US President-elect Joe Biden made a "return to normalcy" one of his election campaign's leitmotifs. After four years of President Donald Trump's bald-faced lies, juvenile bullying, gratuitous cruelty, and perilous volatility, it was certainly an appealing promise. But, as Biden himself has admitted, the world is not what it was in January 2017, when Barack Obama's administration – in which Biden served as vice president – left office. So, to what exactly is he planning to return?
To be sure, Biden can certainly restore a sense of decorum and decency to the US presidency. But on concrete policy issues – especially foreign-policy issues – the status quo ante will be far more difficult, if not impossible, to revive.
Biden has pledged to recommit to some of the Obama-era international agreements that Trump abandoned, beginning with the Paris climate agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran nuclear deal). Moreover, he intends to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, rejoin the World Health Organization, and re-engage with Cuba. He may also join the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the mega-regional trade deal which Obama negotiated and Trump rejected.
Recommitting to the Paris agreement should be the simplest of these actions. It never acquired treaty status, largely because Obama knew the Republican-controlled Senate would never approve it. That is why Trump was able to withdraw from it without a congressional vote; he simply had to abide by the one-year waiting period stipulated in the text. Likewise, Biden could rejoin without congressional approval, after only a 30-day waiting period.
The rest of these efforts, however, will be fraught with difficulties. The JCPOA is a case in point. Though it, too, was not ratified by the Senate, unilaterally lifting economic sanctions on Iran (mainly on oil sales) would create a furor among congressional Republicans, whom Biden needs to fulfill other promises. Israel, too, would be incensed. The move may even raise a few eyebrows in Europe.
Critics argue that the JCPOA imposes insufficient limits on Iran's nuclear-enrichment capabilities, and leaves out critical issues – namely, Iran's ballistic missiles and, more important, its support for the region's anti-Israeli, anti-American forces (like Hezbollah) or regimes (such as in Syria). Without some changes, the agreement will most likely remain moribund.
Any effort to reinstate Obama's normalization policy with Cuba will face similar challenges. This approach implies a fully staffed US embassy in Havana, no travel or remittance restrictions, and the revival of cruise-ship visits and airline connections to the island. It would also entail as much investment and trade as possible under the US embargo that has been in place since 1961 (which will not be lifted by the Biden administration).
Biden would presumably not ask Cuba for anything in return. After all, Obama reached a deal with the Castro regime in 2015 only because he included no concrete conditions relating to human rights, democracy, economic reform, or significant Cuban cooperation in Latin America.
But, as the last five years have shown, Cuba will not address these issues on its own. In a recent interview, former US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on Biden's behalf, confessed that Cuba's progress on human rights and economic reform since 2015 has been "disappointing." In fact, human-rights conditions have deteriorated and the number of political detainees has increased. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, where Cuba wields enormous influence, has worsened considerably, with no solution in sight.
Against this background, attempting to normalize relations with Cuba would be politically risky. In the election, Biden performed significantly worse among Cuban-Americans in Miami, which accounts for more than 10% of Florida's voting population, than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Moreover, Biden may need the support of Florida Republicans, such as Senator Marco Rubio, to fulfill his promise of creating a path to citizenship for 11-12 million undocumented immigrants.
Moreover, though Biden has made no promises regarding Venezuela, he will have to make several crucial decisions on this front almost immediately after his inauguration. Will he maintain economic sanctions against the country and its state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.? Will he recognize Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who swore himself in as interim president in 2019, as the country's legitimate head of state? Will he disregard the results of the farcical National Assembly elections that were held on December 6?
In other words, will Biden broadly uphold Trump's Venezuela policy (excluding the hare-brained coup schemes concocted by American and local cowboys)? Or will he seek another way to address the country's severe humanitarian crisis? Returning to Obama's policy of "benign neglect" – a reasonable position at the time – would be problematic today.
Finally, there is the question of Asia-Pacific trade. Biden has not pledged to join the TPP's successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), created after Trump's withdrawal by the 11 countries that negotiated the original agreement with Obama. Nor has he announced plans to renegotiate it.
Biden has, however, said that he thought the TPP was not a bad deal for the US, though he may ask for further labor and environmental provisions. If he wants to revive Obama's "pivot to Asia," and work with allies to contain China in the region, joining the CPTPP would be a good start. But this must be approached less like a return to the past than a step into the future.
Herein lies the fundamental challenge for Biden: how to revive useful multilateral agreements or foreign policies, while recognizing the myriad ways the world – and America's reputation – has changed in the last four years. There can be no "returning" to the past, but only adaptation of US objectives and strategies to current conditions. The sooner Biden's foreign-policy team recognizes this, the better.
Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.