President Joe Biden took office with an ambitious U.S. foreign policy agenda summed up by his favorite campaign tagline: “America is back.” Above all, that meant repairing the damage done to America’s global standing by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. During his four years in office, Trump strained ties with America’s allies in Europe and Asia, raised tensions with adversaries like Iran and Venezuela, and engaged in a trade war with China that left bilateral relations in their worst state in decades.
In principle, Biden’s agenda is rooted in a repudiation of Trump’s “America First” legacy and the restoration of the multilateral order. That was reflected in his early moves to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, and reestablish U.S. leadership on climate diplomacy. The COVID-19 pandemic also offered Biden an opportunity to reassert America’s global leadership role and begin repairing ties that began to fray under Trump.
But in practice, some of Biden’s priorities bear a close resemblance to Trump’s agenda. His “foreign policy for the middle class,” which ties U.S. diplomacy to peace, security and prosperity at home, has been described as a dressed-up version of Trump’s emphasis on putting U.S. interests above its global commitments. Biden also followed through on Trump’s deal to withdraw from Afghanistan without consulting or coordinating with Washington’s NATO allies—and paid a political cost for the collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic evacuation that ensued. And on other issues, like his approach to immigration and border policies, Biden has not demonstrated any urgency to make immediate changes. Similarly, he only belatedly lifted controversial tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports as well as the most draconian of Trump’s sanctions on Cuba.
Despite the rhetorical commitment to repudiating Trump, Biden may find it difficult to fully restore a pre-Trump status quo. Countries may no longer be willing to follow the U.S. lead on democracy promotion after the erosion of America’s democratic norms during the Trump era. And Europe, in particular, has recalibrated its relationship with the United States and may no longer be willing to align with America’s approach, particularly the hardening of relations with China. Nevertheless, as the war in Ukraine has highlighted, there is still high demand among allies, partners and other countries around the world for decisive U.S. leadership in times of crisis.
WPR has covered U.S. foreign policy in detail and continues to examine key questions about will happen next. Will Biden maintain a tough approach on China, and at what cost? How will his administration handle ties with Iran in the likely event the nuclear deal is not revived? And will the war in Ukraine prevent Biden from shifting the geographic focus of U.S. foreign policy to the likely centers of global challenges and opportunities in Asia and Africa? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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The U.S. Is Losing Ground to China in Southeast Asia
Over the past five years, Beijing has adopted a much more assertive military and diplomatic approach in Southeast Asia. While one could reasonably expect this to negatively affect China’s standing in the region, the opposite is the case. China’s influence in Southeast Asia has soared, largely at the expense of the United States.
Alliances and Partnerships
One of Biden’s first tasks was to begin rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations. While his early efforts to shore up the partnership suffered from an apparent divergence in geopolitical ambitions—particularly when it came to articulating a collective approach to China—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has catalyzed consensus and cohesion within NATO not seen since the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, repairing relations with America’s existing Asian allies, as well as deepening new partnerships such as the so-called Quad, have proven to be easier tasks for Biden.
- Why the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security is a central part of countering China, in The U.S. Still Needs Europe to Compete With China
- Why Israel’s democratic erosion could undermine its ties with the U.S., in The U.S.-Israel Relationship Is Special, but Not Indestructible
- Why the U.S. can count on Seoul’s support in a potential conflict over Taiwan, in Despite Its Rhetoric, South Korea Has Picked a Side on China and Taiwan
- What a new tech cooperation initiative means for Washington’s ties with New Delhi, in The India-U.S. Partnership Has Momentum. Now It Needs Direction
Strategic Competition and Rivals
Biden’s recent moves to choke off China’s access to high-end technology as well as his rapid and robust punitive sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine leave no room for doubt that he is willing to take a tough stance with Beijing and Moscow. But his determination to compete aggressively with U.S. rivals as well as his commitment to democracy promotion are certain to bump up against the need for practical cooperation to address shared global challenges.
- Why the U.S. still enjoys an advantage in its competition with Russia and China, in Russia and China Are Losing the Global Battle for Public Opinion
- Why it won’t be easy to repair U.S.-China relations, in The U.S. and China Take Another Stab at Thawing Relations
- Why the U.S. and its Western partners should take the Global South’s concerns seriously, in Addressing the Global South’s Concerns Can Help the G-7 Counter Russia
- How the U.S. can compete with China more effectively in Latin America, in In Latin America, the U.S. Is Getting Competition With China All Wrong
Bilateral and Regional Policy
Following the erratic and inconsistent foreign policy of the Trump administration, Biden was in a position to make some meaningful shifts in bilateral relations with a range of partners. But his administration continues to face some familiar limits. Though Biden has pledged to make human rights and democracy central planks of his foreign policy, in practice he has often continued to put U.S. interests first.
- How engaging with the countries of the Global South advances U.S. interests, in The U.S. Is Asking the Wrong Questions About the Global South
- Why U.S.-South Africa ties have hit a rough patch, in South Africa’s ‘Russian Armsgate’ Signals New Tensions with the U.S.
- Why the U.S. strategy for the Middle East needs a reboot, in Biden Needs to Rethink His Middle East Agenda
- What the U.S. approach to Africa is still getting wrong, in Despite Progress, the U.S. Is Still Running an Outdated Playbook in Africa
Trade and Aid Policy
With his “foreign policy for the middle class,” Biden has promised to focus on how to reorient U.S. engagement abroad to address middle-class economic concerns back home. When it comes to trade, that means making sure U.S. policy contributes to domestic economic renewal. But that’s increasingly becoming a recipe for protectionism.
- Why the Biden administration must avoid past mistakes in its effort to enlist labor unions in the battle between democracy and autocracy, in Biden’s Overseas Labor Union Initiative Has Troubling Cold War Precedents
- How the Biden administration’s attempt to address past imbalances in trade policy creates new problems, in Biden’s ‘New Washington Consensus’ Is Weaponizing Trade
- Why the Biden administration’s protectionist trade policy is no anomaly, in There’s Nothing New About U.S. Protectionism
- How Biden stopped worrying and learned to love protectionism, in Biden’s Trade Policy Looks a Lot Like Trump’s
Diplomacy and Multilateralism
Biden has pledged to pursue a foreign policy rooted in a renewed commitment to values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law and international cooperation. At the same time, he has recognized how intertwined U.S. foreign policy is with domestic growth. While he has disavowed Trump’s “America First” approach, Biden’s promise to rebuild at home may ultimately guide his multilateral engagements.
- What’s really driving Biden’s Summit for Democracy, in Biden’s Summit for Democracy Isn’t Really About Democracies
- How, despite recent setbacks, the U.S. can still head off the worst-case scenarios of nuclear proliferation, in The U.S. Shouldn’t Write Off Nuclear Nonproliferation and Arms Control
- What it will take to keep the G-20 relevant amid growing geopolitical tensions, in The West Can Still Save the G-20 From Irrelevance
- How the U.S. can gain some goodwill on Security Council reform, in Biden Can Actually Score Some Quick Wins on Security Council Reform
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2021 and is regularly updated.