Biden Reboots U.S. Foreign Policy

Three policy priorities to look out for in the opening weeks

If you have a chance to talk with America’s new President Joe Biden, one thing you’ll find out is that he knows a lot about the world.  He’s the most knowledgeable person on global affairs to assume the presidency in more than a generation. 

Several years ago, I had a chance encounter with then-Senator Biden in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan that turned into several hours of listening to Biden hold forth about the world.  I was in Pakistan as part of a parliamentary election monitoring delegation, and my colleagues and I bumped into Biden on the top floor of the hotel after midnight. 

He had just arrived from India and was on his way over to Afghanistan with fellow Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, part of a Senatorial three amigos who ended up later serving together in the Obama administration.  Walking the hallway alone with no staff, Biden recognized one of my colleagues, former Congressman Jim Moody. He was bundle of energy despite the long days of travel and meetings – “Hey man, you wanna get a milkshake?” Biden asked.

Moody, another colleague, and I headed downstairs to the lobby restaurant with Biden for a conversation that lasted a couple of hours. Biden held forth about U.S. foreign policy at the end of the Bush administration and vowed to use his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help set forth a new vision. 

In the discussion Biden demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of global affairs and showed he had a network of personal connections with world leaders he met in his years of travel as a Senator.  This was before he served eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

Biden starts his term with a strong personal knowledge of the world – like George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon who also served as vice presidents prior to coming to the presidency.  Biden has started to assemble an experienced and smart foreign policy team, many of whom spent the past four years ensconced in efforts to point out the many flaws in Trump’s foreign policy and offer some alternative ideas.

It’s safe bet that some big changes are ahead on U.S. foreign policy:  a steadier and more consistent approach to traditional democratic allies in Europe and Asia, some possible shifts away from Trump’s approach on Iran and the broader Middle East, and a renewed effort to engage international organizations like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization to produce institutional change and get results that help improve Americans’ lives.

But some of these changes will take some time – there are slots to be filled, and the effort to re-introduce some regular order and normal interagency processes that used to feature in most U.S. administrations.  Also, the rule that undergraduate students learn in U.S. Foreign Policy 101 that there is often more continuity between administrations than change in the first year will probably still apply on some key issues like China and some aspects of counterterrorism.

On foreign policy, here are three big ticket items that seem high on the Biden team’s proactive agenda:

1.     Making life better for Americans through its foreign policy.  The Biden team has talked a lot about having a foreign policy the middle class can support, and in practice this means making sure U.S. engagement in the world helps address real world problems Americans are facing today.

First among these is a better response to the pandemic – the news today that the Trump team didn’t even have a baton to hand off to the Biden team on a vaccine deployment plan means the team has to start from scratch.   Since the pandemic knows no borders, the Biden team will also focus on a more coordinated international response.   Biden’s moves on global economic policy will keep a sharp focus on economic recovery at home – Biden was greeted on his first full day in office with news that he inherits the worst job numbers of any incoming modern president. 

2.      Ironing out wrinkles with close allies.  Four years of Trump’s improvised, chaotic and schizophrenic approach has rattled close allies and partners, especially democracies facing similar internal political dysfunction like America has seen.  The first call Biden has as president will be with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tomorrow – and this will be the first of many conversations Biden will have to re-introduce America. 

3.      Next steps on climate change.  One of the many executive orders Biden signed in his first hours in office was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement – but this is the first step in many more to come that will see the Biden administration prioritizing climate change in its foreign policy agenda. 

Other issues will come up in the world that will force the Biden team to react and produce policy responses – but the effort to connect foreign policy to a domestic renewal agenda, soothe relations with long-standing partners, and take diplomatic steps on climate change to match the actions planned at home are three issues to watch closely in the coming weeks.  Biden’s personal familiarity with the wide range of global issues will help – but a key part of producing progress on these fronts will involve empowering his team to tackle the many problems America faces.