Should Joe Biden win the American presidency on Nov. 3, the world will experience whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. A Biden triumph would repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.
On climate change, a Biden victory would shift the U.S. from laggard to leader. Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change will take effect on Nov. 4, the day after the election. One of Biden’s first steps after inauguration would be to rejoin it, as a component of his proposed $2 trillion climate plan. Crucially, he can do this at the stroke of a pen, because the Obama administration joined the Paris Agreement in 2015 through executive action rather than as a formal treaty requiring the advice and consent of the Senate. A U.S. return to the multilateral fold in the fight against climate change cannot come soon enough. To hold the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Agreement, the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.2 percent annually through 2030. Most nations are nowhere near this target. Next year’s U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, postponed this year because of the pandemic, offers a pivotal opportunity to secure bolder action to avoid planetary catastrophe, an agenda to which Biden has committed.
Once in office, Biden could quickly restore U.S. leadership on global health by reversing Trump’s rash decision to leave the World Health Organization, which is slated to take full effect on July 6, 2021. As with climate change, Biden can rescind Trump’s ill-considered step through simple executive action. Beyond restoring full U.S. membership in the WHO, Biden has advocated strengthening the U.N.’s global health agency. Such steps could include bolstering its authority, so that it can enforce compliance with its legally binding International Health Regulations, as well as augmenting its capabilities, to better detect and respond to pandemics. Biden would also likely support collaborative international efforts to develop and ensure the equitable allocation of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, rejecting the “vaccine nationalism” of his predecessor. This could include joining COVAX, a joint initiative of more than 170 countries pooling their resources for a COVID-19 vaccine—but not yet the U.S.
As president, Biden can restore American credibility toward nuclear nonproliferation by leading the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. Trump renounced the JCPOA in 2018 and is demanding “snap-back” sanctions on Iran over the wishes of close U.S. allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which are all still party to the nuclear deal. Biden says he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” and that, “if Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for negotiations.” More generally, Biden would reverse the Trump administration’s outdated and dangerous emphasis on nuclear weapons, downgrading their importance in U.S. defense policy and working to prevent a new, Cold War-style arms race with China and Russia.
On global trade, Biden’s divergence from Trump would be less dramatic but still significant. The degree of difference will depend on which wing of the Democratic Party, progressive or moderate, dominates. Over the past four years, Trump has assaulted the global trading system, rejecting the blockbuster Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement among 13 countries in the Pacific Rim—salvaged as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, without the U.S.—and launching trade wars against China and the European Union. His administration has also destroyed the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution mechanism. Look for Biden to abandon these self-destructive policies while working with other wealthy nations to update WTO trading rules and form a united front against unfair Chinese trade practices. Given high support for globalization among Democrats, he is well-positioned to launch a new era of “fair trade” agreements that balance enhanced market access with high labor, human rights and environmental standards.
As president, Biden would restore the global promotion of human rights as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. Among Trump’s most egregious leadership failures has been an unwillingness to champion freedom and democracy around the globe while coddling and praising tyrants. Expect Biden to reverse course, by calling out despots around the world rather than focusing exclusively, like Trump, on select U.S. adversaries like Cuba and Venezuela. A Biden administration would surely reject Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s retrograde “back to basics” approach to human rights, which gives short shrift to the economic, social and cultural components of human dignity. The U.S. can be expected to rejoin the admittedly flawed U.N. Human Rights Council, calculating that membership offers a better chance to shape its actions and restrain its bad actors than carping from the outside.
Finally, Biden will restore the centrality of the West in U.S. grand strategy, reckoning that the most secure foundation for an open, rules-based international order remains solidarity among like-minded, advanced market democracies. Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the West, casting doubt on the U.S. commitment to NATO, encouraging the dissolution of the EU and undermining solidarity among the members of the G-7. While burden-sharing debates within NATO will endure, as president, Biden would reconfirm the ironclad U.S. commitment to collective defense, welcome continued consolidation of the EU and seek to rebuild solidarity among G-7 nations, treating these institutions as the critical foundations of an open world order.
The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy, in which the U.S. repudiates the bitter idea of “America First” and gets back on the multilateral path it had championed for decades. The question is whether this will make any practical difference. Liberal internationalists may dream of a Biden victory expunging the past four years, essentially wiping the slate clean. Unfortunately, this hopeful “restoration” scenario ignores the lasting damage Trump has done to America’s standing and credibility.
Many U.S. allies and partners, no longer confident in America’s willingness to provide security, open markets and other global public goods, have already begun hedging their bets and pursuing “strategic autonomy.” Even if Biden is elected, many will question how much confidence they should place in a country that has proven so capricious. After all, Trump may well be defeated in November, but Trumpism is likely to remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around an isolationist and hyper-nationalist foreign policy for a generation.
When it comes to war, generals like to say, “the enemy has a vote.” Something analogous might also be said of global leadership, which implies willing followers. A week from now, American citizens will cast their ballots for the next U.S. president. In the ensuing months, America’s partners around the world will decide whether to cast their own lot with—or without—the United States.