Transition 2021: How Much Foreign Policy Leverage Is Trump Leaving Biden?
from The Water's Edge

Transition 2021: How Much Foreign Policy Leverage Is Trump Leaving Biden?

Each Friday, I look at what is happening in President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House. This week: The Biden administration may have less leverage to strike winning deals than he, and many of his critics, might think.
President-Elect Joe Biden gives an address in Wilmington, Delaware, after the Electoral College confirmed his victory on December 14, 2020.
President-Elect Joe Biden gives an address in Wilmington, Delaware, after the Electoral College confirmed his victory on December 14, 2020. Mike Segar/Reuters

Have President Donald Trump’s hard-line foreign policies set up President-Elect Joe Biden for some major diplomatic successes? Trump’s tariffs on China, maximum pressure on Iran, and abandonment of several international agreements all in theory provide Biden with diplomatic leverage, essentially enabling him to play “good cop” to Trump’s “bad cop.” But that leverage may not be as significant as it looks.

To be sure, Trump did not pursue a hard line consistently or create leverage across all issues. North Korea is a case in point. Trump abandoned his initial “fire and fury” rhetoric for “summit diplomacy” that eliminated one possible source of leverage, namely, the prospect of a summit. Meanwhile, North Korea now has a larger and more sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal than when Trump came into office, and China is in “flagrant violation” of international sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. By any accounting, Biden will be in a tougher spot than the one Trump inherited in 2017.

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Elsewhere, though, Trump does look to be leaving Biden with leverage. The question is how useful it will be. And here four issues suggest its limits. One is whether Trump has left behind the right kind of leverage. Biden made this point earlier this month when he observed that when it comes to leverage over China, "we don't have it yet." The reason tariff concessions aren’t sufficient is that Trump acted unilaterally rather than multilaterally. As Biden wrote back in the spring, “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy." Trump didn’t build that coalition, making it easier for Beijing to deflect his pressure.

A second issue is that leverage only works if it is coupled with an offer that meets the other side’s needs. When it comes to China, the prospect of tariff relief may not move the needle. China has handled the pandemic far better than the United States, its economy has already rebounded, and its manufacturers are being flooded with orders from the United States. Beijing worries more about the potential loss of access to Western technology, but that is a trend Biden is likely to accelerate rather than reverse. Beijing may be drawing the lesson, then, that it is winning and that its best strategy is to decouple from the United States on its own terms.

A third issue is that leverage only works if you can deliver on your end of the bargain. That could prove a challenge with Iran. Biden has no chance of enshrining his hoped-for new and improved version of the 2015 nuclear deal in a Senate-approved treaty, and Trump has already shown that anything less than that can be dismissed with the stroke of a pen. So even if Iranian hardliners don’t torpedo new talks from the outset, and that is a big if, Biden will have to persuade Tehran that a future president won’t undo any deal they reach. That could be a high hurdle to overcome.

Finally, leverage only works if others believe you are willing to exercise it. This could be a stumbling block for Biden’s dealings with Europe. European enthusiasm to spend more on defense, fix the Iran nuclear deal, and remake the World Trade Organization surged during Trump’s presidency precisely because of fears of what he might do otherwise. That won’t be the case with Biden, a champion of multilateralism. That makes it easier for Europe to pass on making tough decisions.

In diplomacy, as in poker, it matters how good your cards are as well as how well you play your hand. Biden’s cards aren’t as strong as he would like them. Now we will see how well he can play them.  

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What Biden Is Saying

Biden vowed yesterday to impose "substantial costs" on those responsible for the sophisticated cyberattack that hit multiple U.S. government agencies and companies. Russia is suspected of launching the attack, which the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said poses “a grave risk to the Federal Government and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments as well as critical infrastructure entities and other private sector organizations.” Trump’s former homeland security advisor warned that the attackers may have “gained what experts call 'persistent access,' meaning the ability to infiltrate and control networks in a way that is hard to detect or remove." If so, the failure to stop the attack could rank as one of the greatest intelligence failures in U.S. history. Meanwhile, Trump had as of this afternoon said nothing publicly about the breach.

Biden marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement on December 12 by tweeting a video promising to move quickly to rejoin the accords:

The president-elect also released a statement noting the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Dayton Accords:

A quarter century later, it is clear that the work to promote justice, reconciliation, and a functional, multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina remains incomplete.…As president, I look forward to working with the international community and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to finally achieve the promise contained in the Dayton Accords—a prosperous, just, and democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina in the heart of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

The Clinton administration’s achievement in Bosnia remains significant, even if many of the divisions and tensions in the country persist.

Biden’s Appointments

Biden announced on Tuesday that he is nominating his former campaign rival, Pete Buttigieg, to be secretary of transportation, while on Thursday he named former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as his nominee for secretary of energy. Assuming they are confirmed, expect both Buttigieg and Granholm to play important roles in Biden’s efforts to combat climate change.

