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Biden's Foreign Policy is Becoming Clearer, So Is the Second Cold War

Biden's Foreign Policy is Becoming Clearer, So Is the Second Cold War
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

Redefined regional priorities, renewed multilateralism, updated partnerships, a summit with Beijing… Biden’s "foreign policy for the middle class", until now mostly just a slogan, is becoming more straightforward. As with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, considered one of the most ambitious bills in US modern history, in recent weeks the Biden administration has made serious headway on several foreign policy fronts. However, as is the case domestically, the administration is struggling to capitalize on its successes due to its waning popularity. After a first analysis of Biden’s domestic policy, this article examines his international agenda.

Foreign policy for the middle class: a transatlantic implementation

Biden’s "foreign policy for the middle class" has seen its first successes this fall. This term, coined by the Biden team in response to Donald Trump's 2016 victory, initially seemed like a mere campaign slogan, yet it could be finding its place in a renewed transatlantic partnership. The series of European summits that took place in October thus allowed for a practical implementation of this foreign policy designed to "deliver results for citizens" - the international version of the Democratic slogan "Build Back Better." 

The series of European summits that took place in October thus allowed for a practical implementation of this foreign policy designed to "deliver results for citizens".

The minimum tax rate for global corporations was ratified at the G20, a win for the Biden team, even if the commitment has yet to be implemented. Agreed upon by 140 countries representing more than 90% of the world's GDP, this measure is a significant step, and a sign that the diplomatic efforts of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are bearing fruit. This agreement also clearly shows Biden is using foreign policy to shape domestic policy, since he has not been able to push this aspect of his agenda through Congress due to unanimous opposition from Republicans and a few Democrats.

The EU-US deal on steel and aluminium is another interesting development. On October 30, 2021, the United States and the European Union ended a dispute inherited from the Trump-era, removing tariffs on imports of EU steel and aluminum that were imposed by the former president’s administration in 2018. The issue was still poisoning the transatlantic relationship (after the truce in the Airbus-Boeing case last June). The trade agreement addresses both Chinese overproduction and carbon intensity in the steel and aluminum sector. Such climate and social dimensions in trade rules are viewed as a form of enhanced partnership against Beijing. But does this agreement really signal a new tool in the global quest for sustainability and the transition to climate neutrality? At the very least, it does offer interesting possibilities, including the two possible expansion avenues already under consideration: turning towards comparable economies, in the form of a "climate club", and developing regulatory amendments to promote the ecological transition of developing economies.

This second aspect, helping least developed countries transition to renewables, is also highlighted among the many agreements signed at COP26, following the G20. The transatlantic initiative to help the South African energy sector speed up its exit from coal is another success, and a further step in the transatlantic agenda related to China's New Silk Road. Similarly to the US-EU Global Methane Pledge, this type of partnership points to the dynamism of renewed pragmatic multilateralism, tailored to our era where climate and strategic competition are clear priorities.

A China-US truce?

The joint declaration by Washington and Beijing on the implementation of the Paris Agreement was another surprise that came out of COP26. While not a "success" in any way, it still speaks to a joint desire to reduce tensions and re-establish communication - through a top-down impulse coming from both nations’ leaders. In October 2021, a historic sale of American gas to China eased trade hostility, as did two long meetings. This led to a virtual summit on November 15, 2021, between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, during which each side restated its red lines and attempted to stabilize the relationship. Such a result could have only come out of a discussion between these two heads of state. 

The next day, in a briefing at the Brookings Institution, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan explained in a readout that the main goal was to avoid misjudgments which could lead to open confrontation, but also to clarify areas of coordination between the 21st century’s main superpowers. Within a framework of open economic competition, the "old friends"- Xi Jinping’s chosen words of greeting to Joe Biden - talked about the energy crisis, the pandemic and the US-China Phase One trade agreement signed under Trump’s administration. There were also talks regarding Iran, North Korea and Taiwan, and reiteration of red lines on both sides. The current energy crisis was a big part of the discussion. 

Or the official start of the new Cold War?

This exchange, followed by rumors of an American boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics the next day, can also be interpreted as an official starting point of a "Second Cold War", defined as a state of permanent global competition between two superpowers vying for power and influence, each attempting to contain the other globally. A "Second Cold War" would not be identical to the first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Above all, this summit was an attempt from both leaders, each with strong domestic constraints, to reduce the dangerous pressure facing the bilateral relationship - arguably the century's most important one. The only tangible outcome of the summit appears to be the launch of arms control talks with China - another Cold War reminiscence. But nuances around the "China consensus" still abound in Washington, where the foreign policy debate has not been this open in decades (another Trump legacy).

The only tangible outcome of the summit appears to be the launch of arms control talks with China - another Cold War reminiscence.

This highly fluid moment in modern American politics, from political realignment to partisan radicalization, is shaking foreign policy opinion, on issues ranging from free trade to the defense of democracy and the importance of values. China is beginning to stand out on several issues, as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' 2021 survey illustrates. For instance, a majority of Americans say they support free trade with foreign countries, but less so with China. The Chicago Council survey also shows a slight majority of Americans saying the US should defend Taiwan if the island were attacked by Beijing, a first.

These nuances underscore the Biden administration's narrative problem on China. Several priorities and interests collide, and the White House has prioritized the "foreign policy for the middle class" over "the new Cold War" on most issues. On the other side of the political aisle, Republicans apply the Clash of Civilizations rhetoric to a rising number of issues, both externally (against China) and internally (against the Democrats' "Marxism"). In fact, they are also divided, notably on Taiwan. These complexities reflect both increasing political fragmentation rather than consensus, and a growing link between domestic and foreign issues - political attitudes perfectly encapsulated by the Pew Research Center’s recent study.


Copyright: MANDEL NGAN / AFP

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