US foreign policy is ready for a major change in January, when Donald Trump – who took office in 2017 as an undiplomatic dilemma for world affairs – finally transfers the torch to Joe Biden, the former Vice President and longtime Senate Secretary of State.
Biden provides experience and a firmer pair of hands, but what does that mean for global relations?
The French geopolitics specialist François Heisbourg is a Senior Adviser on Europe at the London International Institute for Strategic Studies and a Special Adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
He spoke to Jowharon Monday about what foreign counterparts can expect from the irregular outgoing commander and a successor who is very familiar to some.
FRANCE 24: Should world leaders be worried about this difficult period? Donald Trump is a lame duck – and already so fleeting.
François Heisbourg: It’s 72 days [until the inauguration]. A lame duck does not have to prove that it can fly. Trump will not be re-elected. So he is completely free. And it’s very scary.
What could he do?
Heisbourg: He can issue executive orders, it’s always possible. Or he can do nothing. If he plays golf every day, who’s going to run the Covid-19 pandemic? My assumption is that it will be very difficult to have a coordinated approach to the pandemic.
The Americans are basically two weeks behind Europe in terms of the increasing fall load. It gets worse fast. At the end of the month, you will increase in deaths and so on in the states.
Problem B is that the Lame-Duck Congress and the Lame-Duck Secretary of the Treasury may or may not be able to agree on the stimulus package before 20 January. It will not be a great time for the US economy – and, of course, for the European economy either.
FRANCE 24: As far as foreign policy is concerned, what are the concerns about how to deal with Trump in the meantime? Or will leaders just continue until Joe Biden takes office?
Heisbourg: They’re waiting for the new man to come in. What can you negotiate with Trump at this stage? I guess not much. I do not expect any political decisions from Trump in that area. But we do not know that a foreign country will not do something that will emphasize America’s decision – making ability.
FRANCE 24: Something that demands answers and gets nothing?
Heisbourg: Yes. It could very well happen. So the transition will be really long.
FRANCE 24: Regarding President-elect Biden, former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says things will be a lot easier because Biden understands Europe better than Trump. Is that your opinion?
Heisbourg: He knows Europe and Europeans know him. Biden is very much a part of the furniture. We have all met Biden at one time or another in the last 48 years [laughs]. We have learned to know each other. And of course, Biden is an adult. He may not be a perfect adult, but he is an adult, and that in itself is a great relief [laughs]. That’s a big change. That’s a huge change.
I do not know if Biden will be wise and constructive. But he clearly wants to improve relations, re-establish relations with Europeans on a cooperative basis. When Biden formulates his China policy, he will try to do so in as multilateral a way as possible. So all these things are essentially for the good. But beyond that, we do not yet know what the content of his policy will be.
America has not grown in strength in the last ten years, relative to a rising China. The US policy of strategic prudence in the Mediterranean will continue, which means: the Americans will not do it for us. If you look at Eastern Europe [in the last decade], the Ukrainian account was handled mainly by Europeans, with the Americans in the background. The key players [in 2014] were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, not Barack Obama. There is little reason to expect this to change.
So it will not be back to a world of American leadership. It will be back to what I call “Obama minus”.
FRANCE 24: Obama minus?
Heisbourg: Yes. Focus on China and let other people handle the other stuff. In a friendly way – but if people expect American leadership, they probably will not get it. I do not understand why Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, would take a higher profile [in foreign affairs] than Obama did. And Trump was to a very large extent – in terms of attitude, not implementation – largely a continuity president in the Mediterranean.
[Consider] the things that the French have been doing in the eastern Mediterranean in recent months. It is not as if the Americans were absent, but they are no more present than the Egyptians or the Emirates. The Russians and Turks are definitely more present.
FRANCE 24: In Europe, Merkel ends her term just as Biden arrives; Emmanuel Macron will start coming to the less constructive part of his mandate if he seeks re-election. What can Biden’s arrival mean to them?
Heisbourg: A Return to Civilized Relations. That in itself is very important. If they expect American leadership, I do not think they will get it. But if they expect a civilized partnership with the United States, I think they will. And it’s not trivial.
There is such a feeling [here in France] that we should not keep up with expectations. This is actually a pretty good thing because high expectations will be disappointed. If one expects a return to civilized relationships and that there will be all sorts of issues that it will be possible to consult, concert and sometimes even agree, then the expectations will be met. And it has not happened in a long time.
