The Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy: Key Features and Likely Changes

Having won the American presidential election, and despite incumbent President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede, Democratic candidate and President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20. He will face the difficult task of restoring US credibility and global influence.

Biden’s Approach to Foreign Policy

Biden presented the framework for his foreign policy in an expanded article he published in Foreign Affairs, in April 2020, titled “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy after Trump.” According to Biden, the United States is the only country that possesses the military, economic, and value system, as well as the ability to mobilize the “free world,” to lead globally. But first, the United States must regain its credibility and influence among its opponents and allies alike. Biden’s understanding contradicts Trump’s chaotic and inconsistent approach to foreign policy and failure to support basic democratic principles around the world. Trump’s policies have led to the decline of the United States’ standing, undermined its democratic alliances, and weakened its ability to mobilize to meet challenges.

Biden claims that Trump has abandoned allies and shown weakness in front of opponents, in the process eroding the United States’ ability to face national security challenges vis-à-vis North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and others. He also accuses the outgoing president of waging unwise trade wars against both friends and foes, to the detriment of the interests of the American people. Biden believes that the challenges facing the United States and the world, from climate change and mass migration to cyber threats and infectious diseases, are becoming more complex and urgent, and that the next president will have to salvage America’s reputation and rebuild confidence in its leadership in order to meet the new challenges as soon as possible.

Biden further explains his team’s foreign policy agenda on his website with an essay titled “The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century.” When it comes to defending vital US interests, although Biden stresses that he will not “hesitate to protect the American people, including when necessary, by using force,” he continues that “the use of force should be our last resort, not the first. It should be used only to defend U.S. vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.” Accordingly, he asserts that his administration will stop support for “the Saudi-led war in Yemen” because it does not fall within the priorities of the United States.

Biden believes it is necessary to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East that have cost the United States “untold blood and treasure,” and to focus instead on specific military missions.

Biden believes it is necessary to end the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East that have cost the United States “untold blood and treasure,” and to focus instead on specific military missions, with small numbers of special forces, and by providing intelligence and logistical support to allied forces to address the threats of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He states that the United States is required to focus on combating terrorism, but that remaining “entrenched in unwinnable conflicts only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” Biden calls for buttressing diplomacy as a tool for leading allies through international institutions and alliances, such as NATO, and “strengthening cooperation with democratic partners beyond North America and Europe by reaching out to our partners in Asia to fortify our collective capabilities and integrating our friends in Latin America and Africa.” He affirms that the United States, under his administration, will return to its role as a leading force in laying the foundations for international relations by drafting agreements and revitalizing the institutions that regulate the connections and interactions between states and enhance collective security and prosperity.

Expected Foreign Policy Features under the Biden Administration

Based on this doctrine, Biden pledges to return to active engagement in important international issues. This requires, first of all, reforming the relationship with allies, improving the image of the United States, and restoring the “power” of its “example.” Hence, his administration will reemphasize the importance of NATO, as part of its efforts to contain Russia, while insisting on the need for its members to increase their defense spending. Washington will also rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, from which the Trump Administration has withdrawn. Biden’s administration will follow a different pattern of relations with the states that Washington describes as authoritarian, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and there will be a renewed focus on human rights and freedoms. But it is unclear to what extent it will go to champion these values or how it will balance between criticism and pressure in these areas and in strategic relations with allies. Will it suffice to reverse Trump’s policy, or will the Biden team also learn from the mistakes of the Obama Administration? The Biden Administration will return to dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the traditional US approach based on the two-state solution. Finally, Biden will cancel the ban Trump placed on citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries traveling to the United States.

There are four main US policy issues that may see modifications under Biden’s administration.

  1. Israel and Palestine

Biden does not hide his absolute bias in favor of Israel, and the special part of his foreign policy program explicitly states that the US “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself, and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding is ironclad.”

The Democratic Party’s national platform refused to describe the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 as “occupied,” despite talk of a two-state solution. However, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will find itself faced with a different approach from the one it got used to in the Trump era.1 This includes a return to the traditional US policy that any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be negotiated, based on the “land for peace” equation and the two-state solution.

Biden does not hide his absolute bias in favor of Israel, and the special part of his foreign policy program explicitly states that the US “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself, and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding is ironclad.”

The Trump Administration has worked over the past four years to try to resolve the central issues of the conflict—including Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty, land, and settlements—in favor of Israel. It imposed a fait accompli that precluded the need to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians. When the Palestinians refused, Trump punished them by cutting off funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), then halting development and humanitarian aid to them, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, and working to marginalize them in the context of specific Arab-Israeli normalization agreements that were signed under the title of the “Abraham Accords.”

