Butterfly Effect: Biden's Trump Card - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Trump's foreign policy approach — and his refusal to leave quietly — could serve as surprising arrows in President-elect Joe Biden's diplomatic quiver.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

President Donald Trump has made it clear he’s not conceding the election anytime soon, and his daily tweets challenging the legitimacy of the vote are only energizing his 73 million supporters into frenzied questioning of the American democratic process. That’s complicating President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to power domestically.

But look beyond America’s borders, and Trump’s bombast — and the clear support he still enjoys from his base — could ironically serve as valuable arrows in Biden’s foreign policy quiver once he takes office on Jan. 20.

From allies like Europe, Japan and South Korea to adversaries such as China, Iran and Venezuela, Biden will confront a range of nations mostly desperate to return to traditional diplomacy with the U.S. after four years of chaotic and unpredictable behavior from the White House. Those with whom Trump was uncharacteristically chummy with, like the leaders of Russia and North Korea, will be watching anxiously to see how Biden treats them.

It’s tempting for Biden and his team to try and systematically undo Trump’s policies and approaches with these nations. That is what Trump did when he came to power in 2016, pulling America out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate change agreement, and reversing the thaw with Cuba as he tried to unravel his predecessor Barack Obama’s global legacy. Indeed, Biden has already pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement and try and renegotiate the Iran deal. Asked last year to outline his first foreign policy steps if he won, Biden said he would call a meeting with NATO leaders and “make clear that we’re back.”

But by simply reversing Trump’s foreign policy decisions to try and restore equations that existed in 2016, Biden and his team would be missing opportunities Trump has — unintentionally — gifted them. When George W. Bush came to power in 2001, he had a foreign policy that experts described as ABC — “anything but Clinton.” The Bush campaign argued that America should reduce its overseas footprint. Yet after 9/11, Bush and his team were plotting the war on terror that has since mired America in faraway wars for two decades.

Instead of repeating that mistake, what if Biden and his team were to communicate a more nuanced message to allies and rivals alike? That while they can expect a more traditional approach to diplomacy from the president-elect, they shouldn’t presume that he can or will automatically undo all of Trump’s policies. That while Biden will review Trump’s controversial and confrontational moves, the soon-to-be incumbent of the White House will need to see other nations make simultaneous concessions.

Normally, other nations would treat such signaling as mere posturing. But they’re seeing unprecedented scenes of Trump supporters taking to the streets demanding that their leader be declared the winner of the election. For the vast majority of nations — friends and enemies — it makes more sense to strike compromises with a Biden administration than to allow current tensions with America to ossify. After all, this could be a narrow window of opportunity for them too. What if Trump — or another leader with similar politics — returns in 2024?

For instance, in exchange for lowering some of the tariffs and trade barriers imposed by Trump on China, Biden could demand a shift from Beijing’s currency manipulation practices. Trump’s sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, but Biden could promise to lift them in return for a renegotiated deal that strengthens protections against a military nuclear program without insulting Tehran or trampling on Iranian sovereignty.

What about friends? Team Biden could reassure NATO of America’s commitment to the alliance but make clear in private that Washington will need other members of the group to step up their funding significantly to ward off criticism in the U.S. That argument from Washington to NATO members isn’t new, but before Trump, it was a hypothetical threat: The alliance has now seen how bad things can actually get.

In other words, simply by not being Trump, Biden can secure better deals for America while also restoring old partnerships critical for U.S. interests.

Surely this couldn’t possibly work with countries like Russia and North Korea that would have preferred a Trump win, right? Wrong. America retains the world’s most powerful military and economy. No one wants to pick a fight with Washington. Without a sympathetic ear in the White House, Moscow and Pyongyang know the onus is on them to show Biden that they’re willing to work with him to, at the very least, avoid their relationships with the U.S. sliding further.

To be sure, other nations like China and Iran or groups like the European Union will also try to play hardball. And Trump’s retreat from Obama’s commitments hurt America’s credibility globally, so nations will think longer and harder than they would have previously before striking deals with a Biden administration .

Still, that legacy of tumult bequeathed to Biden by Trump might end up helping America’s 46th president, with nations anxious to return to U.S. relations with some sense of normalcy. The man Biden described as a “clown” in their first presidential debate in September might just prove his foreign policy an ace of spades.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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