President-elect Joe Biden transition
President-elect Joe Biden waves to supporters as he leaves the Queen theatre after receiving a briefing from the transition COVID-19 advisory board on November 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Image Credit: AFP

I got to know Joe Biden when I was a combatant commander, first at the US. Southern Command and then most deeply in my four years at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Once, at a dinner hosted by America’s Nato ambassador in Brussels, I watched the then-vice president meet with ambassadors and foreign ministers from the 27 other nations then in the alliance.

Biden walked around the large table and was able to comment in depth on any number of the countries, from huge Germany to tiny Iceland, with a short vignette about a visit to this or that city, or a telling anecdote concerning a head of state, or a comment on current policy. This was not the result of memorised crib sheets from his staff: Biden did it off the top of his head, and it was a natural and unforced demonstration of his long term of service not just domestically, but also in the larger world.

While the 2020 election campaign understandably focused on domestic issues, Biden is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and reinforcing America’s geopolitical primacy will be high on his agenda.

Return of veterans

He will bring a deeply experienced team of foreign and security policy advisers with him into government, many veterans. Having worked alongside nearly all of them, I would say this might be the deepest initial bench any president has brought to the White House in the post-Vietnam era. Among them: Nicholas Burns, William Burns and Tony Blinken held top jobs at the State Department; Avril Haines and Michael Morell similarly helped guide the CIA; Michele Flournoy, Lisa Monaco and Jeh Johnson filled senior roles involving defence and homeland security; Susan Rice was ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser.

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Whether all of these serious players will take on official roles remains to be seen. And a real strength of a Biden foreign policy team would likely be stability. Donald Trump has had four national security advisers in as many years. Look for members of a Biden team to have long terms.

As we begin to contemplate the Joe Biden approach to the world, it is worth examining the similarities and differences with the outgoing Trump administration. It may come as a surprise, but many aspects of foreign and security policy will likely continue on their current trajectory, albeit with different style and grace notes.

Tough on China

Biden has signalled that he intends to take a relatively tough stance on China, for example. This will include continuing to address the pre-Covid basket of challenges the US has with Beijing: claims of territoriality in the South China Sea; trade and tariff imbalances; intellectual property theft; and shadowy conflicts in cybersecurity.

There will also be continuing pressure on various terrorist groups, including Al Qaida, the so-called Daesh, and Al Shabaab in East Africa. Likewise with economic and diplomatic pressure on the Maduro regime in Venezuela. And the general idea of bringing home troops from “the forever wars” is likely, albeit at a more measured pace based on conditions on the ground.

But the differences are going to be far more pronounced than the similarities. At the top of the list will be an immediate (and sensible) return to the Paris Climate Accords, moving the US back into a leadership role in international environmental efforts. This is a potential zone of cooperation with China that I suspect will be explored seriously.

This more collegial global effort in climate will lay alongside a generally higher appreciation for cooperation with other international organisations: the World Health Organisation and other United Nations entities; regional groups such as the Organization of American States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and Nato.

Similarly, this team will be more inclined to invest in treaties as tools to help shape the world in ways that help US objectives. At the top of the list will be a new strategic arms limitation agreement with Russia, to replace the expiring New START pact, and perhaps over time with China. Russia has signalled a willingness to hammer out an accord.

Nuclear forces treaty

A Biden administration will also consider revisiting the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was abandoned by the Trump administration and the open skies agreement for nuclear weapons verification. All of this will signal a return to classic diplomacy.

I am being asked often about the defence budget under President Biden. Despite some calls from the left wing of the Democratic Party to slash defence deeply, I suspect the dollar amount will stay flat or drop by a percentage or two.

There will, however, be a realignment within that budget to emphasise 21st-century tools of warfare: cybersecurity; unmanned vehicles (not just aerial drones, but also satellites, unmanned submarines and surface ships); Special Forces; hypersonic weapons; and artificial intelligence. This will come at the expense, probably, of troop levels and some number of very expensive large platforms (aircraft carriers and Army brigade combat teams). Modernisation of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, begun under Obama, may be put on hold.

In terms of individual nations, the degree of similarity and difference between Trump and Biden will vary. Two leaders who enjoyed privileged access and a warm relationship with Trump — Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia — are unlikely to find that same degree of friendliness.

With China, look for the development of a stand-alone China Strategy, which will probably have carrots and sticks in the mix.

Construct a coalition

Traditional allies, both in the Pacific and Europe, will have willing partners in the Pentagon and State Department. Saudi Arabia will find a pragmatic ally looking to construct a coalition to put pressure on Iran.

Many Israelis will be sorry to see Trump go but will quickly accommodate themselves to Biden. He has a long and strong personal relationship there. The Biden team will support strengthened ties between Israel and the Arab states in the face of Iranian challenges.

In Africa and Latin America, there will be sincere respect and an effort to construct win-win solutions to our differences.

Allies and friends will be wary after four years of divisiveness and the policy of America First — which at times trended toward America Alone, as the administration withdrew from agreements, pulled back troops, and walked away from traditional methods of doing business. A Biden administration won’t make all of them happy on all issues. But nearly every one of them will welcome a change.

James Stavridis is a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of Nato, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University