How would a Biden presidency affect Ireland – and the world?

Hopes of a return to international co-operation under Biden may be premature

Joe Biden as US vice-president in 2016 meeting then taoiseach Enda Kenny at the start of a visit to Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Joe Biden as US vice-president in 2016 meeting then taoiseach Enda Kenny at the start of a visit to Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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The world awaits the results of the US election in 10 days’ time, which will have repercussions around the globe. A changing of the guard in Washington would have profound implications for American foreign policy.

Over the past four years Donald Trump has attacked multilateral institutions such as Nato and the United Nations, turned away from the US’s traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere and pursued an “America First” strategy grounded in a transactional approach to diplomacy.   

Indeed it is in the field of foreign policy that Trump has arguably been most successful if measured by election campaign promises. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement as well as the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Though US troops remain in Afghanistan, their numbers have decreased, and Trump’s Middle East policy has delighted Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu. He moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as promised, while securing a thawing of relations between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – a development that even his critics have welcomed, despite its having left Palestinians increasingly isolated politically in the region.

These changes over the past four years have had a real-world impact in many parts of the globe and some more than others will be difficult to undo. Yes, Joe Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris climate accord if elected. But putting the Iran deal back together, even as EU signatories have desperately tried to keep the agreement on track, will be tricky.

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Biden has already said he will rejoin the deal if Iran returns to strict compliance, though he will not remove sanctions immediately. Similarly, it seems unlikely that a Biden administration will move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. In international relations, facts on the ground matter.

But it is not just a matter of realpolitik. Although Biden is in many ways running as a restoration candidate – he was, after all, vice-president for eight years – the world has changed since the Obama presidency. Biden is likely to build on some of the US policies put in place by Trump, such as a more aggressive stance towards China. Similarly, his comments on the campaign trail in Michigan and other midwestern states suggest he may be more protectionist than Obama.

Glory days

Hopes of a return to the glory days of international co-operation under a Biden presidency may be premature. Trump was hardly the first US president to complain about Europeans not paying their fair share to Nato. His difference from Obama was that he was more vocal about it.

The implications of a Biden presidency on foreign policy has particular relevance for Ireland. On January 1st, Ireland assumes a two-year seat on the UN Security Council. Much of the agenda and focus of the next two years will be shaped by what happens on November 3rd. A Trump victory would ensure more of the same – conflict between the US and China, US intransigence on Iran and a constant eating-away at the UN’s authority in relation to human rights, peacekeeping and the Middle East.

A Biden victory would mark the return of a supportive UN to the table. Speculation is already rife in Washington about who may be the next US ambassador to the UN, with former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg among those mentioned.

Tellingly, a memo issued last weekend on Biden’s position on Ireland specifically mentioned its role as a possible partner to the US at the Security Council. As the only non-permanent member on the body from the EU, Ireland can work as a conduit between Washington and Brussels on issues such as Iran and climate change.

But the special relationship between the Irish-American former vice-president and the Government in Dublin does not come without challenges. Ireland disagrees with the US on several key issues, not least the Middle East, where Ireland’s pro-Palestinian stance is often at odds with that of Washington – in Democrat as well as Republican administrations.

Similarly, aides to Biden such as foreign policy adviser Nicholas Burns have spoken about the need for Europe to take a more coherent position on China, while Ireland, like other US allies, has already felt the heat on Huawei and the provision of 5G.

A Biden presidency may mean that “America is back” in the former vice-president’s words. But managing the sometimes competing interests of Washington and Brussels will be a delicate balancing act as Ireland finds itself at the centre of global decision-making in the next two years.

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