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What Does the World Expect of President-elect Joe Biden?

Wilson Center experts hosted a spirited conversation on the foreign policy expectations and challenges confronting the next President of the United States.

Date & Time

Nov. 17, 2020
2:30pm – 4:00pm ET




The next U.S. Administration faces a complicated, volatile world. Please join Wilson Center experts on Russia, China, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America as they interview colleagues and experts on the ground in their regions to discuss what a Biden Administration means in terms of our relationships around the globe.

Our experts hosted a spirited conversation on the foreign policy expectations and challenges confronting the next President of the United States.

Speaker Quotes

Cynthia J. Arson, Director, Latin American Program

"I think a lot of people in Latin America have looked in a certain sense with shock and horror at what's taken place in the United States over you know these last months. People talk about the Latin Americanization of U.S politics, you know the divisions, the casting of opponents as enemies, anyway—we can go into a big litany. But it will make it more difficult for the United States to do things that it traditionally has done, which is to try to build democracy, to advocate on behalf of human rights; and that voice is very important and will continue to be important, but it can't be in a sort of lecturing or hectoring way given all of the blemishes of our own process."

“Overall, I would say that the election of Joe Biden was welcomed. He is seen as someone who knows the region. It is a chance for U.S policy to go beyond a very narrow set of issues focused on stopping migration from Central America or achieving regime change in Venezuela or Cuba or Nicaragua, and take on a much broader scope of issues of interest to the region. Particularly, how to bolster the capacity to overcome the health challenges and the economic challenges that have been caused by the pandemic, to bring climate change issues to the fore given the number of countries in the region that are being so dramatically impacted by climate change [...] There is just an overall change in tone, in approach, in an emphasis on multilateralism, in diplomacy. So I think overall there is a welcoming of this change [...] a return to a sense of normalcy. And I think that's probably where leaders in the region are breathing the greatest sigh of relief, that they feel that they will be able to talk to people, that they're not going to be strong-armed or you know, have their back pushed against the wall to accept, you know, what it is the United States wants them to do—that there will be a much more collaborative process. And that's an important change.”

"The biggest opportunity is to show, including as a way of competing with China in the region, that the United States has something to offer.  This is a resource-scarce kind of environment, when foreign aid is not necessarily going to be that plentiful.  But there are other things the United States can do, through stimulating investment through the Development Finance Corporation, to providing technological cooperation, and also to looking again at these high standard free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Trump administration withdrew from on Day One." 

Robert Daly, Director, Kissinger Institute

"The greatest challenge is going to be balancing the domestic policy agenda under the Biden administration, which is what most Americans are concerned about, with a daunting foreign affairs agenda. The president has tried to bridge the two by saying we need a foreign policy that works for the American middle class. That seems like a good broad framework, but we don't yet know what it means. He has also said, and this is what concerns me, that he doesn't want to look at new free trade or economic agreements until he's increased the competitiveness of American workers and improved infrastructure. There isn't time for that. Those are the tasks of years, possibly decades. Meantime, China is on the move. We've heard tonight about their activity in Africa and Latin America and Europe. They just completed this Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which takes in a lot of America's allies, as well as the countries of Southeast Asia. We can't wait until we fully get our house in order and our legs under us to deal with China and compete with China. We have to move on both fronts simultaneously.”

Dan Hamilton, Director, Global Europe Program

“The Europeans are expecting a change of tone very much. The administration is going to provide that right away. In fact Joe Biden's already talked to most major European leaders and already set that tone. But embedded within a different tone are going to be higher expectations of Europe. A new administration is asking more of Europe, not less. Joe Biden's going to say, “we will join the Paris climate agreement accords day one,” but he has indicated interest in hosting an ambitious global climate summit within 100 days. The Paris climate process calls for a summit only next fall; Europe will  have to align expectations. He will say, “I'm ready to engage again on Iran,” but the Administration is likely to make the point that Iran’s challenge is not confined to its nuclear program, it's also about refusal to recognize the existence of Israel, it's about support for terrorism, it's about its activities undermining his neighbors in the region. He will want Europe to join on an expanded agenda of issues. On burden-sharing in NATO, he will say we have to revise the NATO strategic concept, the guiding document for the alliance, to point it towards the future, but that's going to require Europe to do more in terms of all of the security challenges that we face together. I'm not sure that Europe is ready for this positive yet assertive message that really requires Europe to step up.”

"The mistake many Europeans might make is to sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “we can go back to business as usual.” I think that's a mistake. I think a new administration will want to reinvent the transatlantic alliance, it won't want to go back to something that really is no longer really a sustainable basis for a partnership.”

