Back to the future
Joe Biden sets out to restore American leadership with an old team in a new world
Not since George H. W. Bush in 1989 has America inaugurated a president so well-known in world affairs as Joe Biden. A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then vice-president for eight years, he has had a role in, or a say on, most foreign policy since the cold war. His chosen foreign-policy team, dominated by other veterans of Barack Obama’s administration such as John Kerry and Tony Blinken—a former secretary of state and a prospective one who has briefed Mr Biden for decades—is almost as well-known. Yet for all these familiar elements Mr Biden’s foreign policy is cloaked in uncertainty.
This reflects the altered circumstances in which he has returned to the White House. Having launched his campaign as a continuity candidate, drawn from retirement to defend Mr Obama’s legacy, he faces huge problems that will make his administration very different from the “third Obama term” he initially seemed to promise. One is the bungled covid-19 epidemic, which has produced misery at home and more proof of America’s abandonment of global leadership. In the depth of the Iraq war many Europeans thought better of the superpower than they do now. The crisis will also hamper Mr Biden’s ability to repair the damage, by ensuring he is largely consumed by fighting fires at home.
The second problem, what to do about China, is more daunting. The president and his team all subscribe to the new consensus view that it is a formidable, long-term competitor. Contrary to Republican fears, there is no prospect of them reverting to the Obama administration’s relatively benign vision of coexistence with China. Even those who are in retrospect least critical of that approach, such as Mr Blinken, a suave and understated diplomat, now sound hawkish by 2016 standards. And Mr Biden has appointed his most China-sceptical advisers to the top Asia jobs at the National Security Council and Pentagon. Foremost among this second group—categorised as “the 2021 Democrats” in an astute analysis of Mr Biden’s team by Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution—is Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser. Yet quite how these Democratic hawks will push back at China, how far Mr Biden will back them, and to what effect, remain to be seen.