On November 5, 2020, the United States officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The same day, Joe Biden, whom media outlets would two days later declare the winner of the presidential election, vowed that, on his first day in office on January 20 next year, he would take steps to recommit the US to the accord. During the campaign, the president-elect called global warming an “existential threat to humanity”, proposing a US$2-trillion package to stimulate the creation of green jobs and other measures to reduce US greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
“Welcome back America”, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris tweeted in reaction to Biden’s pledge, noting that with the world marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the pact, the Democratic Party ticket’s victory “symbolizes our need to act together more than ever in view of the climate emergency”. Other world leaders hailed the reversal from the science-denying policies of President Donald Trump. “With President Biden in the White House, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in comments to the media.
When he returns to the White House, where he served as Barack Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017, Biden also promised to retract Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump announced the withdrawal in late May, when he accused the WHO of being in the thrall of China, which he blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic and for failing to alert the world in good time about the spreading coronavirus. Weeks later, the US notified the UN of its withdrawal, with effect on July 6, 2021.
By announcing these immediate post-inauguration moves, Biden signaled that, with Trump out of office, the US will once again be rationally engaged in multilateral organizations that it has derided and even undermined for the past four years. His vow to cancel the WHO withdrawal notice demonstrated how at the very top of Biden’s to-do list is to get control of the pandemic, which by most credible accounts the Trump administration failed to do.
Recommitting to the WHO would underscore the need for global cooperation in the battle against Covid-19, which has so far been weak. The pandemic has made even more acrimonious the already bitter relationship between the US and China, engaged as they are in a tariff war. With the coming rollout of vaccines, the world will need a more coordinated and fair approach. For now, vaccine nationalism (powerful wealthy countries spending to secure doses for their populations) and vaccine diplomacy (the less powerful scrambling for promises of allocations from the major players including China, the US, Russia and Europe) reign.
In previewing his first-day moves, Biden highlighted other priorities for his administration besides the pandemic. There is a need to shore up longstanding alliances after Trump’s erratic and cavalier approach to relationships with even the closest friends of the US such as Canada, the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Biden will aim to regain lost ground in the fight against climate change, an issue on which in the past the US and China found a great deal of common ground – enough to catalyze the conclusion of the Paris Agreement.
Asia-Pacific countries in particular will welcome the return of the US to sober multilateralism and to taking greater care in the treatment of allies and partners. Trump’s unpredictability and mercurial style have prompted worries in the region and around the world. While some countries have supported Washington’s tougher stance towards China, more widespread have been concerns about having to choose between the two major forces in the region – the US, the guarantor of security, and a re-emerging China that has become more aggressive and vocal in asserting its power and influence, particularly in its territorial disputes with neighbors including Japan, Southeast Asian claimants to the disputed areas in the South China Sea, and India. Countries want to have autonomy to make decisions according to their own interests. If European allies join the US in countering China, this may have serious implications for Asian nations, particularly ASEAN member states.
The Trump administration’s transactional approach to diplomacy had allies and friends in Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere wondering whether they could count on the US for strategic support as they had done in the past. President Trump’s getting-to-know-you summitry with North Korean Kim Jong-un, with whom he “fell in love”, rattled the region, especially after each photo-op meeting between the two leaders yielded little if any results in terms of progress with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
An indication of the level of concern among Asian partners was the little-noticed passing by the US Congress of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which laid out strategies for promoting American security and economic interests and values in the Indo-Pacific region. Sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (who failed in his bid for re-election this year) and signed into law by Trump on the last day of 2018, ARIA authorized the appropriation of a mere US$1.5 billion each fiscal year from 2019 to 2023 to achieve a handful of boilerplate American goals including to “advance US foreign policy interests” and “strengthen partner nations’ democratic systems”. The true purpose of ARIA was captured in the title its authors in Congress chose – it was an anodyne articulation of Washington’s traditional approach to the Asia-Pacific meant to reassure allies and partners that they should not worry about getting undiplomatically thrown under the bus as Trump pursued his disruptive transactional strategies.