Key Takeaways

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  • President-elect Biden will inherit an America battered by COVID-19 and its economic consequences, challenged by its adversaries, and doubted by its allies.
  • The new Administration will face a series of daunting security challenges, while also having to address long term, structural changes in the world order that undermine US power and the rules-based global order. Incoming Administration officials realize they cannot simply return to a pre-Trump, US-led world.
  • President-elect Biden will have to manage expectations and build support for his foreign policy by linking it to efforts to recover from the pandemic. This means a renewed focus on multilateral diplomacy and trade to promote economic growth. He will be careful not to overextend himself.
  • The Administration will revive our alliance-based security arrangements, especially in the protection of North America, Europe, and our Asian allies. He will continue to secure a peace agreement in Afghanistan and reduce US troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • President-elect Biden will return the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement, and make climate change a centerpiece of American diplomacy.
  • He will re-join the World Health Organization (WHO) and work more cooperatively with the rest of the world to combat the pandemic.
  • The Administration will remain tough on China, but it will do so multilaterally and by adding democracy, human rights, environmental, and corruption concerns to the economic issues that have dominated the bilateral agenda.
  • The Administration may impose some new sanctions on Russia for interfering in the US election.
  • The Administration will re-engage with Iran, although it may seek a new agreement rather than a return to the previous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Administration will also re-engage with Cuba.
  • A Biden Administration will rely on many foreign policy veterans of the Obama Administration, while also recruiting a new generation of younger experts and thinkers.
  • Republicans in the Senate will complicate the president-elect's foreign policy agenda by holding up nominations, aggressively using oversight authorities, and by concentrating on a few high profile issues: China, Iran, the United Nations, climate change, and Venezuela, among others.

Visit our  Post-Election Analysis Center for more insights.

Read Ahead:  First Steps Toward a New Future |  Working With the Congress


President-elect Biden will assume office with the pandemic still raging across the globe, its economic consequences tearing at an already weakened international trading system and confronting exaggerated expectations of his ability and willingness to pursue a global leadership role. All the while he will face rising powers, such as China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, among others, that will attempt to block and challenge US ambitions.

President-elect Biden also will face allies whose confidence in their privileged relationship with the United States has been shaken during the last four years. Their desire and hopefulness to re-engage with the new Administration will be tempered by a concern that the polarization and volatility that define American politics could lead to further upheaval in another four years. The lack of trust that this will generate will make US allies wary and will encourage them to create alternatives to American partnership.

The uncertainty with which the world will greet this incoming Administration will be accentuated by the long list of foreign policy challenges the new president will face and the underlying changes that are reshaping the international order.

Independent of our electoral politics, a short list of foreign policy crises that await the president-elect on January 20 include:

  • An unsubdued North Korea and the threat its nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles pose to major Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, and to the American homeland.
  • A wounded but resentful Iran intent on extracting its pound of flesh for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani and reluctant to return to the strictures of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • A revanchist Russia determined to consolidate its position in the Middle East and northern Africa while continuing its efforts to block NATO and European Union expansion in Central Europe and the Balkans, and ultimately undo the economic sanctions imposed for its annexation of Crimea.
  • An ascendant China, which will continue its aggression against Hong Kong, attempt to displace the United States as the commercial partner of choice through its Belt and Road Initiative, subtly undermine some American initiatives to contain North Korea, and then use its growing political influence to further isolate Taiwan and draw it into China's orbit.
  • A turbulent Afghanistan that will find itself caught in the middle of peace talks with the Taliban during our transition while facing a growing threat from ISIS terrorists.
  • Legislative elections in Venezuela that will remove the opposition from the National Assembly, calling into question its legitimacy, deepening Venezuela's humanitarian crisis, and sending millions more Venezuelans to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
  • Yemen's continuing civil war that has turned into the world's single worst humanitarian crisis, providing Iran a perch in the Arabian Peninsula from which to harass a Saudi Arabia which cannot extract itself from the Yemen conflict.

The dramatic and consequential nature of these challenges would cause even the most valiant heart to flutter. However, these challenges are but the expression of powerful and transformative forces, accentuated by technology and globalization, that are reshaping the world.

While the United States remains the world's only superpower, with the ability to project its power anywhere at any time, it does not have the ability to project its power everywhere all the time. This has allowed the emergence of a group of regional powers, some with global ambitions, intent on pursuing their interests and carving out spheres of influence independent of the United States. These emerging powers will challenge American dominance, and the rules-based order created by the United States, while avoiding direct confrontation with the United States. They will, however, pursue their interests aggressively, leading to regional conflict and confrontation that will have a corrosive impact on global cohesion and purpose.

