“It would mean a return to decency, the abandonment of ideology for rationality. I would think it would be greeted by a collective sigh of relief,” an international public servant tells me. It is a feeling widely held in Geneva, albeit not openly shared on the record. Expressed off the record by a number of International Geneva insiders, the first hope is that Donald Trump's propensity to act via unpredictable decisions will be replaced by a coherent policy.
Clearly, with Joe Biden’s current commanding lead in the polls—between 8 and 9 points nationally with the general electorate and 2-to-1 within the Electoral College—the question of the potential impact on International Geneva of a Biden victory on November 3 is receiving lots of attention here. Washington’s formal confirmation on July 6 of the US withdrawal from the WHO is a stark reminder of what is at stake. Should you be able to overcome its tediousness, former fired National Security Adviser John Bolton’s tell-all book offers ample evidence of how the American demolition of the multilateral system and its institutions will continue unabated should Donald Trump be reelected.
If such further disengagement were to occur, International Geneva’s legitimacy would arguably be seriously diminished. Yet, it is also premature to assume that a Joe Biden victory is now a given: the American political landscape is in a state of extreme fluidity and polarization, and the electoral process has been upended by the Covid-19 crisis. A vaccine, an uptick in the unemployment numbers, a surge in voting by the Republican electorate unmatched at the polls by the opposition… any of these possibilities make things unpredictable until the very last moment.
Expectations are tangible, yet caution prevails within the greater Geneva diplomatic community. “We don’t comment on coming elections and answer hypothetical questions,” says a senior Western diplomat. “Hard questions,” says another, pointing out that “in any event, Europe has to learn how to rely more on itself, for a certain indifference and disinterest with the Old World predates Donald Trump. It has been a long-lasting trend in American foreign policy.”
If one consensus appears, it is around the idea that before dealing with specific issues, climate change should be a priority for a Biden administration. “We need to act now, the risks of not doing it now might become irreversible,” stresses one senior diplomat with multilateral experience in New York and Geneva. Joe Biden has already committed to rejoining the COP 21 Paris agreement. On matters of more specific interest to International Geneva, he has reiterated that his administration would immediately rejoin the WHO—a commitment likely to extend to the Human Rights Council and UNESCO. All indications are that, should Joe Biden win, he would bring some of his formal Democratic rivals into his administration. During the debates that preceded his designation as his party’s nominee, all of them restated their willingness to embrace multilateralism. These commitments are not going to be abandoned; they were made as the party was deeply divided over its future direction and before the coronavirus crisis and the civil protests.
Already then, Biden insisted that his first priority was to “repair and reinvigorate our democracy, even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world,” a position he elaborated on in a Foreign Affairs essay written in March of this year, called “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing US Foreign Policy after Trump.” His second priority? Craft a foreign policy for the middle class: “My administration will equip Americans to succeed in the global economy (…) to win the competition for the future against China or anyone else.” A clear counterargument against Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, this position is not without creating some challenges.
Faced with the need to devote all his attention to “nation building” at home, Biden stated foreign policy objectives might be lost to the benefit of his domestic political agenda. Observed from International Geneva, one of the most interesting questions will be what a Biden administration’s policy towards the WTO might be.
“There will be no trade agreements signed in my administration without environmentalists and labor at the table. And there will be no trade agreement until we invest more in American workers."
The future of the US-China relationship is at stake and, on the domestic side, Biden’s ability to reunite the party by including its “left”-wing’s demands. This is where Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders repeatedly clashed during the primaries and where major disagreements remain, notwithstanding the fragile coalition born out of their common desire first to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump.
One of their last debates on this subject yielded this exchange, starting with Biden:
“There will be no trade agreements signed in my administration without environmentalists and labor at the table. And there will be no trade agreement until we invest more in American workers. (…) I don’t know that there’s any trade agreement that Senator Sanders would ever think made any sense, but the problem is that 95 percent of the customers are out there. So we better figure out how we begin to write the rules of the road, not China. We’ve got to bring the other 25 percent of our allies along with us to set the rules of the road so China cannot continue to abuse their power by stealing our intellectual property and doing all the other things, using their corporate state system to our significant disadvantage.”
To which Sanders replied: “Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement here, in case you haven’t noticed. And that is NAFTA, PNTR with China, other trade agreements were written for one reason alone. And that is to increase the profits of large multinational corporations. And the end result of those two, just PNTR with China, and NAFTA cost us some 4 million jobs, as part of the race to the bottom.” During Biden’s tenure as vice president under Barack Obama, the US won most of its cases before the WTO, including against China. But the pressure on Biden from within the party and his electorate to maintain a hard line will not disappear with the election. While bringing labor to the trade table might open new opportunities for the ILO, it remains to be seen if a Biden administration might also prefer to tackle trade disputes bilaterally rather than through the rule-based mechanism the U.S helped create.
Globally and for International Geneva, even if Joe Biden should win on November 3, a return to the status quo ante seems unlikely.