As president-elect, Biden makes diplomacy dull again

Published November 15, 2020
In this file photo taken on November 10, United States President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware. — AFP
In this file photo taken on November 10, United States President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware. — AFP

After Donald Trump in his first week as president spoke to Australia's prime minister, leaks of the call left many dumbfounded, with the new United States leader haranguing and hanging up on the close ally.

When Joe Biden spoke by phone on Thursday with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the president-elect's office said Biden hoped to work with him on “many common challenges” and the Australian leader said he would forward a study on how his country fought Covid-19 through contact tracing.

Following four years of presidential pique and chronic chaos in dealing with foreign leaders, Biden has already signaled a reversal — he is making US diplomacy predictable, even dull, again.

His transition office — which is not receiving customary assistance from the State Department as Trump refuses to concede the election — is putting out the sort of soporific readouts that until the 2016 election were the primary means of US presidential communication.

With Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom Trump derided over Twitter following a summit as “very dishonest & weak,” a Biden statement after a congratulatory phone call said the pair “reaffirmed the close bonds between the United States and Canada” and pledged cooperation against Covid-19 and future biological threats.

After his conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Trump had openly criticised for her welcome to migrants, Biden “noted his interest in working closely” to address the pandemic, climate change and other issues and “praised her leadership.”

The lack of drama in Biden's approach is, well, no surprise.

Biden, with nearly 50 years of experience in Washington, ran on promises to return to normalcy, bringing back the time-honored decision-making process involving expert consultations rather than impulsive tweets.

In a campaign speech on foreign policy, Biden pointed to the sharp decline in global respect of the United States under Trump and promised to turn the page on “the chest-thumping, the self-inflicted setbacks and the manufactured crises of this administration”.

Sign of priorities

Biden's return to a more traditional diplomacy is about more than a less brash personal style.

He is also signaling that he places a greater value on working with the world, said Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

“Trump likes to do things bilaterally and unilaterally. The big difference is that Biden respects and understands that you need to work multilaterally sometimes,” she said.

“I think it's going to be less personalistic, less chaotic and much more by protocol, and obviously not by tweet.” She expected Biden to revive the role of the State Department — derided by the ever-suspicious Trump as the “Deep State Department” — and move away from personal and family connections.

Autocratic leaders have assiduously sought unfiltered channels to Trump, who dispensed with the usual note-takers when meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and who was said to take telephone calls placed directly by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan without any preparation by aides.

Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was put in charge of the Middle East and would chat over WhatsApp with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who can expect significantly more pressure from Biden over human rights.

“If you were one of those strongmen countries, it was easier. They knew that they could somehow get Trump's ear and get what they wanted,” Duffy Toft said.

“It might be good for that world leader, but it's very unsettling to other world leaders.”

Biden is not always the polar opposite of Trump. Like the tycoon, Biden is fond of speaking of how he has cultivated relations with foreign leaders and speaks more the language of pragmatism than grand geopolitical strategy.

But it is hard to imagine allies limiting access to conversations with Biden out of concern for embarrassing leaks, as Germany reportedly did with calls from Trump.

As former president Barack Obama said on the campaign trail of a Biden administration, “It just won't be so exhausting.”

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