Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are briefed by expert members of their national security and foreign policy agency review teams in December 2020. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

Foreign Policy Priorities for the Biden Administration

Examining key US foreign policy plans for climate, trade, security, and the Middle East, and the importance of strengthening global relationships and democracy.


  • Article
  • 15 Jan 2021
  • 15 min read


Democracy Must Work at Home First

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

US democracy has been vividly on display and scrutinized by the world for the entirety of Trump’s presidency. In the years ahead, the global balance of democratic and authoritarian values will be shaped not only by US leadership abroad but especially by the ability of the Biden administration to fix America’s democracy.

Today, the US is wracked by internal division and the distribution of economic opportunities and benefits across society is radically unequal. Confidence in the leadership, the electoral system, and the capacity of the state to deliver has taken a serious hit.

Three steps are essential, though not sufficient alone, for improving the quality of democracy in America. First, it is imperative the role of facts and of science in formulating public policy society is rescued. Second, it is essential to create a commission to record – and ensure accountability for – the worst violations of the Donald Trump era; this should extend far beyond the more narrow focus of impeachment.

Third, the Biden administration must conceive of an approach and set of policies for securing social and economic justice that unites and integrates rather than divides and fractures white working class Americans with America’s racial minorities.

Success in restoring confidence in democracy matters far beyond America’s borders. Trust in democratic values has been backsliding globally for more than 14 years, but the recent assaults on democracy in the United States present a specific global challenge because the words and actions of the US president and his supporters reverberate far beyond America’s borders, empowering certain actors while diminishing others.

As a reminder of what is at stake, competition with China is fierce and the US and its partners need to innovate, invest and, importantly, deter. But none of that is sufficient to rise to the global challenge presented by a powerful and competent authoritarianism without making democracy work at home.

Rekindling a Spirit of America

Peter Trubowitz

The single biggest foreign policy challenge facing the incoming Joe Biden administration lies at home, because Biden’s foreign policy team needs to reconnect achievements in the international realm to recognizable benefits for the average American.

There was a time in America when Washington’s efforts to promote international openness, institutionalized cooperation, and multilateral governance did just that. This guaranteed broad bipartisan support for US foreign policy, enhancing US credibility and standing abroad. If Biden hopes to rekindle this spirit of America, his administration must find ways to make what the US is doing abroad pay dividends again for a broad cross-section of its citizens.

This requires his foreign policy team to be more candid than its predecessors about the short and long-term distributional consequences of foreign policies for different domestic sectors and groups. There also needs to be close coordination between Biden’s foreign policy and economic teams to ensure gains from any new trade initiatives – however desirable on geopolitical grounds – are inclusive domestically.

One way is to couple initiatives with strategically targeted investments in non-tradable sectors at home. Another is to connect them to programmatic initiatives such as the $350 million Schumer-Mendez bill in the Senate, aimed at modernizing the nation’s manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure, and increasing American firms’ international competitiveness. Joe Biden won the presidency by promising to ‘build back better’, so a foreign policy geared to the needs of working Americans provides a powerful way to show he means business.

The Word is ‘Constraint’

Jennifer Lind

Every year in Japan, the Kanji Proficiency Society publishes a ‘word of the year’ reflecting the zeitgeist. For US foreign policy, the word for 2021 is ‘constraint’. Although the United States has enjoyed tremendous freedom to pursue an ambitious foreign policy for the past three decades, conditions have now changed. The challenge is how the Biden foreign policy team, and US allies, adjust.

The US occupied an enviable position after 1990 as, with the Soviet Union’s collapse, it faced no great-power rival. Washington adopted an expansive strategy of global leadership by maintaining military dominance, enlarging alliances, and frequently relying on military force. Domestically, this approach enjoyed bipartisan support while, abroad, Cold War allies continued to rely on American leadership.

Now it is a different world, as China has emerged as a powerful competitor: increasingly challenging America’s political, economic, and military dominance. Stark divisions have emerged for the US domestically. Populism has been fuelled by ‘globalization on steroids’ and ‘status anxiety’ stemming from changing demographics. Trump’s presidency enraged Democrats, cleaved the Republican party, and shook America’s democratic foundations.

Between the shifting balance of power, the pandemic, and America’s fraught domestic politics, America’s allies also worry about continued US engagement and leadership. Of course the United States remains a leading country, and Biden’s announcement of a capable foreign policy team will do much to reassure. But the story of 2021 is about how the United States, and the world, adjust to growing constraints.

Towards a US-EU ‘Climate Club’

Dr Robert Falkner

Joe Biden won the election with the most ambitious climate plan ever put forward by a winning candidate, and he has an array of executive tools at his disposal to set the power sector on a path towards decarbonization by 2035, and to get the US economy moving towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, achieving these targets requires stronger measures – an economy-wide carbon price, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, investing in low-carbon technologies – which in turn need congressional approval. Even though opinion polls say two-thirds of Americans want their government to do more about the climate threat, this will not stop Republicans fighting net zero policies every step of the way.

International diplomacy offers a more promising arena for Biden to realise his climate ambition. It is within the president’s power to return the US to the Paris Agreement and submit a more ambitious emissions reduction pledge ahead of COP26.

Other countries will warmly welcome America’s return to climate multilateralism. But to ‘rally the rest of the world to meet the threat of climate change’ as Biden promised during the election campaign, the US needs to build alliances. Climate change is an area where the US can find common ground with China but continued geopolitical rivalry will muddy the waters.