One of the consequences of this changing world will be the breakdown of regional cooperation and the decline of shared understandings that will make global governance harder. This erosion in the ability to marshal coherent support for initiatives to address global problems is evident during the current pandemic and is indicative of the uncertain and complicated global environment that defines our world. We live at a time in which US vulnerabilities will be sharply felt. There is no pathway back to a more comfortable world of American dominance. Instead, there are only pathways forward leading to different kinds of futures.

First Steps Toward a New Future

President-elect Biden will understand that he must articulate a new rationale for American engagement in the world, and that he must help build a new consensus around that vision. To do so, he will move carefully, and he will attempt to manage expectations in the short term to prevent disappointment as his Administration runs into a recalcitrant and complicated world.

President-elect Biden will know that in order to have a conversation with the American people about the US purpose in the world, he must do two things: first, he must link his foreign policy to the immediate concerns of the American people; and second, he must have a conversation with the Congress and attempt to forge consensus in a body split under Republican control in the Senate and Democratic control in the House. That said, Congress will not be a passive participant in this process, but instead will attempt to shape key aspects of the president-elect's foreign policy.

In order to match his foreign policy with his domestic policy, President-elect Biden will begin by focusing on containing and ending the pandemic, and then addressing its economic consequences. To accomplish this, he will:

  • Return to the WHO and restore funding for pandemic linked programs. He will argue that a global pandemic cannot be fought country by country but must be addressed multilaterally.
  • Revitalize US multilateral diplomacy in the United Nations and regional organizations in order to remind Americans of the importance of these institutions and to signal to American partners that the US is returning to a global leadership role.
  • Assert US leadership in the search for a vaccine through multilateral channels and also in fashioning a global distribution mechanism that will protect the United States while it signals fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine.
  • Use platforms such as the G-20 and G-7 to promote cooperation on the pandemic and the global economy.
  • Promote trade to generate economic growth, including strengthening the WTO and other mechanisms of rules-based commerce and investment.

President-elect Biden also will return to an alliance-based security structure, with special focus on the protection of North America, Europe, and our Asian allies. For the American people, this is a comfortable and well understood approach to security and will allow the president-elect to contain and confront Russia and China while strengthening our relationship with our security partners. He will seek to inject new perspectives and understandings into the US's traditional security focus. Specifically, he will:

  • Strengthen efforts in Asia to ring China with democracies and improve ties and coordination between South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and India. He also will enhance the US's already robust military, technological, and intelligence cooperation with Australia to protect the South Pacific and have a reliable "offshore balancer" that can play a stabilizing role in southeast Asia.
  • Guarantee the security of the Baltic states and focus NATO activity in Central Europe and the Balkans to block Russian adventurism, while focusing on cybersecurity, hybrid conflict, and Russian information warfare to protect vulnerable countries from intervention and political manipulation. He will maintain sanctions on Russia and continue its exclusion from the G-7. He will use these activities to underscore the continuing strategic threat posed by Russia.
  • Enhance our partnership with Canada and Mexico through Northern Command to protect against missile attacks, address the threat of terrorism, continue the fight to stop drug trafficking, and improve cooperation on pandemics and disease control.
  • Define our alliances in terms of a shared commitment to democracy and open societies and draw a sharp contrast with authoritarian governments and regimes. This will apply especially to China, as President Biden-elect attempts to leave behind the Trump Administration's unilateral approach to China and build partnerships in Europe and the Americas to limit Chinese inroads.
  • Extend the New Start Treaty and engage with the Russians to negotiate the next generation of arms control treaties.
  • Explore returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal, but only after winning commitment from the European parties to the JCPOA (UK, France, Germany, and the EU) to address Iran's ballistic missile program.

President-elect Biden will re-affirm the American commitment to Israel's security. However, he will struggle to temper criticism of Israel within his own party and the Congress, particularly in more progressive constituencies that perceive the Israeli government's record during the past four years as revealing an open preference for the Trump Administration. This perception, in addition to the Israeli government's aggressive moves to isolate the Palestinian Authority generated resentment within the Democratic Party, where some now doubt the Israeli government's commitment to a two-state solution. The president-elect will accept the move of the Embassy to Jerusalem, but his diplomats will challenge any Israeli efforts to annex the Golan Heights or other territory.

