18 Jan 2021

Understanding President Biden’s foreign policy imperatives

Professor Klaus Larres

Election night on November 3, 2020, and the weeks that followed proved to be hours of high drama. Throughout these days, President-elect Joe Biden adopted a patient, mature, and statesmanlike posture, emphasizing his objective to unite the nation and bring the country together once he had been inaugurated. His magnanimous speeches throughout November and December 2020, focusing on battling the Covid-19 crisis and improving the battered US economy, were of equally sober quality.

Not least, Biden’s emotional but highly reasonable and statesmanlike reaction to the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, by a mob of rioters incited by Trump’s refusal to recognize the election result impressed the nation. Biden’s cabinet picks, and his selections for other senior government jobs also demonstrated a highly professional approach with an emphasis on expertise and reliability.

Biden made sure that the personal chemistry between him and the selected government officials was right, such as Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, both his long-term advisers. Throughout the post-election period, Biden highlighted the necessity of a united and imaginative approach to the nation’s problems.

This was also the strategy President Biden wanted to adopt regarding the conduct of American foreign relations. Just as President Trump did his utmost to divide the American people and sow fear and mutual distrust, he also made an almost deliberate effort to fall out with many of America’s closest allies in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

In contrast, the Biden administration intends to steer a cooperative, multilateral, and much more stable and predictable course. Biden wishes to engage with both allies and foes and is highly unlikely to pursue an isolationist, protectionist, or semi-authoritarian policy. He has promised, for instance, to convene a global “Summit of Democracy” during his first year in office.[1]

While Biden is aware of globalization’s advantages, he is also conscious of its economic pitfalls and risks. The new president is expected to attempt to rejuvenate America’s global leadership position by, for instance, re-joining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the World Health Organization (WHO) and, under certain conditions, the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA).

Biden is aware of the imperative of finding a new consensus on crucial global governance issues. He will take the initiative to reform the World Trade Organization (WTO) in cooperation with other countries and perhaps even align his country with the Comprehensive Transpacific Partnership (TPP), an economic organization with mostly Asian member states. This will be a reversal of Trump’s refusal to ratify US membership of its predecessor organization.

The Biden administration’s policy of engagement and cooperation with both allies and foes is meant to overcome the perceived decline of America’s global standing and lead to the revitalization and even enhancement of the country’s still unique global superpower position. The Biden administration’s most crucial relationships will be those with Europe, including Russia, China, and, not least, the countries of the Middle East.

Trans-Atlantic relations

During the Trump administration, European-American relations deteriorated to an almost unprecedented extent. During the run-up and in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion were relations equally bad during George W. Bush’s presidency, particularly during his first term in office. However, unlike Trump, Biden is aware of the weight that the European (and other) allies bring to the table and how this strengthens America’s standing and influence in global affairs a great deal.

After all, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff recognized as far back as the 1970s in an internal paper that the US had “been so closely committed to Western Europe for so long that any serious diminution of our standing and influence there would have a negative impact on our diplomatic as well as our strategic position in the global balance.”[2]

While the Biden administration will undoubtedly also urge the Europeans to spend more on defense, it will not question the importance of NATO or consider withdrawing from the alliance as Trump did. Biden will not try to divide the Europeans to weaken the European Union (and, by implication, create an ever more politically united European continent). By supporting the British exit from the EU (Brexit) and encouraging other European countries to follow suit, Trump mistakenly believed that this would lead to the EU’s disintegration and provide him with an advantage in US-EU trade negotiations.