A more likely scenario is closer cooperation with Europe, with talk of a future US-EU ‘climate club’ based on transatlantic carbon pricing and tariffs. The Biden administration will find itself pushing at open doors in Brussels if it proposes such a partnership, but can it deliver the tough policies needed to make US-EU climate collaboration a reality? As Biden is about discover, the road to lasting international leadership on climate change runs through Capitol Hill.

Security Threats Much Wider than Terrorism

Amy Pope

The shocking attack on the Capitol demonstrates how homeland security has changed dramatically since the term first gained popularity in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. In the last 20 years, and seen dramatically this past year, the most significant threats to the US homeland are no longer rooted in Islamic extremism. According to the ADL Center on Extremism, the overwhelming majority of extremist attacks are linked to homegrown right-wing extremists.

But it is not just extremist violence which threatens US homeland security. The past year captured in stark terms the crippling impact of a range of other threats to the homeland, such as the pandemic, cyber attacks against public and private sectors, and the rising threat of climate change, creating more destructive natural disasters and spurring migration, economic recession, and instability.

So a homeland security strategy which focuses only what is happening within US borders will fail. Given the global connectivity of our supply chains, travel, economy, and markets, national security policymakers must scan the globe with an eye on the threats that can easily cross borders.

More importantly, the bureaucracy must mature to mitigate these threats. There is a robust bureaucratic apparatus to counter the foreign terrorist threat, but the United States lacks the same infrastructure to mitigate other more serious threats. It is time for the policy response to evolve in line with the threat.

The Holistic Approach to Trade Policy

Marianne Schneider-Petsinger

Trade policy is not the focus of the Biden administration’s immediate policy priorities, and no new trade deals are likely to emerge anytime soon. And yet no other policy area will be as central to tackling both the key domestic and international challenges facing the US.

From revitalizing the US economy following the COVID-induced crisis to tackling climate change and addressing concerns over China’s economics and human rights, trade policy will be a pivotal tool of Biden’s stated approach to a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’.

By adopting a more multilateral trade approach, the Biden administration should use trade as an instrument to rebuild relationships with key partners around the world. The actions of the incoming administration concerning the selection process for the next Director-General of the World Trade Organization will be an initial test.

In contrast to the Trump administration, Biden will work more closely with US allies to confront China, but trade policy towards China will probably change less than it does towards the US’s closest partners, such as the EU. As the lines between domestic and foreign policy become increasingly blurred, a more holistic approach to trade policy can help build more robust political support for trade, and lay the foundations to negotiate new trade agreements when the time is ripe.

Iran Nuclear Deal Needs Wider Regional Commitment

Dr Sanam Vakil

Managing Iran is the most pressing Middle East issue for the Biden administration, because long-standing tensions with Iran, its expanded nuclear activities and ballistic missile programme, regional activism, and sponsorship of non-state actors remains a persistent challenge for the United States.

These issues worsened when President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and imposed the maximum pressure-based sanctions on Tehran. Now the Biden administration intends to tackle these concerns with a step-by-step process, where timing, sequencing, and continued diplomacy are key.

Biden has signalled he will pursue a ‘compliance for compliance’ return to the JCPOA, a process considered an urgent but necessary first step to safeguard the JCPOA and prevent Iran’s further nuclear acceleration where its breakout time has been reduced from one year to three months.

Tehran urgently needs sanctions relief but will require a few months to reverse its nuclear progress, and Washington also requires time to parse through and remove more than 1,500 designations imposed by the Trump administration.

Iran also holds its presidential elections in June 2021 and, for the outgoing Rouhani administration, securing a quick return to the deal would build back lost economic and political confidence, and perhaps also impact the election outcome. But this first step neither placates Republican or regional critics, nor addresses sticky regional dynamics.

To make the JCPOA sustainable, a follow-on discussion is urgently required. The larger – and thornier – regional discussions require a commitment from regional actors such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Iran and the P5+1 signatories to continue multilateral diplomacy picking apart interlocking regional issues.

The Return of the West

Hans Kundnani

In his book The Abandonment of the West, Michael Kimmage shows how the concept of the West emerged as a key organizing principle of US foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century, reached its apotheosis during the Cold War, and then lost traction as America became what Kimmage calls a ‘post-Columbian republic’ – in particular with the emergence of multiculturalism from the 1970s onwards. During the Obama administration, the idea of the ‘liberal international order’ replaced the anachronistic idea of ‘the West’.

However, in part as a reaction to a ‘post-Western’ Trump presidency, and in part a response to Russian aggression and the rise of China, the idea of the West is making a comeback. Oddly, it seems to be particularly popular among Joe Biden’s foreign policy team despite what Kimmage called its ‘racial, ethnic, religious and cultural baggage’.

It remains to be seen how much the Biden administration emphasizes the idea of the West. Some of his team talk about the West, but others have resurrected the idea of the ‘free world’ – another Cold War concept but based on ideology rather than geography or development, and could also include non-Western democracies such as India. Similarly, there is much talk of a ‘community of democracies’.

Many in Europe would welcome a return of the idea of the West – many Europeans think in civilizational terms even more than Americans. The idea of the West is also flattering for them because it suggests that Europe is as important as it was during the Cold War. But although recommitting to the idea of the West might seem to strengthen the transatlantic relationship, ultimately it is a mistake to double down on such an anachronistic idea.