US President Joe Biden will rightly spend his first days in office addressing the myriad domestic crises that he has inherited from his predecessor, Donald Trump. However, the transfer of power in the most powerful elected office in the world usually means a change in foreign policy, too.
And if President Biden’s inaugural address is anything to go by, the global focus for the next four years will chiefly be to restore the world’s trust in America after the chaotic foreign policy of the one-term Trump administration.
In his address, Biden spoke of a moment of “renewal and resolve,” and described his victory as “the triumph of a cause, the cause of democracy.” But what will the 46th American president do to heal democracy around the world that Trump seemingly went out of his way to undermine and wound?
Throughout his address, Biden repeated the importance of restoring unity and the sanctity of democracy across America. He spoke, as many presidents have before him, of America being a beacon for the world.
It’s no secret that under Trump, America’s role as the shining city on the hill had been severely undermined. Whether it was using the office to tell trivial lies, naked attempts to suppress postal votes, promoting conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the US election or cozying up to dictators and regimes that trampled on their own populations, Trump trashed America’s credibility on the world stage.
‘America’s role in the world’
Biden’s speech didn’t make any major foreign policy announcements, but he tried to assure those watching around the world that his America will be a more reliable and stable global partner.
His direct “message to those beyond our borders” was that America had been tested, but that it “will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again” as a “trusted partner for peace and security.”
This suggests a return to the pre-Trump era of America leading the Western order, underpinning NATO and restoring a multilateral approach to foreign policy. He has already announced that he will re-join the Paris climate accord and it is very likely he will try and open talks with the partners who signed the Iran nuclear deal under Barack Obama.
However, reversing some of Trump’s more hostile global actions might be less simple than issuing a few executive orders.
It was only last week that Trump ignited a series of diplomatic wildfires for Biden to put out.
He poked China in the eye by by lifting restrictions on contacts between American officials and representatives from Taiwan; designated Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization; and named Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. And on his final full day in office, his administration accused China of committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims and ethnic and religious minority groups who live in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Whatever the various merits of these policies, they have inflamed relations that a new American president will inherit, and it will take more than calm words to settle them.
Biden’s first act as President was plea for calm and unity in America. It was the right message for his domestic audience. However, America’s allies and enemies are well aware that the new President has a mountainous in-tray, and while he has promised to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris accord, what US leadership in a changed global landscape will look like is still very much unclear.
The longer Biden takes to claim his place as the leader of the free world, the more those who enjoyed Trump’s lack of interest in foreign affairs will seek to exploit the void left by America as it took a backseat on the world stage.