There is a good chance that Biden may attempt to revive the negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which was started by the Obama administration but was quickly abandoned by Trump. Biden’s balanced and grounded personality will also ensure that a lack of chemistry and political difficulties with individual European leaders (the Hungarian and Polish leaders come to mind, for instance) will not lead to the personalization of the entire transatlantic relationship and result in public bickering and griping as was frequently the case under Trump. In particular, Trump had poor relations with Germany’s Angela Merkel and was hardly on speaking terms with her toward the end of his term in office.[3]

The Biden administration will not pay particular attention to the so-called “special relationship” with the UK. Populist Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to receive much special attention in the Biden White House. Perhaps influenced by his Irish background, Biden was not impressed by Johnson’s consideration to sacrifice the preservation of an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – and thus endanger the 1998 “Good Friday agreement,” which ended “the troubles” in Northern Ireland – to obtain a more advantageous Brexit deal with the EU. Nevertheless, despite Brexit, the UK remains an important security and intelligence partner for the US, and relations can be expected to be polite and professional between Washington and London, without, however, being particularly special.

The US-EU Dialogue on China, agreed upon between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the EU Commission in October 2020, is expected to continue under the Biden administration. After all, much more intensive consultations with America’s allies regarding pressing global problems will be among the Biden White House hallmarks. And this is much welcomed on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, in late November 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed a new EU-US draft agreement to revitalize the transatlantic alliance, including a close alignment on China’s policies.

A nuanced China policy?

While the US was deeply divided during the Trump administration, even in foreign policy matters, there existed a rare consensus between the two major political parties regarding the necessity of a stringent policy toward China. It is unlikely that this will change quickly under the new administration. And given the many doubts about Biden’s “toughness” during the election campaign, he can hardly afford to come across as being “soft” on China. Similar to embarking on a new re-set policy with the EU (and possibly toward Russia – though this is more difficult considering the recent successful Russian hacking of many sensitive US government email accounts and databases), a new and more constructive approach toward China is also expected.

Biden’s China policy will be more nuanced, less focused on personal relations with Xi Jinping (or other strongmen in world politics), and more focused on re-establishing bilateral and multilateral communication and consultation channels with Beijing. It will be a significantly less volatile and more predictable approach. However, Biden will put a much greater emphasis than Trump on human rights (Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia). He will expect China to be much less assertive in the South China Sea, toward Taiwan, and within the context of Beijing’s huge Belt and Road initiative, an ambitious global infrastructure program.

But Biden will also look for opportunities to cooperate with China. Climate change, policy toward Iran’s nuclear policy and, perhaps, a common approach to African development issues may be part of such a cooperative agenda. He will not hesitate to explore other areas of common interest, such as developing the global cooperative framework (COVAX) to deal with the Covid-19 crisis (which the US has yet to join) and perhaps contribute to building up a vaccine distribution network for the developing world.

The new president will also be interested in re-establishing a bilateral political and economic/trade dialogue with Beijing. While not being as keen on re-locating essential supply chains back to the US as Trump was (for medical equipment and AI/robotics), Biden will not hesitate to pursue a similar strategy if he feels China continues to play unfairly in global trade policy matters. America’s trade deficit in goods with China, intellectual property theft, and reciprocal market access issues will also be areas of great concern for the new administration.

The conclusion of an investment treaty between China and the EU in late December 2020 will motivate the Biden administration to obtain further market concessions from China, which go beyond the Phase one trade agreement the Trump administration negotiated with Beijing in January 2020. Biden is certainly not interested in pursuing a policy toward China that may lead to a “new Cold War,” though he will not allow his country and his allies to be “taken for a ride” by China either. However, whether transatlantic cooperation with China will prove to be successful remains to be seen.

Middle East

Biden and his foreign policy team will also have to pay a great deal of attention to the volatile Middle East. This is the one region in the world where Trump had some foreign policy successes. In particular, the new president will need to focus on US relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Biden intends to accept and build on the so-called Abraham Accords – the normalization agreements between Israel and many Arab neighbors, such as the UAE and Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Biden has indicated that he will stick with the removal of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and not undo the Golan Heights’ recognition as Israeli territory. However, he has criticized the neglect of the Palestinian question by the Trump administration and has been highly critical of Israel’s settlement policies.

