Updated: A quick look at what foreign policy changes a Biden presidency might bring

At the time of writing this blog, on Friday, 6 November, the winner of the American presidential election had still not been determined, although Vice President Joe Biden had taken a narrow lead in Pennsylvania and other key states, providing two potential paths to 270 electoral votes and therefore victory.

UPDATE: At 11:25 am on Saturday 7 November NBC called the election for Joe Biden. As of 10:00 am on Monday 9 November, Biden had received 75,588,439 votes to Trump’s 71,205, 293 votes or 50.6 % of the popular vote to Trump’s 47.6 %. Both candidates exceeded all previous popular vote totals. Finally, the Senate is likely to remain firmly in Republican hands (two January run-offs notwithstanding), although a narrow Biden lead in Georgia might improve Democratic prospects.

Commentators have been quick to point out that, far from being decisively rejected:

Trumpism is here to stay.

Against this dismal backdrop, and bearing in mind our collective condition of exhaustion, anxiety and general inability to concentrate on anything but online charts with agonizingly slow vote count updates, we have decided on a more simplified approach to today’s blog.

Rather than our usual cogent, in-depth analysis, we will briefly highlight the potential impact of a Biden presidency (and a Republican-controlled Senate) on some key foreign policy issues.

More constructive relations with China

On relations with China, Canada will have more room to maneuver as Biden, the pragmatist, will want to offset a continued “tough” approach with constructive engagement on areas of mutual interest, including health and climate change. But what this means for the American-instigated extradition proceedings in Canada against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou is still anybody’s guess.

Breathing new life into the Iran nuclear deal

Joe Biden has committed to rejoining the nuclear deal as soon as Iran resumes “strict compliance” with its terms. He has also pledged an easing of unilateral sanctions, especially with respect to pandemic-related needs, in favour of a more “targeted” approach. Both sets of actions provide greater space for Canada to begin cautious steps towards a full resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran.

Ending American arms exports to Saudi Arabia

One of the few areas of bipartisan congressional support over the last few years has been in relation to the suspension of American arms exports to Saudi Arabia to avoid American complicity in charges of war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Three times the House and Senate have voted to this effect only to be vetoed by President Trump. Such legislation would carry under a Biden presidency, leaving Canada even more exposed if it perversely persists in its military exports to Saudi Arabia.

Reining in nuclear weapons

We highlighted in a recent blog the significant changes in American nuclear posture that Joe Biden has pledged to implement, including most importantly a reduced role for nuclear weapons in American defence strategy and the adoption of a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy. Biden also pledged to spend “far less” on nuclear weapons modernization, but it is Congress that must pass the budget and Republican control of the Senate will make this a difficult promise to keep.

In light of these potentially far-reaching changes to American nuclear policy, Canada needs to significantly up its game. A good start would be to act on the unanimous parliamentary committee call to work with NATO to reduce, and ultimately end, its reliance on nuclear weapons.

Restoring American moral leadership

The United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example.

In a speech in New York City in 2019, Biden pledged to restore American moral leadership through a range of actions, including reaffirming the ban on torture, greater transparency in military operations, and ending refugee and migrant practices that contravene international obligations. He has also pledged to “end forever wars” and to elevate diplomacy “as the premier tool” of American “global engagement”.

These pledges starkly contrast with the unrelenting Trumpian attacks on the global system over the past four years. Much of this agenda does not require legislative action, and it is an approach that dovetails closely with Canada’s full-throated support for the UN, multilateralism and strengthening of a rules-based international order.

Rallying the world to address the existential climate crisis

The single biggest area of potential impact of a Biden presidency comes from his climate action plan, including immediately rejoining the Paris Agreement, organizing a “major diplomatic push” to meet climate targets, charting a course toward net-zero emissions by 2050, and committing $2 trillion over four years to this end. But it is here that the continued Republican control of the Senate weights heaviest, with the likelihood of legislation to carry out these plans receiving the necessary bipartisan support being minimal. Nonetheless, the pressure on Canada to step up its efforts and Biden’s pledge to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline permit will provide much-needed momentum in a currently lacklustre government record on the environment, in the time of COVID.

Building a new relationship with the International Criminal Court

The Trump administration is pursuing a strident and vindictive sanctions campaign against personnel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and even those who “support” its work, in retaliation for the Court’s ongoing investigation into alleged war crimes by Americans in Afghanistan. To date, Vice President Biden has not articulated his stance toward the ICC, in respect of which the USA, one of the few non-parties, has had a complicated but sometimes positive relationship before the advent of President Trump.

We call on the Government of Canada to engage in urgent dialogue with the incoming Biden administration to ensure that, at a minimum, the USA will cease its persecution of the Court and its employees and supporters, many of whom are Canadian.

Photo credit: Wikimedia (Pennsylvania seal)

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