What a President Biden would mean for India and world

4 weeks ago 5

It appears increasingly likely that Joe Biden will be America's next president. So, what might a President Biden mean for the world?

If Joe Biden takes over the White House next January, it will have been a long time since America inaugurated a president so well versed in foreign policy. Perhaps not since George H.W. Bush - who served as vice president to Ronald Reagan, as a senior diplomat, and as CIA director - will a president have taken office with as much prior experience in foreign policy as Biden. In addition to serving as Barack Obama's vice president, Biden has long held leadership positions on foreign policy committees in the Senate.

But this doesn't mean a foreign-policy-savvy President Biden would make foreign policy an immediate priority.

Indeed, his first order of business would be getting US domestic affairs back in order-and specifically getting the coronavirus pandemic under control, and jumpstarting the economy. His initial goals would also include trying to unite a country more divided than it's been in decades, perhaps since the Vietnam War era. One of Biden's favourite lines on the campaign trail was that he doesn't see blue states or red states, he sees only the United States.

Bridging America's deep, toxic divides is a valiant goal, but one that will require ample time and policy space.

When Biden does get around to foreign policy, expect three major thrusts.

First, look for a major diplomatic offensive. He would seek to repair relations with key partners that suffered in the Trump era - and especially treaty allies in East Asia and NATO partners in Europe. He would also aim to build new coalitions of like-minded states eager to help counter US adversaries like China and Russia. The overarching objectives would be winning back traditional friends, generating more diplomatic leverage to push back against foes, and regaining credibility and trust on the world stage.

Second, he would try to reassert the US leadership that lapsed during the previous administration. Efforts would be made to reenter global institutions and frameworks from which Trump withdrew. These include the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, and the Iran nuclear deal. He would want to reposition America as a country leading the global charge in confronting the world's most pressing challenges. These would include the pandemic response in the immediate term, but also issues like arms control and climate change.

Third, a President Biden administration would aim to strengthen democracy and human rights - including in the United States - in an era when democracy, in his words, is "under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s."

He has spoken of his desire to convene a global summit on democracy, and to promote a global agenda focused on fighting authoritarianism and advancing human rights. Biden wants to ensure that different facets of the world order - from governance and the global financial system to advanced technologies - are leveraged for democratic, not despotic, purposes.

Biden's foreign policy goals appear motivated to bring back the status quo ante - in effect, to recalibrate America's foreign policy so that it reflects what it was pre-Trump. But this isn't to say there wouldn't be any policy continuity from Trump to Biden.

As I've written elsewhere, Biden's approach to South Asia - pursuing a strong partnership with India, a workable but cautious relationship with Pakistan, and a military withdrawal from Afghanistan - is similar to Trump's.

Additionally, Biden's broader Asia policy likely wouldn't veer too much from Trump's Indo-Pacific policy, which emphasizes the deployment of more resources to the region to counter China's increasing clout - and which is similar to the Asia pivot and rebalance policies of the Obama administration. Indeed, while Biden has indicated his desire to seek cooperation with China where it makes sense - particularly in areas such as climate change and public health - he's not about to go soft on Beijing. Increasingly aggressive Chinese policies and actions in the South China Sea, along the India-China border, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan all threaten key US partners, and by extension US interests. Biden wouldn't take that lightly.

Trade is an area where there may be more daylight between Trump and Biden than one might think. While Biden has criticized Trump's trade wars, and he supports free trade, he would also be cautious in pursuing new trade deals - though for reasons different from Trump. Biden has insisted that he "will not negotiate new deals" unless there are clear assurances that labor and environmental concerns are addressed.

While many global actors would welcome a Biden foreign policy, viewing it as a return to a more traditional role for US global leadership, it would rankle others. The notion of America barging back to the top of the international relations hierarchy would trigger accusations in some quarters of arrogance and entitlement - and especially for an American nation that has recently experienced, simultaneously, its worst economic, health, political, social, and diplomatic crises in years. Additionally, a foreign policy built around democracy promotion and the pursuit of human rights is bound to produce friction in a world rife with proud nationalistic governments allergic to outside criticism about their internal affairs.

What does a Biden foreign policy mean for India?

In general, the outlook is positive. New Delhi would benefit from its American partner being more present and engaged on the world stage. Global coalition-building efforts by Biden would also serve India well, given that many of the goals that these groups would aim to pursue - counterterrorism, connectivity, counterbalancing China-would align with India's own foreign policy objectives.

Biden's hopes of easing tensions with Iran, and the likelihood that he would take a more hands-off role in the Middle East than Trump, would also prove beneficial for an Indian government that values its commercial relations with Tehran and other Mideast actors-and that has little to gain from American actions that risk exacerbating longstanding volatilities in the region.

To be sure, a Biden foreign policy could arouse some concern in India. Biden's inclination to pursue even modest levels of cooperation with China could cause uneasiness in New Delhi at a moment when the India-China relationship is tenser than it's been in decades. Then again, New Delhi may gain from a somewhat less toxic US-China relationship, as this may give Beijing less incentive to provoke India-a country that Beijing knows full well is deepening its security relationship with Washington.

Also, Biden's global push for more democracy and human rights means that he may call out India for its policies in Kashmir and beyond-a position that would not go down well in New Delhi, even if, as is likely, such criticism is relatively restrained. Furthermore, a Biden administration would take a harder line on Russia than did the Trump White House-a potentially problematic position for an Indian government that continues to value its relationship with Moscow.

Still, despite these potential bumps, a Biden administration-impelled by shared interests in fighting terrorism and countering China-would certainly build on the momentum in U.S.-India relations from recent years. And, more broadly, Biden's foreign policy would bring more predictability and stability to America's foreign relations-a welcome relief for a world order that has been relentlessly tumultuous for the last few years.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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