FRANCE 24: What about Brexit? Should British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shake his boots on the arrival of this pro-Irish US leader?
Heisbourg: When you look at the spin from number 10 [Downing Street] and her Majesty’s Government, yes, clearly they have awakened to the painful revelation that there are more Irish in the states than there are in Ireland [laughs]. And now one of them happens to be the president [laughs]! I think Johnson will really regret not following the terms of the exit agreement.
FRANCE 24: Has Trump damaged any global relations in an irreparable way?
Heisbourg: Yes. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is: We now know that the United States is a deeply divided society and that anything can happen at the end of the current election cycle. Biden may not run 2024; Trump received 4 million more votes than last time!
FRANCE 24: Would leaders be wise to support the return of Trumpism?
Heisbourg: No, it’s not that much. It is not that there is a specific fear. It is quite simple that – from the very beginning of the Cold War until Trump was elected – the outside world could assume that the United States would stick to the basic choices they made at the beginning of the Cold War.
That is: an alliance system in Asia and Europe that acts as an influence and power multiplier for the United States and that involved a certain type of relationship between the United States and its Asian and European partners. And that regardless of the color of the American president – including George W. Bush – that would be the case.
One of the reasons why former French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were ready to oppose Bush in the same way they did in 2003, during the Iraq crisis, was that they felt secure in their assumption that, whatever than happened, the United States would still function on the basis of this alliance. That the risk was limited.
Of course, Trump wanted to build the alliance. And it is, of course, a great relief to know that he was not re-elected, because if it had been, it is fair to assume that the United States would have left NATO at the end of his second term, de facto or de jure.
It is no longer on the cards. But we are no longer sure that the United States will stick to its 70-year-old alliance policy. The United States has become an unpredictable quantity when it comes to its basic choices of foreign policy. This is where the damage from Trump can be irreversible.
FRANCE 24: Where can we see continuity with Biden?
Heisbourg: Oh, of course continuity in the China account. Biden will do this in a much more cooperative way, much more multilaterally, but also much more consistently – and probably more difficult for the Chinese.
Trump spent much of his time zigzagging and zigzagging China. There were days when he said beautiful things about [Chinese President] Xi Jinping; there were even days when he asked Xi Jinping to help him find dirt on Hunter Biden [the president-elect’s son]. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing [laughs]. So Trump’s policy toward China was brutal and erratic.
Biden’s attitude towards China will be less brutal and probably much more consistent and therefore more powerful. And that will be the number one priority for Biden – as it would have been for Trump or any other US president at this stage.
You also have continuity in the Mediterranean. What did Obama’s press people call this during the Libyan crisis of 2011? “Leading from behind”? Which is not leadership. When Biden says “no more eternal war,” he is essentially saying the same thing as Trump and Obama.
FRANCE 24: For all of Trump’s irregular behavior, has he carried the ball in any useful way for Biden?
Heisbourg: One area where things have happened is the recognition of Israel by a number of Arab countries. We still do not know the whole story – at least I do not – but it is quite impressive to see how the Emirates, the Bahraini, now the Sudanese and probably the Omani have come into that game …. If this is something that Trump ever really thought about, I do not know. But it was clear that there were people around him who worked hard enough to actually bring this about.
It’s not as big as [former US president] Jimmy Carter during Camp David on Egypt, or even the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan during [former president] Bill Clinton, but still … If you’re looking for an achievement, you have one.
FRANCE 24: How about North Korea?
Heisbourg: I, like others, would not mistake Trump for trying a strategy no one else had tried. Since all other approaches have failed, it was not entirely irrational to try another. But if you’re going to do it, you [have got] to do it with open eyes. And Trump was anything but open-eyed. He just gave a green [light] to the North Koreans so that they could continue their missile program.
FRANCE 24: You’ve met Biden in person, if not just by. What is your feeling for the man in terms of his skills, his interest in global issues, his skill?
Heisbourg: Oh, he’s very interested. He likes this stuff! He is in the form of an internationalist from the Kennedy era. That’s how I would describe him. And he has been around long enough to gather both knowledge and experience. That’s probably a good thing – provided he does not just become his own national security adviser.
That was one of Obama’s problems. Obama enjoyed foreign policy so much that he tended to reduce his role as his national security adviser. And that was a mistake, because there are so many balls to keep in the air that you really need a strong national security adviser to stop and not try to do everything on your own. I suspect that Biden will have that temptation.
This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.