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Biden faces hurdles in bid to mend ties with US allies

U.S. allies shaken after years of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE denigrating them and pulling out of international accords will be closely watching the Democratic convention for signals on Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE’s plans to restore relationships.

Biden, his campaign advisers and the 2020 draft Democratic platform have pledged to rebuild relationships and reverse or review Trump moves such as withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany and leaving the Iran nuclear deal that U.S. allies continue to support.

Unlike Trump four years ago, Biden is a known quantity to U.S. allies, having served as vice president and, before that, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, itself a reassuring fact for those countries.

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But experts caution that after four years of Trump, Biden will not simply be able to revert to the pre-2016 status quo.

“Campaigns are always watched very closely by U.S. allies, partners and adversaries for any hints in how an administration will potentially broach a certain issue set,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former Pentagon official during the Obama administration who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“There's not going to be a light switch turned where Biden is going to be able to come in and fundamentally improve ties overnight,” he added. “There's been incredible damage done to transatlantic ties.”

The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Biden and campaign advisers have previously talked about restoring relationships with the U.S.’s traditional allies.

“One of the, to me at least, most profound tragedies of the last few years has been the dissing of our allies and closest partners and the embrace of autocrats around the world,” Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser for Biden’s campaign and former State Department official, said this month in a virtual appearance at the Aspen Security Forum.

Blinken said Biden would work with allies to “strengthen and lengthen” the Iran nuclear deal, arguing the Trump administration could have accomplished its goal of extending a conventional weapons ban on Iran by staying in the deal and presenting a “unified front with our allies.”

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Blinken also called Trump's move to pull thousands of U.S. troops from Germany “part of a long continuum of actions that have undermined” the NATO alliance, which he said Trump “tends to treat ... as a protection racket.”

Dealing with China “from a position of strength” also requires “reinvesting in our own alliances,” he added.

In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs at the beginning of the year, Biden himself wrote he would “take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances” if elected.

“As president, I will do more than just restore our historic partnerships; I will lead the effort to reimagine them for the world we face today,” Biden wrote. “Working cooperatively with other nations that share our values and goals does not make the United States a chump. It makes us more secure and more successful.”

The draft Democratic platform also calls for “reinventing alliances,” saying that the party “will not only repair our alliances, but reinvent them to advance mutual priorities and deal with new challenges.”

Presidential conventions and races typically hinge on domestic issues, not foreign policy, and this year is poised to be the same.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said that while “many allies will listen” to the convention, it would behoove Biden not to focus too much on foreign audiences as he tries to win Americans’ votes.

Still, O’Hanlon said, there are areas where Biden can and should differentiate himself from Trump.

Biden “needs to speak about alliances only to the extent that invoking and strengthening them can help Americans,” O’Hanlon said in an email. “Two concrete examples of where allied cooperation/coordination can help, and where Trump is failing, concern stemming Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.”

Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was opposed by the U.S.’s European allies, which have rebuffed the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. Most recently, allies have snubbed the Trump administration’s efforts to renew an arms embargo on Iran because of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

In North Korea, Trump’s efforts to secure a denuclearization deal have floundered. O’Hanlon said the only chance of securing an agreement with Pyongyang is if “Seoul and Washington are unified in a common vision.”

But much like with NATO, Trump has been antagonizing South Korea with demands for major increases in how much Seoul pays for U.S. troops based there.

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Simakovsky, at the Atlantic Council, said he would expect Biden to continue pressing allies to increase the share they pay for defense.

The difference, Simakovsky added, would be Biden’s approach, which he said would involve “subtle diplomacy” and “much more consistency and coherence.”

“I just don't think that Vice President Biden is going to be looking to punch the Europeans in the face to achieve it, while at the same time trying to get their cooperation on China,” Simakovsky said. “You're just not going to achieve both aims in a way that protects U.S. interests.”

U.S. allies’ experiences with the Trump administration, though, have ingrained a distrust of the U.S. that will be difficult to repair, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Our allies now are preparing themselves for another U.S. administration that will undo everything the Biden administration does,” she said.

To hedge against that distrust, she said, Biden will need to build durable policies by leading a broad conversation among Congress and the American people on what the U.S. role in the world should be.

“If the vice president wins election, they're not going back to the way things were in 2016,” Conley said. “The pottery has been broken, and there's not enough super glue to put it back together the way it was. It truly needs to be rebuilt and modernized for the 21st century.”