Biden will not work to move the US embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, but he will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem that will resume its role as a channel of communication with the Palestinians. He also opposes the decision to annex lands in the West Bank and build new settlements or expand the existing ones without an agreement with the Palestinians. His administration will reopen the PLO office in Washington. At the same time, it may encourage the continued strengthening and expansion of relations between Israel and Arab countries before resolving the Palestine issue, but not with Trump’s enthusiasm and without blackmail—as happened with Sudan, where normalization with Israel was a condition for removing Sudan from the list of states sponsoring terrorism and for canceling sanctions on the country.

  1. Iran

President-elect Biden has insisted that his administration is ready to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran is willing to abide by its terms and conditions. But he has also stressed that he will continue to take a stronger approach toward Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region. He believes that there is a smart—rather than self-defeating—way to confront the threat that Iran poses to US interests. Although Biden considers Qassem Soleimani—the former commander of the Quds Force whom the Trump Administration assassinated in early 2020—to have been a dangerous person, he says that Soleimani’s killing has reinforced Iran’s determination to evade the strict restrictions stipulated by the nuclear agreement.

President-elect Biden has insisted that his administration is ready to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran is willing to abide by its terms and conditions.

Biden may have an opportunity to reach a new agreement with Iran, taking advantage of the difficult conditions in Tehran due to the harsh sanctions imposed on it by the Trump Administration. But this will not be easy, due to the severely weakened position of the agreement’s advocates in Iran because it failed to produce significant improvements. Furthermore, the conservatives are expected to win the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 2021.

  1. China

The relationship with China, as America’s geopolitical rival, poses the most prominent strategic dilemma for any US administration. China is in competition with the United States economically and technologically. It threatens US global hegemony as it consolidates its control over the South China Sea, continues to build its military strength, and extends its influence in East Asia and in many other regions of the world. Under the Trump Administration, relations between the two countries deteriorated to their lowest point. Some believe that the United States and China have entered a new cold war phase, especially in light of the escalating disputes over trade, tariffs, piracy of American technology, tensions with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the status of Uighur Muslims. The fact that Trump continues to accuse Beijing of responsibility for the spread of the COVID-19 virus has strained relations further. Instead of weakening China, Trump’s rhetoric may have actually emboldened Beijing as a result of his administration’s abandonment of its absolute support for allies in East Asia and flirtation with the leader of North Korea. And whatever Trump claims,  even the trade imbalance with China has not changed.

Biden does not deny the existence of major challenges in the relationship with China, but he believes that the Trump Administration has managed the relationship recklessly.  

Biden does not deny the existence of major challenges in the relationship with China, but he believes that the Trump Administration has managed the relationship recklessly. This is because during the last four years, the United States has isolated itself from its closest allies and partners, such as Canada and the European Union, by declaring trade wars with them like it did with China, thus weakening the United States’ capacity to confront and contain the latter. Biden stresses that the United States must be strict with China, but the most effective way to do so is by using a carrot-and-stick strategy and building a united front of allies and partners of the United States to confront human rights violations in China. This can be done while seeking cooperation with Beijing on issues where interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, and global health security. Biden’s approach is based on the fact that the United States alone represents a large share of global GDP, and when US economic power combines with the economic strength of other western and Asian democracies, such as Japan and South Korea, China will not be able to ignore more than half of the global economy.

  1. Russia

Biden has always insisted that he will take a more hawkish stance with Russia than Trump, who admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and repeatedly questioned US intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Obama Administration, in which Biden was vice president, imposed harsh sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Biden emphasizes the need to “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms and stand with Russian civil society, which has bravely stood up time and again against President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarian system.”

Biden believes that strengthening the military capabilities of NATO will be necessary to confront “Russian aggression.”

Biden believes that strengthening the military capabilities of NATO will be necessary to confront “Russian aggression.” Although many observers expected the escalation of tension between Washington and Moscow under the Biden Administration, nuclear arms control may be one of the areas for cooperation between the two parties. This is because the START treaty signed in 2010 expires in February 2021. Biden believes that this treaty is “an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia.” Therefore, there will not be a return to the cold war but rather to a more militant policy with Russia and a greater commitment to the security of allies.

Conclusion

Biden’s goal of restoring the United States’ reputation and confidence among its allies will not be an easy task. International divisions run deep and the suspicions of Washington’s allies about an international order centered around the United States are growing. Many in Europe see close economic relations with China as equally important to those with the United States. In reality, it is unimaginable that the United States today can contain two great powers such as Russia and China on its own, especially in light of European hesitation. What is even more important is the damage caused by Trump to the reputation and credibility of the United States as the most important and longest standing democracy in the world. Indeed, the deep chasm in American society and its political institutions has been exposed by the recent presidential elections.

An earlier version of this article was published on November 19, 2020 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.

1 The Netanyahu government collapsed on December 23 and new elections will be held in March 2021.

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