An American flag flies over the south facade of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo: Getty Images.

Robert Jervis reflects on America’s Foreign Policy for January 2021: What to plan for when you’re expecting


  • Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science, Columbia University

  • In-depth view
  • 15 Jan 2020
  • 14 min read


  • Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Although the course of politics is always hard to predict, there is a good chance that the Democrats will win the presidential election in November and that a new administration will take office in January. Whether one approves of this outcome or not, it is worth thinking about what the new administration’s foreign policy would look like. What I will sketch here is quite conventional and unimaginative. But I think those that would more sharply break with the past are not likely to be pursued.

There has been much discussion of Trump’s erosion or rejection of the ‘liberal rules-based order,’ but it is not clear that the new administration’s policy can or should be based on returning to such arrangements. As critics have noted, the phrase disguises the heterogeneity of the institutions and patterns of behaviour that prevailed, much of which were neither rules-based nor particularly liberal. Policy also is much more granular than can be captured in these broad strokes and a grand design may not be necessary. When Barack Obama became president, he said he did not need a new George Kennan; the next president may well agree, and be correct in this attitude. On the other hand, Trump’s disregard for the standards of behaviour and treatment of allies that characterized much of American foreign policy since 1945 shows that this concept is not completely empty.

In some areas previous rules should be reinstated. The deployment of tariffs to gain political concessions, as Trump has threatened with Mexico over immigration, and the use of national security rationales for economically-motivated tariffs would have been beyond the pale previously. This is true as well for threats to break the Article 5 commitment to NATO allies who did not reach the 2% goal for defence spending, which would have been previously seen as not only destructive but as illegitimate.

In parallel, although the US always embraced dictators when this served important foreign policy interests, only Trump relished authoritarian regimes. Here I think the new administration will have to recognize the limits and failures of the hopes developed in the wake of the Cold War that liberal democracies would spread around the globe. For the foreseeable future, the world will be heterogeneous in being composed of regimes of very different types.

While the new administration should return to the traditional American stance of encouraging and supporting democracies, it should realize that overthrowing dictatorships is both difficult, as Trump has discovered with Venezuela, and often ends badly, as President George W. Bush learned in Iraq. Although President John F. Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America summarized in the Alliance for Progress was less than a complete success, his basic stance of ‘a warm embrace for democracies and a cold handshake for dictatorships’ is not a bad place to start.

Turning to more specific guidelines, one guiding principle should be that relations with others are rarely zero-sum, and never are so with allies. The US should seek economic and political arrangements that make all concerned better off, not those that advantage one of us over the others. Related is a principle that in many areas multilateral arrangements and agreements are better than bilateral ones. They can solidify goals and principles that are widely shared and they strengthen the idea that we have extensive common interests with most countries in seeing that rules are widely applicable. Although the US is the most powerful country in the world, it is not all-powerful. Ignoring or bullying allies sacrifices crucial leverage and the ability to ameliorate if not solve problems.

On the other hand, the new administration should realize that Trump’s stance has been not without its gains. It has led allies to make some concessions to the US, most obviously in greater (but still limited) contributions to NATO, and has put pressure on adversaries that should not be thrown away. For example, although I would join all the Democratic candidates in decrying Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and his use of threatened secondary economic sanctions to cut Iran’s economic ties to the rest of the world, I must also admit that these measures have gained more acquiescence from others and have inflicted greater harm on Iran’s economy than I foresaw.

But while they have contributed to domestic unrest within Iran, they have not changed the regime’s behaviour. They almost surely have made Iran more willing to make concessions, however.  The challenge of the new administration will be to use the leverage Trump has created to craft a deal that is better than the JCPOA, most obviously by extending the timeline for limitations on enriching uranium, bolstering the inspections regime, and perhaps gaining additional limits on the missile programme, and (although this may be beyond reach) its regional activities. It will be tricky to simultaneously maintain the pressure Trump has built and indicate to Iran (and American allies) that there is a new deal to be had, but that is the task.

Of course the withdrawal from the JCPOA has created a major challenge for the new administration in the form of how to make American promises toward adversaries credible. Leaders (and scholars) generally give much more attention to the problem of making threats credible than they do to the necessity for making promises credible, although logically the latter must accompany the former. In a world with better American domestic politics, one answer would be to enshrine the agreements in formal treaties, but for the foreseeable future this is not likely to be possible. Adversaries will always worry about the rise of a new Trump (just as I suspect that Kim Jung Un has to worry that while Trump is willing to disregard his massive human rights violations, his successor may well revert to the traditional American outlook). The problem is easier to discern than are solutions.