The Biden administration is expected to return to realizing a two-state solution and perhaps act as a mediator again. It will restore economic aid to both the West Bank and Gaza that was stopped by Trump. Thus, Biden’s political and his personal relations with highly conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be much less close than these relations were during the previous four years. However, the US will continue to take responsibility for Israeli security and well-being.

Regarding Syria and Iraq, the Biden administration will focus on fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda and is unlikely to increase US military involvement in either country significantly. In respect to the former, Biden may attempt to come to an agreement with Russia (and also with Turkey) as part of an overall re-set policy with Moscow and Ankara (which, as far as Russia is concerned, would also have to include movement regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine).

Concerning Iraq, the new administration is interested in normalizing relations with Baghdad and stabilizing the increasingly volatile country with economic, political, and military aid. Regarding Afghanistan, Biden is inclined to continue Washington’s dealings with the Taliban and largely accept the Trump administration’s agreement to withdraw US troops from the country. Biden has announced that he intends to do something about the long war in Yemen, one of the world’s most terrible human rights disasters, and will pressure Saudi Arabia to end the conflict.

Relations with Saudi Arabia will be a severe challenge to the new administration. While Riyadh’s strategic importance for the US as a loyal political ally and one of the world’s most important oil countries will continue, Biden may well have second thoughts about selling the same large amount of sophisticated military equipment to the country. Human rights could become a contentious issue for this relationship, especially of the 2019 murder of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi returns to the limelight.

Saudi Arabia, in turn, is deeply concerned about the new administration. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have recently ended their boycott of Qatar, which promises to start a new era of regional cooperation. Yet, the Saudis and Israel continue to be greatly worried about the Biden administration’s Iran policy.

Biden has repeatedly emphasized that he would like to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump withdrew from in 2018. Washington’s European allies are also pressing to prevent Iran from increasing its uranium enrichment program even further. Biden has made it clear that he does not wish to re-join the JCPOA under all circumstances. In a revised treaty, Tehran must re-establish compliance with the conditions of the 2015 agreement and contain its geopolitical activities in the wider Middle East. This would require cooperation between the US, Europe, Israel, and possibly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a rather steep and time-consuming challenge.

Moreover, the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 and the Israeli killing of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November 2020 have poisoned the atmosphere and empowered the hardliners in Tehran. While it is unlikely that the US, Washington’s allies, and Iran would be able to quickly work out a new nuclear agreement, Tehran’s increasingly desperate economic situation may be a decisive factor in the success of any renewed nuclear negotiations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Israel are much concerned about Biden’s new approach to Iran and, to some extent, the entire Middle East.

Yet, already during the Obama administration, when Biden was Vice President, the US had shown no great inclination to become more engaged in the Middle East. In fact, it began to reduce its involvement. As Biden also wishes to end the “forever wars” that the US has become involved in since the events of 9/11, the new administration may largely continue to neglect the region and focus much more on Europe, Russia, and China in its foreign policy priorities.


The Biden administration is expected to orientate its foreign policy through three main elements: multilateralism, diplomacy, and democracy/human rights. At least initially, domestic concerns will overshadow Biden’s foreign policy activities. There is an urgent need to deal with the virus and vaccine distribution crises and the US economy and bring its deep polarization under control. Regarding Biden’s foreign policy, transatlantic relations and relations with China will dominate Washington’s external policy (and possibly a new approach toward Russia).

The Middle East will not be the Biden administration’s foreign policy focus, though the new president can hardly afford to ignore the region altogether. Relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and, in all likelihood, the continued counter-terrorism effort to prevent a revival of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and elsewhere in the region will at least initially pre-occupy Washington’s Middle East policy during the Biden administration.


[1] Joseph R. Biden, Sr., “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs (March/April, 2020), pp.64-75.

[2] Summary of a paper prepared in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs and the Policy Planning Staff, undated (November 1973), published in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1969–76, Vol. E-15, Part 2, p. 172.

[3] See Klaus Larres, “Angela Merkel and Donald Trump: Values, Interests, and the Future of the West,” German Politics, Vol.27/2 (June, 2018), pp.193-213.

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