We all have to think harder about deeper trends that are really shifting in this world—not just the territorial-geopolitical world we like to talk about, but trends having to do with innovation. Innovation in the digital world, we've seen innovation that is affecting our health and our health security, we've seen the whole nuclear world is entering a whole another phase where the old rules don't really apply anymore. So this confluence of the nuclear, the digital, and the biological is fundamental. It’s about how we're connected and the flows that connect us as societies. It's not about states and territories and not about more or less globalization. It's about our relations and connections are all being transformed. It will change who we think our partners are when we have to address those kinds of changes. We don't even have the vocabulary right now to even describe those deeper trends that are going to affect all of us.”

Merissa Khurma, Program Manager, Middle East Program

“At a minimum, the expectation is that the Biden Administration will at least set the tone and then focus on issues that are important to the citizenry that Rami Khouri has talked about who are frustrated, feel disenfranchised, and are taking to the streets to express their frustration and their anger. There is a sigh of relief that there will be (not necessarily) a very proactive democracy and human rights agenda, but that focus will return and will slowly restore basically faith in America.”

“We’ve already seen signs of, not jitters, but I think just steps taken by countries [...] after years of increased repression and limitations on freedoms. There is a recognition amongst those who have gotten away with a lot during the Trump years that they need to slowly recalibrate and refocus on human rights and democracy issues.”

“The challenges are numerous and Rami is correct in stating that the region has changed tremendously, there are very deep socioeconomic challenges, political disenfranchisement, layer and layers of complex issues, tectonic shifts in terms of the geostrategic situation in the region [...]. The challenge is how to actually prioritize. The opportunity I think is a serious recommitment to political engagement in the region in order to address the challenges ahead, but also perhaps to be a little bit more involved.”

Monde Muyangwa, Director, Africa Program

A Biden Administration will have to engage will a little bit more humility when it comes to issues of governance. Africans have seen over the last few months the challenges that have been exposed in terms of governance issues here in the United States. What they are hoping for is an Administration that acknowledges those governance challenges even as it reasserts its voice on issues of human rights, democracy, and justice. Without that humility it is not going to work because so much damage has been done based on the challenges that have been exposed here at home.

First, the Biden Administration should focus on repairing some of the damage that has been done and restoring that normalcy that many Africans are talking about. Second, I think a good thing is the bipartisanship that we have seen on Africa is going to continue through the Biden Administration. I am hoping that they can tap into that and build on some of the good programming that was established under previous Administrations including the Trump Administration we had programs such as Prosper Africa and the Build Act that helped to expand the framework for economic engagement. Third, I hope a Biden Administration is going to take the opportunity to revisit our longstanding framework on how we engage with Africa to expand it and amplify it based on partnership and opportunity. There is plenty of opportunity and I think for too long the United States foreign policy on Africa has been victim to low expectations of the continent. We need to revisit why those low expectations exist and really do an analysis of the opportunities that exist on the continent. I think a Biden Administration can do that.

The Biden Administration has a lot of work to do in terms of rebuilding trust and credibility. Just look at the example of multilateralism, I think a lot of Africans are hoping that a Biden Administration will take a lead in repairing the multilateralism that has been so damaged over the last few years on issues like COVID (which we are going through right now, that we are going to need some multilateral control approaches there to be able to address the pandemic), on issues of trade, on issues of climate change, all of which matter greatly to Africa and other countries but whose multilateral institutions have been undermined and diminished over the last few years, that they hope a Biden Administration will take another approach to that.

Matthew Rojansky, Director, Kennan Institute

“We’ve gone as far as we can, we have eroded the diplomatic relationships so far, we’ve eroded the trade and the people to people relations so far. There’s not a lot left. Now, that said, the Russian version of optimism might be that it could always get worse. What you hear from Russian observers is a form of confirmation bias. Those who from the outset were very hawkish about the United States [...], for them, Joe Biden is in the same mold as Hillary Clinton or John McCain—in other words, it doesn’t matter about the party, it only matters if this is the American establishment and there is going to be more of the same, more of the same conflict.”

“What has changed radically in the relationship between Moscow and Washington from let’s say 15 years ago, 20 years ago, when we on both sides routinely talked about partnership, talked about the possibility of Russia joining the Western family of nations be it NATO, be it the European Union, or something else [...]. What has changed is that there is not any stakeholdership anymore in stability between Russia and the United States. From the Russian perspective, if the Americans are coming apart at the seams, that is basically an unalloyed good. I think it's an unfortunate state of affairs, I don’t think it is well advised but I think there are a lot of Americans, including American politicians, who in their heart-of-hearts would love to see nothing more than the Russian regime spin into collapse. The reality is when you have the world’s two leading nuclear powers literally with fingers hovering over the button and the ability to destroy the world in under an hour, you have to have some kind of stakeholdership in one another’s stability. We couldn’t be farther from that today.”

“Here’s the challenge: take back control of US-Russia policy in the executive branch of government, in the State Department, the National Security Council, the Defense Department, etc., and get it out of the politics. The last four years, the Russia policy has been about limelight and politics and speeches and earning political currency. The problem that President Biden will have is that his own party, including some of his closest allies, have been very much involved in that.”

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