How Will Foreign Policy Change Under a Biden Administration?

Originally published December 7, 2020

Soon after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, U.S. foreign policy will steer toward more familiar waters. While President Trump’s approach to the international system has been unconventional, isolating, abrasive, and at times counterproductive, it also bore some fruit, for example, by confronting China or by impressing upon allies the need for more equal partnerships. Yet Trump’s foreign policy stood out against near-term predecessors in its distrust of the international, rules-based order and its belief that the U.S. could secure policy goals alone, without full engagement with the multilateral politics that have defined global politics in the twenty-first century. The overarching feature of Biden’s foreign policy will be a reaffirmation of the international system, a return to multilateral politics, and a resumption of the belief that the U.S. is strongest when it works with partners around the world.

This week, we explored the likely trajectory of Biden’s foreign policy and how it represents change from, and continuity with, the Trump era. The active issues in the international space are numerous, so we’ve focused specifically on three topic areas — NATO, coronavirus, and climate change — and three focus countries — China, Iran, and North Korea — to demonstrate how foreign policy is likely to play out in a Biden administration.


Probably the best way to think about the shift in foreign policy between Trump and Biden is to look at their attitudes toward alliances, and especially NATO. Trump has been highly skeptical of the body, casting doubt on its value on numerous occasions and threatening to withdraw support. Chief among Trump’s concerns are that the alliance takes advantage of the military largesse of the U.S. while member countries avoid complying with a prior commitment to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defense. This summer, the U.S. even withdrew 12,000 American soldiers from Germany. Such was the outlook for NATO in 2017 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel lamented that Europe “must take our fate into our own hands.”

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Pew Research Center


The Covid-19 pandemic has been the seminal obstacle for the international system in 2020, leading to closed borders and pointed fingers as the disease fanned out around the world. Amid this pressure, Trump sought to confront China for its opaque and likely harmful management of the virus and left the World Health Organization (WHO) — the preeminent body for international cooperation of global health issues — due to what he saw as China’s undue influence. The Trump administration has also refused to make international commitments for the provision of vaccines to less-developed and vulnerable countries, instead focusing energy on securing vaccines for the U.S. first and foremost, even seeking to pay internationally for exclusive access.

Climate Change

Apart from contrasting positions on the urgency of a changing climate, Trump and Biden also disagree about what type of response, if any, the issue requires. Trump made his position clear by promising to and officially exiting the 2015 Paris Climate Accord — an agreement signed by 194 countries to make voluntary commitments to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to mitigate climate change. The agreement is not legally binding, so while the Trump administration argued that it would be harmful to the American economy and Trump’s “America First” policy goals, the withdrawal likely represents a lack of belief in the urgency of climate change, a multilateral approach to addressing the issue, or both. The agreement has thus far achieved mixed results, with a number of countries making insufficient pledges or making insufficient progress toward meeting their pledges, but also with numerous countries on track to reach their goals and set to increase their commitments.

Source: Nature


While President Obama’s tenure in the White House is now recognized as having been too soft on China, Trump brought U.S.-China relations to the forefront, fully unearthing what many see as a “great power competition” in which ideologies as well as the strengths of the world’s preeminent powers are clashing on the world stage. More than anywhere else, foreign policy minds see merit in Trump’s confrontational approach to China in that it forced an issue that had otherwise been skirted around. The trade war and subsequent agreements with China may not have been any great victory for the U.S., but they clearly signaled that the U.S. is serious and willing to act against China’s unfair practices limiting market access in China and manipulation of trade relationships for undue benefit. But Trump’s economic measures against China have also been narrow, pitting the U.S. and China against one another while playing down, for better or for worse, the myriad countries that have a role to play on both sides of the confrontation.

Source: The Balance (As of October 2020)


Nuclear proliferation remains a fixture of foreign affairs, and the Trump presidency, mimicking similar trends to leaving the Paris Agreement and the TPP, chose to leave the international agreement with Iran — the JCPOA — which seeks to provide economic inducements to Iran in exchange for limitations on the country’s nuclear operations. Arguing that Iran was cheating on the deal and ever-skeptical of the agreement’s scope, Trump withdrew U.S. support and pursued a unilateral approach of “maximum pressure” to deprive Iran of funding for its destabilizing activities in the region and to force a renegotiation of a nuclear agreement on new terms. Iran has since resumed uranium enrichment, with President Hassan Rouhani saying: “[i]n response to the US’s withdrawal from its obligations, we decided to reduce our commitments step by step.” Iran is now closer to a nuclear weapon that it was before the JCPOA.

Biden vows to place trust in the international system once more to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first and obvious step is to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran is willing to return to compliance with the original agreement, which, though imperfect, limits Iran to levels and quantities of uranium enrichment below weapons-grade. At the same time, Biden faces difficult choices in terms of what to do with the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and how to address Iran’s harmful activities outside of the nuclear sphere, especially given heightened tensions due to the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani in the beginning of 2020 and the recent killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, potentially by Israel. Either way, the response will almost certainly involve cooperative action with allies and regional players.

North Korea

Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies

A return to “normalcy” in this space means that Biden will opt to continue negotiations with North Korea only if the state makes demonstrable action toward cutting back nuclear weaponization and related delivery capabilities. It also likely means an end to the personal politics of the Trump-era and a reinstitution of greater multilateral coordination. Biden will seek to restore trust with South Korea and Japan by re-involving them in the diplomatic process and aim to productively engage China, North Korea’s largest trade partner and key quasi-ally, to restrain the worst of North Korea’s troublemaking.

Only time will tell if the Biden’s administration’s foreign policy will create any big shakeups on the international stage. As some point out, a president’s ability to drastically alter foreign policy is generally constrained by the international system, meaning changes in most cases fall within a reasonable range of the status quo. And while Biden might seek to quickly rectify what he sees as problematic areas of Trump’s foreign policy, he is also aware that a return to “normal” would leave much to be desired, at home and abroad. Optimists may hope for fresher, reinvigorated thinking on issues like climate change and international trade, but whichever goals and policies Biden does pursue, expect him to do so with allies and partners at his side.

Originally published at

I'm an adjunct fellow at CSIS, a political analyst and writer for The Factual, and an aspiring author interested in subnational authoritarianism.