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Joe Biden to take on Vladimir Putin and reverse Donald Trump's foreign policies on Iran and North Korea

Whether it was dealing with Iran, Russia, North Korea or China, Trump upended the norms of diplomacy and caused heartburn not just in opposing camps but within the US national security establishment as well
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Soon after being announced president-elect, Joe Biden announced his plan to reverse two of the Donald Trump administration's decisions that were emblematic of "America First" policy of the last four years - withdrawals from the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization. The US under Trump claimed to be operating under the policy whether dealing with multi-national organizations or individual nation-states. Trump's "transactional view of the world" saw him dealing with world leaders in an unpredictable fashion, which many tried to define with various degrees of success under a single ideological framework called the 'Trump Doctrine'. An opinion piece in the Guardian titled 'Donald Trump's doctrine of unpredictability has the world on edge' came up with an observation on Trump’s foreign policy and it used one word to describe it: “unpredictable”. Whether it was dealing with Iran, Russia, North Korea or China, Trump upended the norms of diplomacy and caused heartburn not just in the opposing camps but within the US national security establishment as well. With Biden all set to replace Trump at the White House, a marked departure from Trumpian foreign policy will be a hallmark of the incoming administration. Here are the changes we could expect to see in the US' handling of foreign policy with regards to these major foreign players in a post-Trump world.

Iran: U-turn to Obama era

One of the major foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration was unilaterally quashing the nuclear accord between Iran and world powers in 2015, thwarting years of efforts by the Obama regime to mend relations with the theocratic regime. Equations were further strained with the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani this year. Though Biden has promised to “change course”, the path forward is strewn with distrust and acrimony on both side, more so from Tehran. For starters, president-elect Biden, who was the VP when Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was struck, has said the US will rejoin the accord “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” However, he has postulated that Iran return to compliance with the accord after it deviated following Trump's withdrawal. Iran, on the other hand, has said the US must first “return to law and international commitments” before any further steps can be taken and that it would return to full compliance with the deal after the US does the same. With Biden likely to return to a pre-Trump, less confrontational foreign policy, chances are there will be an incremental walk back to things as they were before Trump stamped the world with his brand of disruptive global foreign policy.

North Korea: No more 'love letters'

Kim Jong-un is unlikely to write "love letters" to President Biden, whom the official Korean Central News Agency has called a "rabid dog" that must be "beaten to death". Biden, in turn, considers the North Korean leader a "thug", whom he likened to Adolf Hitler in the final presidential debate last month while rebuking Trump for befriending Kim. "He's talked about his good buddy, who's a thug," Biden said of Kim. "That's like saying we had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe."

While the jury on Trump's two summits with Kim is still out, analysts considered Trump's unconventional approach as North Korea's best bet to secure a deal while retaining some of its nuclear weapons and ICBMs, which are banned under UNSC resolutions. Former CIA analyst Soo Kim said Pyongyang will be "slightly peeved by the change in leadership", The Independent reported. "The regime is aware the prospects of a top-level meeting with a US leader are going to be slim now," she added. "We're expecting a more principled, systematic approach to Pyongyang. This likely means less ad hoc interactions and some method to dealing with Kim."

Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University, believes that Biden's victory has "greatly complicated Pyongyang's calculations." Chances are Biden will return to a policy of "strategic patience" under Obama, who refused to engage with Pyongyang unless it offered concessions first or until the regime collapsed from within. The Korean regime has a habit of indulging in saber-rattling with any new US administration -- it carried out a nuclear test four months into Obama's first term -- but analysts say Kim is likely to assess the Biden administration before launching major provocations in a bid to seize the "upper hand", said former CIA analyst Kim. "Kim Jong Un may understand that a poorly timed launch may elicit an adverse reaction from the US and its partners," she said. Park suggested that Kim may resort to lower-level actions to try to grab the new US president's attention. "There is a large possibility that Pyongyang will target South Korea," he said. "It could judge that it is safer to create tension on the Korean peninsula."

Russia: 'Neither Biden nor Putin like each other'

A Biden presidency will no doubt be a headache for Vladimir Putin, who welcomed Trump's America First policy that let Russia get away with moves that other US administrations would have pushed back against. “For Moscow, the chief benefits of the Trump presidency were that it amplified America’s internal divisions, estranged Washington from its traditional allies, and was inconsistent in its articulation and execution of policy goals,” Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC.

Biden is likely to adopt a more assertive stance on outstanding issues including a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, and Nord Stream 2, the massive gas pipeline project from Russia to Germany - both of which are opposed by the US. With Putin yet to send congratulations to Biden following his projected presidential win, experts pointed out one major factor that will play a big part in US-Russia relationship - a distinct lack of chemistry between Putin and the incoming US president in marked contrast to the affable equation between the Russian strongman and Trump. “Something we should keep in mind is that neither Biden nor Putin like each other,” Anton Barbashin, a political analyst and editorial director of Russian affairs journal Riddle, told CNBC. “There could be no chemistry between them, thus US-Russia relations are bound to become even more confrontational.”

China: 'Breathing room' but no cessation of confrontation

While Biden replacing Trump will give some "breathing room" in the tense China-US relations, the overall direction of Washington's containment China policy is unlikely to change, said observers, who added that a return to the Obama-era approach is unlikely given the significant changes in China-US relations and the global landscape in the last four years. "We should not put too much expectation on Biden," Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times. "Because to contain and confront China is a strategic consensus between the two parties of the US."

Jin believes Biden will usher in a "buffer period" for China-US relations, which may worsen but not as quickly as they did under Trump - who waged a trade war with the Communist regime and blamed it for the Covid-19 pandemic. "Biden will be more moderate and mature in handling foreign affairs," Jin said, adding the incoming US president is expected to appoint more professional officials to his diplomatic team, which may be more cooperative and not as belligerent as that under Trump.

Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for US Studies at Fudan University, said the last four years under Trump have damaged strategic mutual trust, suspension of high-level communication and little concrete cooperation. It might now be expected that the two powers will resume pragmatic cooperation on vaccines, the anti-epidemic fight and climate change, Xin noted. Some liaison mechanisms and stalled dialogues can be expected to resume, "but it will take time to rebuild mutual strategic trust," Xin said.