A Snapshot of Biden’s Foreign Policy Agenda: Democracy in an Age of Great Power Competition
The Biden administration entered the White House on January 20, 2021, with the mantra to “build back better.” In a post-Trump presidency, the United States faces a series of unprecedented global challenges. At the forefront of Biden’s goals is to re-establish relationships with allies in the wake of great power competition. Three key themes of the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda include:
Repairing America’s global reputation.
Reestablishing America’s foreign commitments and place of power.
Reconnecting our foreign policy agenda to clear domestic benefits for American workers.
Repairing America’s Global Reputation
How does America begin to repair its brand? Reassert our commitment to human rights and the rule of law. American political polarization has been noticeably growing since the Reagan administration. However, in the past four years, Trump’s indifference to American democratic norms and institutional integrity resulted in a severely fractured global reputation of American values.
A thirteen-country survey of U.S. allies conducted by the Pew Foundation revealed America’s global public image is at an all-time low. Of those countries surveyed, only one-third indicated a positive perception of America. The transnational problems the Biden administration faces are a contest of systems. The U.S. faces a persisting pandemic, internal decay of democracy, and rising antidemocratic sentiments and dissatisfaction with our representative government.
However, other administrations have successfully boosted our global morale after suffering crises. After the Vietnam War, the Carter administration campaigned based on a call for solid morality. After George Bush’s wars in the Middle East damaged America’s global perception, Obama campaigned for the White House through hope and change, rallying for a return to multilateralism. The Biden administration must strengthen the bonds with our global democratic community. We see these efforts in strides to repair alliances, resolve diplomatic and trade disputes with Europe to create a more robust front against Russia and China, the protection of Taiwan from CCP aggression, global vaccination efforts through the Quad Vaccine Partnership and G7, and the growing digital alliance with South Korea.
Biden stacked his cabinet with seasoned intelligence officials with a strong history of championing human rights. White House readouts of Biden’s speeches and phone calls with Xi Jinping and Putin demonstrate a commitment to human rights by pressing foreign governments on human rights issues, restoring the U.S. refugee program, and imposing sanctions on Myanmar after its coup. While the Biden administration has not demonstrated a perfect consistency on human rights policies, its overall efforts will be a strategic asset for America and a sharp turn from Trump’s tone.
Re-establishing Foreign Commitments and Our Place of Power
What parts of the world are most important to American security? Two things are already clear about America’s strategic priorities in 2021. Biden placed a clear emphasis on the Eurasian heartland:
Biden created a new task force to review military policy toward China.
Biden’s call with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealed America’s renewed partnership with Australia and Japan.
The administration’s announcement to defend Taiwanese security in the face of Chinese assertions and the decision to expand the National Security Council Indo-Pacific Directorate are strong signals of Biden’s intent.
These global posture reviews are part of a larger American effort to ensure our military footprint aligns with foreign policy priorities.
Reconnecting Foreign Policy Agenda to Benefits for American Workers
The first significant foreign policy change Biden introduced is a whole new team of foreign policy advisors, signaling a return of the same type of Washington policy experts Trump ran against in 2016. Trump’s victory against Hilary Clinton signaled an evident public dissatisfaction with the status quo, an elite-public disconnect, and increasing American political polarization of the dominant two-party system. Moving forward, there is likely to be a high degree of overlap between how Republicans and Democrats approach foreign policy initiatives. The key difference will be seen in domestic policy.
For Biden, U.S.-Chinese rivalry demonstrates the global trend of whether democracies will successfully compete against and withstand rising autocracies. Future historians, Biden predicted, will write their “doctoral theses on the issue of who has succeeded: democracy or autocracy?” Across parties, there is a near-unanimous agreement for Chinese economic and military containment efforts. The difference between Trump’s heavy-handed approach to China and Biden’s approach lies in the Biden administration’s respect of Asian allies. However, the economic war the United States wages against China will continue.
When it comes to allies, the Biden administration is packed with transatlanticism. European allies are critical in the age of rising China. The U.S. rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and position on NATO highlight how the next four years will look in the U.S.-European relations. While Europe may not assist American goals militarily, the EU is a solid economic ally.
The Biden plan is favorable towards Israel. The Trump administration made several imprudent policy moves that changed the shape of American-Israeli relations - moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and giving Netanyahu the green light on the West Bank. It is doubtful that Biden will roll back any of these Trump-era policy changes. Furthermore, the United States has a powerful, deep-rooted Israel lobby that makes it nearly impossible for any sitting American president to make substantial policy changes towards Israel. If the Biden administration makes any significant changes in American relations with Israel, it may discourage Israel from creating more settlements on the West Bank.
Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, could be one of the greatest mistakes of his administration. Quickly after the withdrawal, Iran began enriching uranium beyond the capacity agreed upon in the JCPOA. A May report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director, General Rafael Rossi, revealed Iran had enriched uranium to the highest purity on record. At this point, American-Iranian relations are far too damaged for the U.S. to rejoin the agreement (at least on the same terms), and the Israel lobby will likely prevent Biden from moving forward on rejoining. However, if America fails to rejoin, Iran will continue to enrich uranium and reach the capacity to build its first nuclear warhead. At this point, Biden would be pressured to launch a military attack against Iran.
The most significant policy changes we see from Trump to Biden are how the U.S. deals with allies. The question to ask is how can America reestablish relations around the world after the damage the Trump administration invoked? Can this damage be undone by a Biden administration abroad and amidst domestic political polarization? The Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy is premised on the idea that the United States can best check the power and competition posed by growing global authoritarianism through renewed alliances and commitment to liberal democracy.
However, a practical approach to foreign policymaking is far from perfect. Biden will likely have to cooperate with undemocratic regimes to reign in Chinese and Russian power (i.e., cooperation with Poland, Turkey, Vietnam, and the Philippines). Choosing alliances based on how countries align with Western democratic values risks alienating potential allies and lends to inconsistency in U.S. foreign policymaking. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to coalition building.
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