U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden

U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden
President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the White House, in Washington, Nov. 15, 2021 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

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 was 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 to 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 have borne 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 initially demonstrated little 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.

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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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Biden Is Right to Keep the U.S. Engaged in the World

Amid the debates over U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, one thing is clear: Biden is an internationalist trying to keep the U.S. engaged globally actor. But should he be? More broadly, is it the United States’ place to be highly engaged in the world? Or would the U.S. and the world be better off if Washington sat some things out?

Diplomacy and Multilateralism

Biden took office pledging to pursue a foreign policy rooted in a renewed commitment to values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law and international cooperation. In practice, though, that has mainly amounted to a narrative framing, with little real effect on his conduct of foreign policy. At the same time, Biden has recognized how intertwined U.S. foreign policy is with domestic growth. So while he has disavowed Trump’s “America First” approach, Biden’s promise to rebuild at home still ultimately guides his multilateral engagements.

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 Washington’s existing Asian allies, as well as deepening new partnerships such as the so-called Quad, have proven to be easier tasks for Biden.

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 stated commitment to democracy promotion are certain to bump up against the need for practical cooperation to address shared global challenges, especially with regard to China.

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.

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.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2021 and is regularly updated.