute enough through unilateral actions or bilateral relations, one way or the other.


The second issue is the U.S. relations with allies and partner countries. President Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) just three days after his inauguration and called on allies to increase the amount of defense cost-sharing by using terms such as “free-riding.” He clearly showed a difference in strategy compared to the previous Obama administration.


The heads of the EU member states were concerned that the collapse of multilateralism, the easing of alliance ties, and the decline of U.S. global leadership would result in a replacement of “the liberal international order” that the U.S. and Europe have pursued since the end of world wars with sharp strategic competition among three superpowersthe U.S., China, and Russia. Of course, high-ranking officials of the Trump administration have strongly argued that the America First policy rather demonstrates the robustness of U.S. leadership in the international order.


Third, the Trump administration withdrew from the U.S.-Russia bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF, 1987) and the Multilateral Disclosure Treaty (1992) claiming non-compliance of the Russian government. There have been no follow-up negotiations on the U.S.-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will end in February 2021. There is an option to extend the present treaty for a five-year term, but there has been no agreement between the two states yet.


Fourth, paradoxically, over the past four years, China has gained the justification of criticizing unilateralism of the U.S. both internally and externally thanks to the Trump administration’s America First principle and has developed an active interest in global governance and multilateralism rhetoric. In a speech at Tsinghua University on November 7, when Biden’s victory in the election became apparent, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that “humankind is a community with a shared future” and that “cooperation and multilateralism are the right direction, and consolidation of global governance is the needs of the era.” Wang further stressed that “the international community should discard ideological bias and establish a global governance system under the principle of consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.” He also said that China opposes any form of “protectionism” and will support the multilateral trading system with the central role of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was as if he was expecting an anti-Trump association with Biden. However, it is not clear whether the new U.S. administration will answer with satisfactory words and actions to China.


Restoring the U.S. Global Leadership and Pivot to Multilateralism under Biden’s New Administration?


Although the new Biden administration’s diplomatic strategy has not been officially announced yet, considering his previous stances and his statements at the camp this year, the following seems certain to some extent.


First, Biden emphasized the restoration of global leadership of the U.S. with the focus on the democratic alliances and partnerships in contrast to the Trump administration. In fact, in his July speech at the City University of New York (title: “The Power of America’s Example: The Biden’s Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century”), Biden criticized Trump’s policy of undermining alliances in the face of traditional and non-traditional security threats and presented his alternative vision of a re-emergence of the role of global leadership of the U.S. in a united democratic alliance. Based on this view, Biden explained that the U.S. would promote democracy within the U.S. and strengthen its democratic solidarity with the allies, pursue foreign policy for American’s success in global economic competition with other states like China, restore the U.S. leadership in global actions against global threats (e.g. the rise of populist, nationalists, and demagogues; manipulation of democratic mechanisms by autocratic powers; nuclear war; mass migration; destructive power of new technologies; climate change and more), and strengthen diplomatic power of the U.S. by invigorating the role of the Department of State.


After Biden’s victory speech on November 7, leaders of major European countries such as Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Boris Johnson, congratulated Biden through their social media outlets and commonly expressed expectations for the future North Atlantic cooperation. It is believed to be based on their appreciation of Biden’s vision for the democratic alliances.


Second, then, the question is whether the new administration will rejoin various international agreements specifically withdrawn by the Trump administration. It is challenging to predict a collective outlook at the moment. However, it is expected that the U.S. will play a leading role in global actions for climate change and rejoin the Paris Agreement. Biden has indicated that the U.S. itself will push ahead with the net-zero emission target by 2050, and urge other countries to follow the lead. In this regard, it is notable that Biden has been calling for an end to China’s export of thermal power plants and funding under the Belt and Road Initiative, stating China as the world’s largest carbon emitter. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the new U.S. administration may attempt to resume cooperation with the WHO on condition of the organization’s willingness to reform for a greater transparency, including issues raised about its ties with China. As for JCPOA, Biden expressed his willingness to rejoin the group on conditional terms, including consultations with allies. It will not be easy to overlook the arguments made by the Trump administration and its supporters. The U.S. is expected to take serious consideration of the following negotiation or extension of the U.S.-Russia New START as it did with the JCPOA. This is because Russia’s non-compliance in missiles and others have been pointed out since the Obama administration.


The final topic would be the relationship between the U.S. and China in global governance. The new Biden administration is unlikely to accept China’s rhetoric of multilateralism and global governance at face value. In contrast to the Trump administration, which started competition from trade disputes and escalated it to ideological disputes, the Biden administration will seek areas of cooperation at both bilateral and multilateral level. However, it will seek to thoroughly pursue the U.S. values and public interests of global community on certain issues such as climate change, human rights, intellectual property, fair trade, and cyber security. By doing so, considering his eight-year experience in multilateral diplomacy as vice president of the Democratic Party’s Obama administration, Biden is expected to reduce the room for criticism about the U.S. unilateralism as the Chinese leaders did during the Trump administration on the international stage such as the UN. Nevertheless, amidst the unprecedented aftermath of the election, the new administration’s immediate tasks appear to be achieving domestic political stability and integration and overcoming the COVID-19 crisis. Only after these, the U.S. is expected to establish a new international role in the post-COVID international order.



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.