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Biden 2020 foreign policy

Foreign Policy Post-Election: A (Biden) Primer

Words: Emma Ashford
Pictures: Library of Congress

It’s getting to be crunch time. In any normal election, this is the point at which candidates would be crisscrossing the country, shaking hands, kissing babies, and frantically trying to remember if they’re in Montana or Minnesota. Of course, it’s 2020. So, Joe Biden is engaged in a semi-virtual and socially distanced campaign, Donald Trump is conducting what observers are increasingly describing as a COVID super-spreader rally tour, and no sane person is going to let a presidential candidate come anywhere near their baby. Donald Trump’s probability of winning a second term continues to decline; now, less than a week out from the election, his odds of winning have dropped in the 538 model to just ten percent. But with suspicions of voter suppression, the difficulties of conducting an election in a pandemic, and the memory of 2016 hanging over everything, most observers seem to have concluded that anything could happen.

Want to know what could happen with foreign policy after a Biden win? Read on:


It’s rather strange to be in a position where the presidential candidate has more of a track record on foreign policy than the incumbent. But Joe Biden is an old hand in foreign policy. How old? Well, he was on the first congressional delegation to Beijing after Nixon normalized relations with China. He was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the first time in 1997. And his career in politics has covered the end of the Cold War, humanitarian interventions in the Balkans, the Global War on Terror, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Arab Spring. On foreign policy, it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Biden is largely promising restorationism: a return to the good old days of competent US foreign policy. Here are a few thoughts on the foreign policy themes we might expect to see from a Biden administration as it navigates a post-COVID world:

1. America is back, baby. Biden has been clear that central to his foreign policy is a return to US leadership, and a commitment to rebuilding alliances and partnerships around the world. But there’s also a strong domestic component to it: the Biden campaign includes revitalizing democracy and building a stronger economy for the middle class as part of its foreign policy plan. In actual foreign policy issues, the campaign has promised to rebuild American diplomacy, and to reenter global pacts on arms control, health, and climate. In short, Biden is promising to make American foreign policy great again – or at the very least, competent again.

In short, Biden is promising to make American foreign policy great again – or at the very least, competent again.

2. A Biden foreign policy would look markedly different from the Trump administration in tone. Biden already has long-standing relationships with a number of world leaders, and his foreign policy will look a lot more conventional: saying nice things about democratic allies and harsh things towards autocracies. In substance, though, it’s probably more mixed. On China, for example, though less likely to continue the indiscriminate trade war, there are already worrying signs that a Biden administration would aim to continue Trump’s tough line towards Beijing. But on arms control, on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or on the question of whether to continue negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Biden is likely to pursue a different course than Trump.

3. Even though a Biden foreign policy would be fundamentally restorationist in tone, it would likely seek to restore American foreign policy to the pre-Trump era only within limits. Unlike in 2016, there is an increasing understanding in Washington that the global foreign policy environment has changed since the heady days of the 1990s and 2000s, and that America today should cooperate with other countries rather than just coerce. There’s a growing consensus that America will have to make some changes to its foreign policy if it hopes to remain respected and competitive in the world. There’s also increasing pressure from the left of the democratic party – and from a growing share of the electorate – to wind down the “endless wars” in the Middle East, and to take a tougher line on traditionally friendly states like Israel and Saudi Arabia. But one of the big unknowns of a Biden presidency is the extent to which these new sentiments constrain his foreign policy, or whether his advisors simply seek to rebuild the politics of the unipolar moment.

4. From a vantage point in 2020, a restorationist foreign policy sounds quite appealing. Imagine: return to a time when foreign policy wasn’t made by tweet, and when no one woke up in the morning wondering whether we were friends with North Korea or at war with them! But it’s worth remembering that foreign policy prior to Trump wasn’t as rosy as the nostalgia makes it seem. In 2016, we had an ever-expanding war on terror fought in a number of countries, US-backing for a Saudi-led war in Yemen, an increasingly hostile relationship with Russia, and an alliance system in which most members were free-riding on the United States and paying little towards their own defense. That Trump himself pointed some of these problems out – and failed to fix them – does not mean that they will suddenly go away if he does; a return pre-Trump foreign policy will be a return to the flaws of the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus.


Particularly for a first term president, Biden would be a relatively known quantity, though his long experience in the making of US foreign policy suggests both some good instincts on foreign policy (i.e., his opposition to the Obama administration’s Libya debacle) and some more questionable choices (i.e., his repeated insistence that we partition Iraq). But while we mostly know where he personally is coming from on foreign policy, we don’t yet know the extent to which new sentiments on foreign policy, on war, and on China would shape his administration’s foreign policy.

Will Biden dial down the rhetoric and trade war with China, or will he drive headlong into the ‘great power competition’ approach to foreign policy? Will he follow through on primary-era promises to ‘end endless war,’ or will he keep American forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere? And will Biden try to reclaim America’s role as the world’s ‘indispensable nation,’ or will he accept a new, more modest role for America as a leader among equals?

Only time will tell. But one thing we can be sure of: a Biden presidency would involve far less tweeting than the last four years. And that’s something we could all look forward to.

Emma Ashford


Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative, where she focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, Middle Eastern affairs, energy politics, and US grand strategy. She holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia.


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