Perry World House hosted a panel to explore the implications of a Biden presidency for American foreign policy and global stability.
The Nov. 10 event, part of The World Today series and titled "The Next Four Years: U.S. Foreign Policy," featured Trudy Rubin, PWH Visiting Fellow and foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Alexander Vershbow, Wolk Distinguished Visiting Fellow with PWH and former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Russia, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Moderated by Michael Horowitz, director of PWH and Richard Perry Professor, the panelists discussed the positive foreign reactions to Joe Biden winning the 2020 presidential election and how Biden's foreign policy, which will contrast with Trump-era policies, may influence the world order.
Vershbow noted that with the exception of Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders, most leaders were relieved and reassured by Biden’s victory because of his character and credentials as an internationalist. Before ascending to the presidency, Biden spent eight years as Vice President to President Barack Obama and served in the U.S. Senate from 1973 to 2009.
Vershbow added that Biden strongly supports international alliances, and many world leaders are pleased to hear his intentions to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, both of which President Donald Trump chose to leave.
Still, reactions to Biden’s victory are tempered by the continued popularity of "Trumpism," the idea that even without Trump as president, his ideas will live on in his supporters. Also challenging for Biden will be pressure from progressive Democrats to cut defense spending and persistent doubts about American reliability following the Trump administration's tendency to undermine international institutions.
Both Rubin and Vershbow agreed that Biden’s handling of COVID-19 will be indicative of both his capabilities and the United States’ interest in international cooperation under a Biden administration to global leaders.
Vershbow said he was concerned that Trump's Nov. 9 firing of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper via Twitter could seriously harm international security and impair the intelligence community because U.S. adversaries may take advantage of the situation to launch some kind of provocation. Rubin said Esper’s firing may also point to the future firing of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Gina Haspel and Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Christopher Wray.
Vershbow said Putin is likely not optimistic about a Biden administration, noting that the Democrats have become hardlined on Russia, and Biden will likely support sovereignty and human rights in Ukraine. He added that Trump weakened American and democratic values as well as NATO alliances, strengthening Russia's traditional agenda.
Rubin said this so-called "Great Power Competition" of tension with China and Russia will be unavoidable, but Biden’s position on managing this competition will depend on domestic achievement. She said the United States must increase investment in infrastructure, technology, innovation, and education. While Biden will likely continue the paradigm of Great Power Competition, he will probably approach allies like Korea or Japan rather than confronting China.
Both panelists said North Korea’s relationship with the United States is increasingly volatile and denuclearization is incredibly difficult, especially because Trump caused friction with the South Korean government. Vershbow said the South Korean government is optimistic about a Biden presidency and his policy in the region.
Both Rubin and Vershbow said Biden will likely reassess policy in the Middle East and raise questions about human rights. Specifically, Rubin said Biden will likely first approach Saudi Arabia to facilitate a negotiated solution and end the humanitarian disaster of the war in Yemen. She added that due to the rapid acceleration of settlement on the Palestinian West Bank, the United States will have to make a decision about settlement policy in regards to Israel, currently one of the United States' closest allies.
Vershbow said he doesn’t believe there will be any large breakthrough in this conflict, but that Biden could look to North Africa to support the healthier forces in the region and counter the encroachment by these outside powers.
At the end of the panel, Horowitz asked the panelists about credibility challenges Biden may face due to racial injustice at home when promoting human rights abroad. Rubin said the United States’ racial injustice questions American democracy as a model for the rest of the world, and the country's ability to actually produce valuable intervention in human rights abroad will be the larger metric foreign powers will use to evaluate the United States.
“I think that there will be charges of hypocrisy until we begin to get our own house in order," Vershbow said. "Ultimately, we have to demonstrate that capacity for correcting our mistakes that America has been known for over many centuries.”
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