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, more recently, 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 and the crisis leading up to it highlight, 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. Has No Good Options for How to Approach China
Amid competition and trade tensions, U.S.-China relations are at a low point. The path forward is treacherous, and how Washington chooses to navigate it will shape not only current events, but possibly the century ahead. The U.S. has three options for how it approaches Beijing going forward: It can oppose China, embrace it or ignore it.
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.
- What’s driving the rapprochement between Manila and Washington, in Marcos Is Bringing the Philippines Back Into the U.S. Fold
- Why Washington’s leadership role in responding to the war in Ukraine might be too successful for its own good, in U.S. Leadership on Ukraine Is Increasing European Dependence
- Why Biden will have his hands full managing relations with Israel’s new government, in Netanyahu’s New Partners Could Spell Trouble for U.S.-Israel Ties
- What’s really at stake in Washington’s deteriorating relations with Saudi Arabia, in The U.S.-Saudi Spat Is Over More Than Just Oil Prices
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 Washington’s paternalistic tone will undermine its efforts to compete with Beijing in Africa, in To Compete With China, the U.S. Must Take Africans Seriously
- Why, despite the dangers, Washington’s “tough on China” consensus is only likely to gain momentum, in Washington’s Hawkish China Consensus Is Reaching a Point of No Return
- Why the U.S. should maintain a clear-eyed view of China as a strategic competitor, in Rising or Falling, China Is a Serious but Manageable Competitor
- How Biden and Xi are trying to improve the tone of bilateral relations, in Amid Tensions, the U.S. and China Seek to Lower the Temperature
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.
- Why Washington should put good governance at the heart of its engagement with African countries, in Good Governance Can Make U.S. Engagement With Africa More Effective
- Why Washington’s efforts to reset relations with countries in Africa are off to a bumpy start, in Yellen’s Visit Continues the U.S. Charm Offensive in Africa
- How the Biden administration can follow through on its successful U.S.-Africa Summit, in After a Feelgood Summit, Biden Has to Make Good on U.S.-Africa Ties
- Why the midterm congressional elections broadened Biden’s room for maneuver in Latin America, in The Midterms Gave Biden a Stronger Hand on U.S. Latin America Policy
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’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
- Why a protectionist trade policy is incompatible with the U.S. global security role, in A Protectionist America Won’t Be a Global America
- What’s driving renewed trade tensions between the U.S. and the EU, in The EU and U.S. Are Squaring Off Over Climate Policy’s Trade Impact
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 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
- What’s on the agenda for Biden’s first U.N. General Assembly, in A Beleaguered Biden Aims for a Reset at the U.N.
- How Biden’s successful recommitment to U.N. diplomacy went off-track, in Biden’s Honeymoon at the U.N. and the Conflict That Ended It
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2021 and is regularly updated.