Can Joe Biden change American foreign policy?

Joe Biden at a speaking lectern surrounded by an array of national flags belonging to Japan, Germany, Iran, China, Nigeria, North Korea, Canada and Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden has vowed to radically change the US' approach to foreign policy and international diplomacy should he win next week's election.

But a lot has happened in four years under Donald Trump that could impede Biden's ability to simply return to the status quo ante. How different would US foreign policy really be under a Biden presidency? What will the two-term former vice president likely be able to change, and what's bound to remain the same, at least for now?


Quick fixes.

Climate. Biden has said from the get-go that on "day one" he would reenter the Paris Climate Accord that the Trump administration abandoned back in 2019, a move that left global powers scrambling as to how to tackle climate change without the world's second largest emitter of carbon and largest economy.

The US' official exit only occurs on November 4, a day after the US election, and therefore, Biden could readily recommit to the treaty without having to make up for much lost time (though there are some compliance issues he would need to address).

US allies. Should he win in November, one of Biden's key policy priorities will be repairing damaged alliances, particularly with European partners. (In 2018, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said "we can't rely on the superpower of the United States.") To do so, Biden could readily fall back on deep relations cultivated during his two terms as vice president.

Indeed, to counter Russian aggression, Biden says he will seek to bolster NATO, not only economically, but also by reinforcing the United States' commitment to its shared values.

Iran nuclear deal. Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal was one of Trump's signature foreign policies. Biden, on the other hand, says he will rejoin the accord and resume direct negotiations with Tehran on the condition that "Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal."

While notionally — with the backing of US allies like Germany and France — this process seems achievable in the near term, Biden's plan still relies on the Iranians playing ball. For its part, Iran has its own elections coming up next summer, and as journalist Negar Mortazavi recently told GZERO, the future of diplomacy between the US and Iran is also largely contingent on whether Iran's (anti-American) hardliners prevail at the polls in 2021.

Harder to shift.

Trade. Biden has said repeatedly that Trump's erratic trade policy has disaffected allies like Canada, Mexico and Europe, and deterred China from making concessions in general. The former VP says he will work with allies to get China in check. But as the global economy suffers its worst recession in decades — while China's economy continues to recover, putting it ahead of other global heavyweights— Beijing isn't likely to stop playing hardball anytime soon. At the same time, even if Biden is committed to reducing tensions with Beijing by eliminating some tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by Trump, walking back on $360 billion worth of dues is never going to be a cakewalk.

Meanwhile, while Biden believes in global economic integration, he has to contend with the Democratic party's dominant pro-labor progressive wing, which would likely complicate his administration's efforts to rejoin multinational treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

North Korea and arms control. While President Trump has held three face-to-face summits with Kim Jong-un in recent years, relations between Washington and Pyongyong are as tense as ever. Biden says he will rally allies — as well as China — to reengage the North in denuclearization talks. However, Kim has shown very little willingness to do so, and North Korea has in fact recently made progress in developing nuclear weapons that could strike US territory.

While at this stage, Biden has little leverage with the North, he can — and likely will — renew America's commitment to broader arms control by extending the New START treaty — a 2011 deal limiting long-range nuclear weapons between the Kremlin and the Obama administration that expires next February — without preconditions. (So far, the Trump administration has failed to reach an agreement with Moscow on terms for the extension.)

Bottom line: Leaders are always constrained by the actions of those who came before them. In this particularly tumultuous global moment, what Biden wants to do and what he actually can do will be divergent agendas.

Emily Ademola lives in an area of Nigeria that has been attacked by Boko Haram militants in the past. Looking for water was very risky, and without access to water, the community – especially children – were at risk of waterborne diseases. Eni, in partnership with FAO, built a water well in Emily's community in 2019.

Watch Emily's first-hand account about how access to water "close to our doorsteps" has improved the quality of life for her community and her family.

There's never a great time to impose higher taxes on funeral services — but doing it in the middle of a raging pandemic is an especially bad move. Yet that was one of a number of measures that the Colombian government proposed last week in a controversial new tax bill that has provoked the country's largest and most violent protests in decades.

In the days since, the finance minister has resigned, the tax reform has been pulled, and President Iván Duque has called for fresh dialogue with activists, union leaders, and opposition politicians.

But demonstrations, vandalism, and deadly clashes with police have only intensified. Two dozen people are dead, 40 are missing, and the UN has criticized Colombian police for their heavy-handed response.

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While residents of wealthy countries are getting ready for hot vaxxed summer — COVID is still ravaging many low- and middle-income countries. The horrifying scenes coming out of India in recent weeks have gripped the world, causing governments and civil society to quickly mobilize and pledge support.

But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is also being pummeled by the pandemic — and has been for a year now. Yet thus far, the outpouring of aid and (solidarity) hasn't been as large.

What explains the global alarm at India's situation, and seeming passivity towards Brazil's plight? What are the politics of compassion?

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Paris-London face-off at sea: France and the UK are at loggerheads in the high seas this week over post-Brexit fishing access in Jersey, an island off the English Channel. Furious at regulations that they say makes it harder to fish in these lucrative waters, dozens of French fishing boats amassed near the Channel Island, threatening to block access to the port. In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two naval vessels — a move critics say was an unnecessary escalation, and an attempt by the PM to flex his muscles and bolster the Tory vote ahead of Thursday's regional election. France, for its part, sent its own naval ship and threatened to cut off Jersey's electricity supply, 90 percent of which comes from French underwater cables. Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Though an UK-EU Brexit agreement was finally reached in December 2020, it's clear that there are still thorny issues that need to be resolved.

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10: Joshua Wong was sentenced along with other Hong Kong democracy activists to 10 months in prison for participating in a vigil last year marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Wong is currently behind bars for participating in separate pro-democracy protests, and will only start this new sentence after that term concludes in November.

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What's the biggest foreign policy misconception that Americans have about the US's role in the world? According to international relations expert Tom Nichols, too few Americans believe that the US, in fact, has a critical role in the world, and that the things Americans enjoy, from cheap goods to safe streets, are made possible because of American global leadership. "Americans have become so spoiled and inured to the idea that the world is a dangerous place that they don't understand that the seas are navigable because someone makes them that way. They don't understand that peace between the great powers is not simply like the weather, that just happens," Nichols tells Ian Bremmer. Their conversation is featured on an episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television – check local listings.

Watch the episode: Make politics "boring" again: Joe Biden's first 100 Days

The cover story of The Economist declares that Taiwan is "The most dangerous place on Earth," because China might finally be ready to plan an invasion of the island. But are the consequences of such a move worth the many risks to China and its President Xi Jinping? Ian Bremmer breaks out the Red Pen to to explain why a US-China war over Taiwan is unlikely.

We are taking our red pen to a recent article from The Economist. The Economist, you ask, how could I? I love The Economist, I know, I know. But you'd lose respect if I give this piece a pass. In fact, it was the magazine's cover story this week, so I had no choice. The image and headline say it all. Here it is, Taiwan is now "the most dangerous place on earth" as US/China relations continue to sour in the opening months of President Biden's administration.

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Delhi-based reporter Barkha Dutt's decades of journalism couldn't prepare her for the horrific experience of covering the death of one specific COVID-19 victim: her own father. In a conversation with Ian Bremmer, Dutt recounts her desperate struggle to find an ambulance to take her father through Delhi traffic to reach the hospital, only for him to die in the ICU. Their in-depth discussion looks at India's struggle with the world's worst COVID crisis in the upcoming episode of GZERO World begins airing on US public television Friday, May 7. Check local listings.

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Would China really invade Taiwan?

The Red Pen

India’s COVID crisis hits home

GZERO World Clips
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal