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President Joe Biden delivers a speech on U.S. foreign policy. President Joe Biden delivers a speech on foreign policy at the State Department, in Washington, Feb. 4, 2021 (AP photo by Evan Vucci).

U.S. Foreign Policy Under Biden

Friday, Sept. 10, 2021

President Joe Biden took office with an ambitious 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 has 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 has paid a political cost for the collapse of the Afghan government and chaotic evacuation that ensued. And on other issues—like Trump’s controversial tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports, his approach to Cuba and his immigration and border policies—Biden has not demonstrated any urgency to make immediate changes.

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 and Russia.

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? Will his administration be able to resurrect the nuclear deal with Iran? Will U.S. foreign policy under Biden shift its geographic focus from the Middle East 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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Bilateral and Regional Policy

Following the erratic and inconsistent foreign policy of the Trump administration, Biden is in a position to make some meaningful shifts in bilateral relations with a range of partners. But the new administration will 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.

Alliances and Partnerships

One of Biden’s first tasks was to begin rebuilding trans-Atlantic relations, but an element of uncertainty now hangs over the partnership due to an apparent divergence in geopolitical ambitions—particularly when it comes to articulating a collective approach to China. The tensions created by the Afghanistan withdrawal will only complicate that effort. Repairing relations with America’s Asian allies—and building new partnerships like the so-called Quad—should come more easily.

Strategic Competition and Rivals

Biden has declared that China is America’s “most serious competitor” and has vowed to confront Beijing on a range of issues, from human rights to intellectual property. His response to China over its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and politicians in Hong Kong and a recent cyberattack, as well as to Russia over a cyberespionage attack and its meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, suggests he is willing to take a tough stance with Beijing and Moscow. But in grappling with both, Biden’s 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 several shared global challenges.

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.

Trade and Aid Policy

With his “foreign policy for the middle class,” Biden has promised to focus on how to reorient foreign policy to address middle-class economic concerns. When it comes to trade, that will mean making sure U.S. policy contributes to domestic economic renewal. How to manage that without resorting to Trump’s unilateral protectionist measures will be one challenge ahead.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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