This complicated relationship will be replicated with another regional ally: Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is mistrusted and disliked in the Congress, and the president-elect will struggle to build a relationship with the Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman. Saudi Arabia's brutal misadventures in Yemen, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, continue to weigh heavily on the relationship. A strategic exit would be winning Saudi Arabia's recognition of Israel and normalization of relations, creating a Gulf and Israeli alliance against Iranian aggression in the region. Expect the president-elect to focus special attention on Egypt in an effort to return it to playing an important role in the Middle East.

President-elect Biden will make climate change a central part of his foreign policy and focus on making the United States a leader in environmental technology. He will:

  • Return the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • Make climate change, bio-diversity, protection of rain forests, and oceans the focus of his multilateral foreign policy efforts and link this to addressing the mounting disasters and severe weather events afflicting the United States.
  • Use economic stimulation packages to promote capital investment in green environmental technologies and use US influence with multilateral development banks to promote sustainable development and renewable energy.

President-elect Biden will recognize that migration, whether it be refugees fleeing violence or disaster or those seeking economic opportunity and a better life, is a global phenomenon that has reached historic highs and is driving significant political and social change. He will return the United States to a prominent role in international efforts to address migration. He will:

  • Increase the numbers of refugees the US is prepared to receive annually back to the levels during the Obama Administration (over 100,000).
  • Return Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to the Haitian, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Nicaraguan migrants who are about to lose that status under the Trump Administration.
  • Revive the Alliance of Prosperity with the northern triangle countries of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) to prevent a migration crisis early in his presidency.
  • Return to regular processing of asylum requests in the United States.
  • Work with the Congress to fashion comprehensive immigration reform.

Finally, President-elect Biden will move carefully in regard to Cuba and Venezuela, recognizing the continuing importance of US policy towards these countries to key constituencies in Florida. He will restore aspects of the Obama Administration's deal to normalize relations with Cuba, including travel, money transfers, gift packages, and charter flights. However, he will not fully staff the US embassy in Havana until Cuba can guarantee the well-being of US officials. President-elect Biden will keep individual sanctions on key members of the Maduro regime in Caracas and continue support for the interim government of Juan Guaidó. However, he will look for ways to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, not only to reduce the suffering of the Venezuelan people, but also to reduce the impact of Venezuelan migration in neighboring countries, and to rebuild hemispheric and EU support for US policy.

A Biden Administration will likely rely on many foreign policy veterans of the Obama Administration. There will be many familiar faces at the State and Defense Departments and on the National Security Council staff. But the Administration will also recruit a new generation of younger and more diverse foreign policy experts, who will bring new and more progressive ideas.

Working With the Congress

Foreign policy and diplomacy is an attribute of national power that lies largely in the hands of the executive branch. The president has considerable authority and autonomy in fashioning and implementing America's engagement in the world. However, Congress can shape and influence foreign policy through the confirmation process, using its budgetary authority, and through its oversight authority.

A Senate controlled by the Republican Party will create a constant point of challenge and criticism of the president-elect's policies and will complicate his efforts to shape a larger understanding of America's purpose in the world. Republicans are likely to use the confirmation process to challenge early nominations to key posts within the national security agencies and insist on a voice in determining policy. They also will use oversight authority to focus on those issues of greatest importance and relevance to their voters. Republican Senators can be counted on to continue to criticize China, with special focus on human rights, predatory trading and investment practices, and China's growing global ambitions. They will continue to resist any effort to return to the JCPOA and any rapprochement with Iran. They will cast a baleful stare on institutions of global governance, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, that they believe restrict and prejudice American interests. This is especially true regarding climate change, where Republicans will attack the president-elect's intention of returning to the Paris Climate Agreement. They will argue for tougher measures in Venezuela and Cuba and work to block any efforts by the president-elect to undo the maximum pressure campaign directed at the Maduro regime in Caracas.

This paints a bleak picture for American diplomats and foreign policy officials, who will find themselves fighting at home and abroad. However, the president-elect's experience in the Obama Administration, and his recognition that executive order driven policy is more easily undone than made, could push the president-elect to attempt to find some kind of modus vivendi in major foreign policy issues. President-elect Biden's long history in the Senate, and his eight years as vice president presiding over the Senate, has given him legislative experience that no president since Lyndon Johnson has had. He will try to use it well. We should expect him to turn to seasoned legislators for many of his important cabinet positions, in the hope that these colleagues will find a way forward with a resentful and prideful Senate.

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