As those two picks were becoming public, a Democratic senator threatened to obstruct Biden’s nominees if he doesn’t move aggressively on climate change. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said he wanted the Biden administration to take steps such as investigating whether oil companies are funding efforts to promote “climate denialism and climate obstruction and political ownership of the Republican Party.” If not, he implied he would use his senatorial prerogative to place a hold on a nominee. With many Republican senators opposed to ambitious action on climate, Whitehouse’s threat highlights the difficult politics that await the Biden administration on Capitol Hill.

In the meantime, Biden still has to navigate the difficult political waters of the transition. This morning Axios reported that acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had halted all Pentagon briefings for the Biden transition team. Miller subsequently issued a statement saying that the briefings suspension is simply a “mutually-agreed upon holiday pause” and that the Pentagon continues to provide written materials. A Biden spokesperson disputed that claim, saying: "There was no mutually agreed upon holiday break.” Axios attributed the suspension to anger over Washington Post reporting that the Defense Department could save billions by stopping construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Pentagon officials apparently blamed the Biden transition team for leaking information that appeared in the story. Whether that allegation is true or not, the briefings suspension highlights how unusual the 2021 transition is—and again raises questions about whether the Trump team is actively hindering the incoming Biden administration’s effort to be fully prepared to assume office on Inauguration Day. 

The Biden Agenda

My colleagues Steven Cook and Martin Indyk joined me on the latest episode of The President’s Inbox to discuss how Biden will likely approach Middle East policy.

My colleague Paul Stares offered steps the Biden administration can take in preparation for national security crises “to lessen the risk of the United States being blindsided.” 

Farhad Alaaldin and Kenneth M. Pollack recommended that Biden be prepared to move quickly to help Baghdad avoid an economic collapse because “acting sooner will be cheaper and avoid harder choices later, when Iraq could be in free fall.”

Elizabeth Dent and Ariane M. Tabatabai argued that the Biden administration “will need to accept that its options for countering Iranian influence in Syria are limited,” but that multilateral action is nonetheless necessary, especially as tensions rise in Syria between Israel and Iran.

Nick Danforth wrote that Biden needs to recognize that Turkey’s combative new foreign policy means “that no combination of threats or incentives will restore a cooperative relationship any time soon.”

Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton urged Biden to reverse Trump’s “misguided move” to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and affirm the status quo that a referendum on independence is a necessary prerequisite to a U.S. decision on the issue.

Federica Saini Fasanotti and Michael O'Hanlon wrote that “as the Biden team looks to reinvigorate American multilateralism and diplomacy after four years of Trump, Libya is not a bad place to start.”  

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that Biden had the “correct priorities” in his focus on renewing alliances, international agreements, and diplomacy, but that “a return to the pre-Trump status quo will be inadequate to the task. In each, it is necessary to reform, revitalize and restructure the American approach.”  

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote that a summit for democracy is “essential to solving urgent problems.…Biden has a queue of America’s weary allies outside his door. We are yearning for a determined leader and, from experience, I believe Joe Biden will seize this opportunity.”

James Goldgeier and Bruce W. Jentleson wrote that the “United States would be better served by focusing its attention on the smaller groupings of democratic allies and partners that already exist and by revitalizing its own instruments for promoting democracy and human rights” than by hosting a global democracy summit.

Thomas Hale and Nathan Hultman called for Biden to adapt an “all in” approach to climate diplomacy that mobilizes local, state, and private sector efforts within the federal response to remind “the world that America’s openness and diversity in its society, economy, and political system are assets, not liabilities, in the battle against climate change.”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) advised Biden to embrace an “all Americas” foreign policy that places “primacy on North America, Central America, and South America.”

Amy McGrath and Michael O’Hanlon flagged the strengthening of checks and balances over executive war powers as a “pressing issue [demanding] major, comprehensive new legislation from a new Congress and president come 2021.” 

Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and former Senator Sam Nunn wrote that “Biden will need to chart a new path on nuclear policy and arms control” that includes strengthening international agreements and taking the lead at home to reduce the risk of nuclear war.   

Robert Wright described the differences between “progressive realists” and the “progressive idealists” and argued that “Biden’s foreign policy team is full of idealists who keep getting people killed.”

The Vote Count

The Electoral College met on Monday to vote. All the electors were faithful, so the final tally was 306 votes for Biden to 232 for Trump. After the vote was final, Biden criticized the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election in the courts and remarked that “once again in America, the rule of law, our Constitution, and the will of the people have prevailed.”

The Electoral Calendar

January 3         The new Congress is sworn in.

January 6         A joint session of Congress counts electoral votes and formally declares a winner.

January 20        Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day is thirty-three days away.

Happy Holidays. The next installment of the Transition 2021 roundup will be on Friday, January 8.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.