China may be in a category of its own, for both its importance and for the range of difficult issues it presents. So it is not surprising that Democrats of good will differ on the preferred policies. I think there is at least some common ground, however. First, Trump’s obsession with the trade balance is badly misplaced for a whole slew of reasons, including the fact that it is partly the result of arbitrary accounting rules. This is not to say that the concern with jobs lost is misplaced, and new policies must be as sensitive to the distributional effect of trade as they are to the impact on efficiency and overall economic growth.

Second, in areas where trade harms national security (e.g., by allowing China to penetrate sensitive US communication and infrastructure systems), concessions should not be exchanged for Chinese willingness to buy more American agricultural products. Third, even with allies, the US will not be able to completely reform the Chinese economy—and, ironically, if it succeeded it would make China a more robust economic competitor. Without a common front of many of China’s economic partners, very little can be done here, however.

The central question, of course, is whether, how, and to what extent the increase in Chinese power is a threat to American security, allies and values. With its preoccupation with trade, the Trump administration has made surprisingly little attention to this issue, which is epitomized by the American stance toward Chinese assertions of sovereignty and control in the East and South China Sea. The obvious opening statement for the new administration would be that the US will seek good relations with the PRC and respect its legitimate interests, but that the rights and interests of the US and its allies will be defended if China encroaches on them.

Going beyond this is necessary, but difficult and contentious. There are a number of excellent efforts that outline possible arrangements that would protect American vital interest while taking account of what China is most concerned about and thereby avoiding unnecessary conflict, but of course these are hypotheses only and unsurprisingly are subject to debate. So perhaps the only settled point is a more general one: here as in other areas the new administration should take advantage of the pressure that Trump has brought to bear on the PRC but should direct it to a more coherent and focused policy.

Trump’s policy—or perhaps I should say posture—toward Russia presents a particularly difficult legacy. On the one hand, he reiterated his trust in Putin, downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election, and talked about his desire for better relations. On the other hand, largely due to pressure from Congress, the administration increased sanctions against Russia and provided limited military aid to Ukraine.

The new administration will need to develop a much more coherent policy, but can retain Trump’s position that the Europeans should play a large if not dominant role. The main military threat posed by Russia is to Ukraine and the Baltic republics, and if the Europeans feel threatened they should provide more of the necessary military effort. Obviously the US has a large role to play, but here and in several other areas Trump’s misguided pressure provides the administration with an opportunity to reduce, although not eliminate, allied free riding.

Although a Russian attack on any of the Baltic republics is unlikely, a new administration should continue efforts, jointly with allies, to show Russia that any such move would incur costs and risks out of proportion to the possible gains. (Among the gains Russia might foresee would be weakening if not destroying NATO, so here again maintaining good relations with allies is particularly important so that Putin would not imagine the alliance crumbling.)

On the other hand, sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine should not be thought of as permanent, but rather as a tool to not only indicate that such actions will be costly but as a lever to broker new arrangements with Ukraine. These will require concessions on the part of Ukraine as well as Russia, and it would be foolish for the new administration to react to Trump’s behaviour that led to his impeachment by giving Ukraine unconditional support.

The Trump administration’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians is at least coherent, but again presents problems for the new administration. The complete dismissal of Palestinian interest on the apparent grounds that they are so weak as to have no choice but to acquiesce to American and Israeli demands is clearly an error, but the danger is that they will expect the new administration to be more solicitous of their views than will in fact be the case.

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to the well-being of the US and the entire world, and here is where the new administration can and should completely break with Trump’s irresponsible policy. Rejoining the Paris Agreement is only the first step, and whatever follows is sure to be difficult and contentious. Whatever is done, however, will require both pressures on and coordination with others, with a carbon tax and joint efforts at technological innovations to reduce and then end carbon emissions being obvious policies.

A final point is that it is almost certain that many of the new administration’s appointees will have served in the Obama administration. The experience and knowledge of these individuals will be a major asset, but the obvious danger will be the propensity to reject everything Trump has done and to seek policies that imitate Obama’s. Without denying the considerable achievements of this administration, the world now presents us with new dangers and new opportunities.

I do not envy those who will be in charge of charting the new course.