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Biden faces key challenges in bringing US back to global stage

President-elect is hitting the ground running on reassuring world leaders that his incoming administration will reengage with the world in a reversal of ’s “America First” foreign policy.

Despite Trump’s refusal to concede the election, Biden has spoken by phone with and received congratulations from some of America’s closest allies over the past few days, including the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, the U.K. and Ireland.

“When I’m speaking to foreign leaders, I’m telling them: America is going to be back. We’re going to be back in the game,” Biden tweeted Tuesday night.  

Yet global allies also recognize that before Biden can return the U.S. to its previous position on the world stage, he must confront American domestic division, a surging COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s efforts to contest the election. 

While Biden has committed to reversing some of Trump’s most controversial foreign policy decisions — promising to return the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement; rejoin the World Health Organization and open a pathway to negotiations with Iran, to name a few — he is likely to face a divided Congress.

“This would have an impact on his freedom of manoeuvre, especially in foreign policy,” Josep Borell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, wrote in an essay, referring to Republicans in Congress.

But Borell expressed hope for the Biden administration. 

“The bottom line is this: I welcome that the U.S. will have a new leadership elected on a platform of change and a desire to work with democratic allies.”

Analysts say Biden’s history of bipartisanship in Congress, experience in foreign affairs as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and existing relationships with world leaders will allow him to have a significant impact on day one of the job. 

“His determination to empathize and seek out common ground, I think these are elements of practical diplomacy that will serve him very well,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Obama Administration, said during a recent panel discussion. 

“He’s got the background to hit the ground running but the challenge he faces coming in in January is how much the ground has shifted since he was in the vice presidency.”

Part of that ground shift has been Trump’s combative approach towards traditional allies, his embracing of authoritarian leaders and his focus on transactional foreign policy over the promotion of shared values and human rights. 

Policy discussions during the Trump years were often conducted through informal channels, either part of the president’s personal discussions or negotiations filtered through his son-in-law and senior adviser . 

“It’s going to leave a lot of uncertainty about what actually have been the conversations and the interactions between the White House and foreign partners,” Carrie Cordero, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said during a panel discussion. 

House Democrats are directing the White House and federal agencies, including the State Department, to comply with the Federal Records Act which calls for the preservation of all communication related to official business and records requested by Congress as part of their oversight duties.

Access to those records and conversations could prove important to an incoming Biden administration to understand where the U.S. stands with other nations at the conclusion of the Trump era. 

Trump is further hampering Biden’s access to a slew of resources meant to prepare him and his staff for entering the Oval Office. Trump’s refusal to accept the election results has delayed the General Services Administration (GSA) from releasing certain resources for presidential transitions. 

The GSA said in a statement it had not yet made an “ascertainment” that a clear winner was decided based on the process of the constitution. It has, however, so far provided pre-elect services to the Biden transition team, including office space, computers and background investigations for security clearances. 

At the same time, Secretary of State is reportedly withholding State Department resources that are typically used to help facilitate the president-elect’s calls with foreign leaders, including translation services, note taking, talking points and briefings on foreign policy. 

Pompeo has signaled he doesn’t believe the presidential race concluded, pushing back on a reporter’s question over whether the State Department is engaging with Biden’s transition team, saying “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” before qualifying his remarks that “we’re going to count every vote.” 

“The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today, and successful with the president who’s in office on January 20th, a minute after noon, will also be successful,” Pompeo added. 

Biden, speaking to reporters in Delaware, brushed off the secretary’s remarks and the president’s refusal to concede, saying his team was pushing on with the transition. 

“I am confident that the fact they are not willing to acknowledge we won, at this point, is not of much consequence in our planning and what we are able to do between now and January 20,” Biden said. 

Gary Schmitt, resident scholar in strategic studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute, downplayed the impact of a delay in the transition process but said it has the potential to handicap an incoming Biden administration if there’s a crisis.  

“Being the head of an administration is a 24/7 job – it’s never ‘out of session,’” he said. “President Trump’s decision to put a hold on the start of the transition process potentially means that, rather than being fully ready to go on Day 1, the incoming team could still be playing catch up. Probably not a problem but, if there’s a crisis, it could well be.”

Biden took the next step in his preparations for the presidency on Tuesday, releasing the members of Agency Review teams and which included the list of people overseeing a review of the State Department’s operations.

The list is largely made up of Obama administration veterans who served in senior positions in the State Department and White House, many who only left government in early 2017.

Of this group, who are all volunteers, 18 are women and 12 are men. Their broad range of expertise spans foreign policy issues from regional knowledge, experience in international humanitarian aid and development; defense; climate change; promoting diversity; global governance and the international economy.

The team is led by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served as the assistant secretary for the bureau of African affairs at the State Department during the Obama administration. In leaving government, she became senior vice president for the international strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm Albright Stonebridge Group, which is headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Biden also said that he will try to announce a few Cabinet positions before Thanksgiving.

While the president-elect didn’t say which cabinet positions he would announce, the top contenders for secretary of State are believed to include Antony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy advisor; Democratic Sens. (D-Md.) and (D-Conn.); and Susan Rice, who served as ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Adviser under the Obama administration. 

Biden has yet to lay out a comprehensive foreign policy agenda on some of the key issues he has raised in reengaging with the world, including beating COVID-19 and addressing the climate emergency. Domestically, he has put economic recovery and racial equity at the top of his transition priorities. 

In his press conference in Delaware on Tuesday, Biden said in his discussions with world leaders that they expressed hope that U.S. democratic institutions will “once again” be viewed as strong. 

“At the end of the day, it is all going to come to fruition on January 20,” he said.   



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