Joe Biden has a motto for describing how the United States will see its place on the world stage under his presidency. In a victory speech in Delaware on Saturday, he declared: "We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."
True, the new American leader does not have the copyright on that pithy catchphrase: it was also used by one Bill Clinton in support of Barack Obama's campaign in 2008. That, though, perhaps underlines how Biden plans to return the world to "normal" after the Trump years, re-establishing US international leadership – and hoping that others still show faith in it.
Still, in terms of approach, the new President-elect could not be more different from his predecessor. While Trump struggled to master any foreign policy brief that could not fit on a side of A4, and relied for much of his world view on Fox News, Biden is an experienced foreign policy hand.
Not only is he a former chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he served as Obama's global fixer during his two terms as vice president, tasked with the knottier, more thankless portfolios such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine after Russia's 2014 invasion.
Anyone unnerved by the chaos of the Trump years, when foreign policy often seemed to be conducted on a whim via Twitter, will be relieved to see Biden doing exactly the opposite. His team of informal foreign policy and national security advisers is to number nearly 2,000 people and 20 different working groups.
Yet while a Biden "doctrine" will see America reaffirm its commitment to the global order – he has already said, for example, that he will rejoin the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement and the World Health Organisation, both of which the US exited under Trump – many areas will see mostly changes of tone rather than substance, or little change at all.
On China, Biden will end the confrontational rhetoric of the Trump years, during which the President not only launched a trade war but accused Beijing of spreading a "plague" with coronavirus. But relations will still remain cool. Biden believes that the US "does need to get tough with China", and has accused Beijing of stealing US firms' intellectual property and giving unfair subsidies to state-owned exporters. He will also take a firmer line on Chinese human rights violations, be it in Hong Kong or over the mass detentions of Uighur Muslims.
In piling pressure on China, however, he will try to get other Western democracies onside too, abandoning Trump's unilateral approach. A diplomatic bloc that includes Europe, he points out, is twice as economically powerful as America alone, and far harder for Beijing to ignore.
On Iran, Biden will seek to re-enter Obama's landmark nuclear control deal, which Trump withdrew from in 2018. Biden has said Trump's "maximum pressure" policy has backfired dangerously, giving Tehran an excuse to resume its suspected atomic weapons programme while European powers wait for the US to rejoin the deal.
Whether Tehran will now fully comply with the terms of any resumed deal is unclear. Even if it does, Biden will still face the problem of Iranian military involvement in the wider Middle East, where Trump's tough-guy approach arguably did occasionally yield results. For example, the US assassination in January of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani – deplored by Biden at the time – is now credited by some with undermining the power of Iran's proxies in Iraq and Syria.
Biden will face a similar dilemma in Yemen, where he has said he will end US support for the Saudi-led war against the Iranian-backed Houthis. In 2019, Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end US military support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Biden will have to confront Yemen's five-year-long civil war, as well as Tehran's growing influence in the foothold at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
The 'Forever Wars'
On the question of US military interventions, Biden, who backed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accepts America's role as a world policeman. The Trump years, he believes, prove that if Washington doesn't do the job, then hostile strongmen like Vladimir Putin fill the void. He plans, therefore, to maintain a strong military, despite his wish to end what he describes as "forever wars" in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
He will, he says, bring the "vast majority" of such troops home, leaving small units of special forces to help local armies fight al-Qaeda and Islamic State. "Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically, and they advance the national interest," he argues.