The Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy: Will It Lead by Example?

Joseph R. Biden’s victory in the November 3rd presidential election has been received with considerable optimism around the world – despite the refusal of some leaders to acknowledge his victory and Donald Trump’s accusations of electoral fraud – especially in those countries and regions that have strategic relations with the foremost world economy, and whose relations were affected during the last four years, such as the European Union. In his essay on “Why America Must Lead Again” the President-elect laid out his foreign policy vision for the United States of America to restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage, arguing that domestic and foreign policies are intimately intertwined. However, achievements abroad could be far from their capacity for action at home, given the magnitude of internal division within the US. 

As Richard Haass has pointed out recently the US finds itself in a situation of bitter divisiveness. More than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and many of them will continue to buy into his destructive narrative that the election was stolen and believe that Biden is an illegitimate president; US society will continue to be split on matters of wealth inequality, race, and education, and the two parties may move towards embracing radically opposed positions on matters of policy ranging from taxes to police reform and health care. Additionally, the government may find itself just as, if not more divided as well. Biden may have won the US presidency but Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and will likely maintain control of the Senate, reducing the Democrats’ margin of control as well as its scope of action. The losses already have sparked an intra-party fight between progressives and establishment centrists over who is to blame.

Given the political constraints at home, Biden may end up having more impact on the rest of the world than the United States. This should not be accepted without criticism, however, because while positive changes in international relations will come with the new Democratic administration, the weakening of the multilateral system, largely fragmented by the realist policy of “Make America Great Again,” has already contributed to the relative decline of the liberal democratic order.

The new administration will begin its mandate facing a daunting set of foreign policy challenges, including controlling the raging COVID-19 pandemic, stabilizing the global economy, and managing tension with the People’s Republic of China. These conditions will challenge the potential of the new administration to serve as an example for the world. So, how is the new administration going to “Build America Back Better”?

Biden’s plans to restore the US’ leadership abroad will be based on seven pillars: 1) Rebuilding the transatlantic alliance with Europe; 2) Pooling resources, particularly on shared threats; 3) Rejoining accords that Trump abandoned; 4) Protecting human rights – although the US will have to make progress at home on racial issues to be credible in pushing human rights anywhere else in the world; 5) Exhibiting toughness with respect to undemocratic regimes and dictators; 6) Being more respectful of countries – particularly in Africa and Central America – with few resources and little power; and 7) convincing the rest of the world that the US still deserves the power it once yielded. The appointment of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State shows the new president’s interest in turning US foreign policy around. 

The new administration has argued that the United States must lead not just with the example of power, but the power of its example. But are other countries really interested in emulating a fractured country that turned its back on many of its commitments over the past four years? The idea that the Biden administration will mean the end of the Trump era and the solution to the world’s problems – some say Biden will be treated like a folk hero in Europe and Asia for all his experience – is a misunderstanding of the changes inside and outside the US.

First of all, US foreign policy has well-defined objectives regardless of which party is at the head of the government (such as protectionism, the persistent intention to maintain the US as the leader of the world and the policy of containment of China – one of the most sensitive issues that cannot be expected to change with the new administration). These traditional objectives have been taken to the extreme in recent years and have put international society in check. If Biden seeks to be an example that other countries wish to emulate his administration will have to reconsider some of these traditional objectives and effectively face challenges at home, considering his controversial positions on domestic and foreign policies throughout his political career. 

But beyond the figure of Biden, one of the most significant changes that will have an impact, hopefully positively, on the path of women in politics, will be the historic triumph of Kamala Harris as the first woman and woman of color as vice president who will have an outsized influence on both US foreign policy and on the image it projects to the world. Harris’ identity may signal that the racist and whitewashed days of US foreign policy are nearing their end; only time will tell if her strategic approach to foreign policy sends the same message.

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