Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Biden speaks during an event at the Lancaster Recreation Center in Pennsylvania. File/Tribune News Service
Marc Champion, Nick Wadhams and Arne Delfs, Tribune News Service
At last year’s Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of military chiefs and political leaders, former US Vice President Joe Biden made a promise to America’s allies: “This too shall pass,” he assured them, “we will be back.”
There was little doubt as to what “this” referred to — Donald Trump’s America — or who would be coming back. Biden, now running for president and ahead in opinion polls for November’s vote, might just have the opportunity to make good his pledge.
Yet returning the US and its alliances to a time before Trump is probably unachievable, and only in part because he has changed the US since his January 2017 inauguration in ways that may be irreversible. Just as important, the rest of the world changed too.
More US allies have their own versions of Trump in office, from Poland to the Philippines, while others have absorbed at least elements of his nationalist agenda. Even close partners have learned to be wary of a less predictable US partner.
Above all, China has shed its former reticence to confront Washington — including through a recently reported deal to bankroll and arm Iran — creating a radically altered geopolitical landscape for any White House occupant.
“Even under Biden, as old-school Atlanticist as you can get, it will be a long road back for the United States, and some things have changed forever,” says Adam Thomson, a former U.K. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who now heads the European Leadership Network, a think tank that draws on former defence officials from across the continent.
“Europeans will never be quite so sure of the US security guarantee; Iranians and many others will never completely trust a US signature on a treaty; and everyone will want to be less dependent — if they can — on US trade and the US dollar,” Thomson says.
For sure, a Biden victory would be celebrated in many capitals, even if initially only because it would mean an end to dealing with the current administration. It’s an open secret in Berlin that Chancellor Angela Merkel has given up on trying to work with Trump. Plus, Biden has said he would seek to repair damage. His campaign pledges to recommit the US to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, from which Trump withdrew US support, and convene a global Summit of Democracies aimed at renewing a sense of common purpose.
In the Middle East, the former vice president says he would oppose the Israeli government’s drive to annex about 30% of the West Bank and “reverse Donald Trump’s undercutting of peace” there. He also says he’d take a more sceptical approach to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and recommit to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump left in 2018, so long as the Islamic Republic returns to compliance.
While such action would ease some significant areas of discord, it’s unlikely to be enough. The Democratic candidate recognises there would be a deep hole for him to dig out of, from economic recession deepened by mishandling of the pandemic to abandoned arms control treaties with Russia, weakened alliances and lost time on climate change, according to campaign adviser Jeff Prescott.
Merkel, for one, is well aware that relations with the US can’t go back to the old normal, according to a high-ranking German official who asked not to be named discussing bilateral relations. Too many things have happened and the world has moved on, the official said.
Take the tussle over Nord Stream 2, a 1,200 kilometer (745 mile) marine pipeline that would allow Russia to send more natural gas direct to Germany, robbing Ukraine and other eastern European countries of transit fees and undermining the ability of US liquid natural gas to compete. Opposition to the project in Washington goes well beyond Trump. A group of Democratic and Republican Senators proposed in June to expand sanctions aimed at preventing the pipeline’s completion. Germany considered asking the European Union to retaliate, should that become US law.
Nord Stream 2 is just one of several areas that have caused Europeans to wonder how much of the changing U.S. treatment of allies in recent years was just about Trump and how much is permanent, according to Jonathan Hackenbroich of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It’s a completely new thing that the US would go as far as sanctioning German officials because of ultimately economic transactions,” said Hackenbroich, who heads the ECFR’s Task Force for Protecting Europe from Economic Coercion.
The result is a long-term push to reduce the dollar dependency that makes even close allies vulnerable to economic pressure from the US Treasury. The European Commission has begun to design dollar avoidance vehicles with the aim of curbing the power of the greenback.
The most important change since Biden left office lies in China. President Xi Jinping has been tightening control at home and asserting power abroad in ways that would make the more cooperative, Obama-era US-China relationship difficult to reproduce.
“When it comes to trade, either we’re going to write the rules of the road for the world or China is,” Biden wrote last year, attacking Trump for his decision to pull out of the budding Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal for Pacific Rim nations aimed at balancing Beijing’s economic influence.
Current and former officials in Beijing say the Communist Party leadership would prefer to see Trump win in November, fearing that Biden would be better able to unify Eastern allies to resist China’s influence. And according to Biden’s campaign team, they’re right.
“He’s been very clear we have to rally our allies to take on China’s behaviour,” said Prescott, Biden’s adviser. “We can’t insult our friends to do that.”
Core US allies aren’t quite what they were, either. French President Emmanuel Macron last year called the US-dominated NATO alliance “brain dead” and echoed Trump in casting doubt on the collective security guarantee at its heart. Macron’s been pushing for EU member states to integrate their defence and foreign policy resources so they’re less reliant on US security guarantees.
The UK, caught between the economic dislocation threatened by Brexit and a coronavirus-induced recession, is likely to lack the means to continue as America’s go-to military partner for far flung operations.
Joe Biden has named his onetime rival Kamala Harris as his running mate, the campaign revealed on Tuesday, elevating California’s junior senator as the first woman of colour to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket.
One presidential candidate is jetting across the country, hitting as many swing and in-play states as possible in this pandemic-shortened campaign season. The other is staying close to his home, which doubles as a sort of campaign headquarters.
Since Representative Justin Amash announced he was forming an exploratory committee to pursue the Libertarian nomination for president, there has been plenty of chatter about such a move harming Joe Biden’s chances of defeating President Trump in November. If Amash indeed gets on the ballot in a handful of swing states, he very well could siphon off some voters who otherwise would have opted for Biden. But what’s more certain at this point is that Amash’s decision hurts the former vice president in a different way.
Biden opened the event saying that as long as Donald Trump is president, the security and future of the United States is at risk. With fewer than 100 days before Nevada Democratic party caucuses, Biden is among the front-runners in crowded field of Democratic candidates for president.
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