Will US allies help Biden’s reelection?

By Lee Jong-eun

Lee Jong-eun

The United States will hold a presidential election in November, . likely to be a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. As such, there are already multiple predictions on how U.S. foreign policy could change after the election. Some U.S. allies, in particular, are apprehensive that a Trump return to the presidency will lead to similar diplomatic challenges they faced during his first term — a more unilateralist and unpredictable U.S. foreign policy.

However, the more immediate challenge facing U.S. allies is how the presidential campaign will impact the Biden administration’s foreign policy this year. Facing what is expected to be a close election, how will Biden reorient his foreign policy to increase his chances of reelection? And how should U.S. allies respond to such changes?

Following the Republicans taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2022 congressional elections, Biden’s foreign policy agenda has largely been stalled. The congressional Republicans have criticized his administration for excessive involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war at the expense of insufficient attention to U.S.-Mexico border migration. They have also criticized Biden for excessive commitment to international institutions at the expense of U.S. businesses and workers, and for supporting global climate change initiatives rather than prioritizing U.S. energy independence. Trump’s presidential campaign will amplify these criticisms, portraying the incumbent president as inattentive on issues that are important to American voters.

The Biden campaign can respond to Trump’s challenge in one of two ways. First, Biden could steadfastly defend his foreign policy agenda and seek clear policy contrasts with Trump. Attacking his foreign policy as detrimental to the U.S. national interest, Biden could rally voters who oppose Trump’s return to the presidency. Second, Biden could shift his foreign policies to reassure voters who might be leaning toward supporting Trump because of dissatisfaction with these.

It is likely that Biden will attempt a dual strategy of defense and accommodation during his reelection campaign after observing the political strategies of many European governments that have faced election challenges from an ideologically hardline opposition. Biden will differentiate himself from Trump as a defender of U.S. global leadership and the rules-based liberal international order. Biden will continue defending U.S. security partnerships with NATO and other U.S. allies and supporting global climate change initiatives. At least rhetorically, the Biden campaign will likely affirm support for the defense of democracies and human rights internationally. Even if U.S. domestic politics limit Biden’s accomplishments on these issues during an election year, the Biden campaign could seek advantages in portraying Trump and the Republican Party as near-sighted and unilateralist in defending America’s interests abroad.

The Biden campaign, however, faces pressure to reassure voters who may not favor “America Alone” isolationism but support “America First” in prioritizing U.S. foreign policy interests. Such domestic pressures might motivate the Biden administration to take a harder bargaining stance with other countries, including allies, and urge the latter to support U.S. policy objectives.

In Europe, the Biden administration will continue to support Ukraine but could pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to either achieve a significant military victory or start armistice negotiations with Russia before the election. During the Vietnam War, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration lobbied South Vietnam’s government to help Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey win the 1968 presidential election by supporting Johnson’s proposal for peace talks with North Vietnam. However, South Vietnam did not support the proposal, favoring Nixon’s election instead. The NATO allies might receive requests to provide more aid to Ukraine to offset the reduction of U.S. aid, and support Biden’s success in achieving more equitable defense burden sharing.

In Asia, Japan and South Korea could receive requests to be more supportive of the U.S. strategic competition with China and help the Biden campaign repudiate Trump’s criticisms that he is ineffective in confronting Beijing. U.S. allies might also receive requests to understand that the Biden campaign will include protectionist rhetoric such as “Buy American, Hire American” to placate certain U.S. economic sectors and might even impose trade protection measures.

In the Middle East, Biden’s campaign will weigh whether it is politically more favorable to support Israel’s war against Hamas or to prevent the escalation of the regional conflict. Depending on the calculation, either Israel or other U.S. allies — who support a truce — could be under pressure to accommodate Biden’s domestic political considerations.

U.S. allies will face challenges in responding to the Biden administration’s foreign policy requests. They might perceive some requests as costly for their own domestic politics. The Biden administration, however, might find U.S. allies’ anxiety toward the prospects of Trump’s presidency as negotiation leverage. Wouldn’t accommodating Biden’s requests be ultimately less costly than facing future demands from the Trump presidency? NATO states have already expressed concerns with Trump’s recent comments that he will not protect members who do not increase their defense contributions. To support Biden’s chance of reelection, some U.S. allies might tactically “cut slack” for Biden to achieve several foreign policy “wins.”

Paradoxically, the greater the U.S. allies’ fear of a future Trump presidency, Biden might have more cooperative allies until the November election. Even if foreign policy accomplishments have limited impacts on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, multiple U.S. allies could become cautious in hurting Biden’s campaign, especially in a close vote. Again, the desire to prevent Trump’s election might incentivize U.S. allies this year to be more accommodating of an “America First” foreign policy, so as long as it is Biden’s, not Trump’s America.

 

Lee Jong-eun is an assistant professor of political science at North Greenville University.

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