In his first foreign policy speech as president, Joe Biden couldn’t have been clearer: “America is back,” he assured the world, and he vowed to “course-correct our foreign policy and better unite our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership.” It was a promise to reverse a range of actions and approaches of his predecessor, an extension of pledges made during the 2020 campaign to “rescue” U.S. foreign policy from the damage wrought by Donald Trump. “Trump’s disastrous foreign policy record reminds us every day,” Biden said, “of the dangers of an unbalanced and incoherent approach.”
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Anyone listening would have expected Biden’s first year in office to include a dismantling of Trump’s legacy on the world stage — or at least a concerted effort to do so. Many of Trump’s own international priorities had seemed motivated by a desire to erase Barack Obama’s signature initiatives, including the Iran nuclear deal, the diplomatic opening with Cuba and the Paris climate agreement. Surely Biden would return the favor.
In some cases, that is exactly what has happened. In terms of rhetoric and approach, Biden’s Year One has seen a dramatic shift — a far greater emphasis on international alliances and issues including climate change and human rights. In other areas, however, Biden’s first year in the global arena has been less a 180 than a recalibration, moving slowly away from some Trump policies, and in others not only following in Trump’s footsteps but building on the work done by his predecessor. In some cases, the realities of global tensions or domestic politics have narrowed Biden’s options; in others, he appears to have found aspects of Trump’s approach worth preserving.
Keeping the status quo
For a look at where the Trump status quo has held, the Middle East is a good place to start.
The Abraham Accords — a series of landmark agreements normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — were a signature global initiative of the Trump administration. Even Trump’s fervent critics praised the deals. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of Biden’s closest congressional allies, called the accords a “big step forward” and a “very positive thing.” The Biden administration has sought to build on these agreements — Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted talks in Washington in October between his counterparts from Israel and the U.A.E., praising what he called the “transformative partnerships” reshaping the region.
“I think the Abraham Accords is a really good example of policy that has merit on its own, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations alike would see as a beneficial policy step,” Elisa Ewers, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, told Grid. “The administration, I think, is trying to maximize and expand the opportunities of the Abraham Accords while also taking into account what is important from its perspective — and which may be different than how the Trump administration assessed it — which is the continued need to address the Palestinian issue.”
The Biden White House has also continued to support replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, and its response to new Israel settlement-building in the West Bank has been muted. Biden has declined to reverse Trump’s controversial 2017 decision moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
More broadly, Biden has worked to shift the overall focus of U.S. national security policy from counterterrorism and the Islamic world to more conventional adversaries. His predecessor also had this goal. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy highlighted the return of “great power competition,” as China and Russia seek to “reassert their influence regionally and globally.” In his first address to Congress, Biden framed the United States’ 21st-century challenges as a “competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century.” (For that matter, the Obama administration also sought, with decidedly mixed success, to “pivot to Asia.”)
Both Trump and Biden have sought to raise the level of U.S. recognition of Taiwan. Trump took the unprecedented step, as president-elect, of taking a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, contravening the United States’ decadeslong “One China” policy. Biden hasn’t spoken directly to Tsai, but he did invite a Taiwanese delegation to December’s virtual democracy summit, enraging Beijing.
Biden has also followed up on Trump’s moves to emphasize the Quad — a grouping of the U.S., India, Australia and Japan that began as an informal alliance after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but which both administrations have seen as a useful regional bloc for countering China’s territorial ambitions.
The Biden China policy mirrors his predecessor’s in other ways — a reflection of the fact that a hard-line approach to China is now a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, believes that bipartisan consensus on China policy will be long-lasting. “I don’t expect China’s behavior to change,” she told Grid. “China will be more assertive in pressing its interests. … In terms of the overall U.S.-China relationship, that is just structurally going to be focused on competition for a long time to come, decades certainly.”
Finishing what Trump started
Perhaps the most direct example of a Trump initiative carrying over into the new administration is the most controversial international decision the Biden team has made so far: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
In February 2020, the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban under which the last U.S. troops would leave the country by May 1, 2021. The Biden team missed that deadline, citing logistical factors, and made a tentative effort to forge a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the internationally backed Afghan government. But in the end, Biden held fast to the decision to bring the troops home — despite the fact that the Taliban was not living up to its end of the 2020 deal — and the last U.S. troops left Kabul on Aug. 30.
In some respects, the new administration’s hands were tied — the Taliban was already making steady advances, albeit at a slower pace, with the 2,500 American and 6,500 NATO troops left in Afghanistan when Biden took office — but the decision also reflected the president’s long-held skepticism of the war effort.
It’s impossible to know whether Biden would have pulled out the troops if Trump hadn’t already begun the process, but it undoubtedly made the decision easier. Leaving Afghanistan was a Trump administration policy; Biden presided over its completion. (The fact that the withdrawal was originally Trump’s decision did not, by any means, stop the former president from blaming its consequences on Biden.)
When reality — or politics — intrudes
In some corners of the globe, the Biden administration has stayed the Trump course — but only because global practicalities or domestic political considerations have made it difficult to do otherwise.
Candidate Biden vowed to treat the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, promising, “We were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them.” The Biden administration has made public details linking the Saudi leader-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to Khashoggi’s death, but that’s it in terms of a strong response. Biden is hardly the first president to talk tough on Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail, only to find the country too valuable to punish from his perch in the Oval Office — but the turn from “pariah” to fast friend has been sharp.
Biden took no action against the crown prince after the Khashoggi report’s release, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with him in September. And while the administration formally cut off support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen — which Trump’s team staunchly backed, and which has been blamed for thousands of civilian casualties — Biden recently backed a $650 million sale of “defensive” weapons systems to the Saudis, including air-to-air missiles.
Change has also been elusive when it comes to the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement, calling it “one of the worst deals ever” and insisting it could be reinstated only under more favorable terms. “Talk of a ‘better deal’ is an illusion,” said candidate Biden, and he pledged repeatedly to rejoin the agreement.
As far back as 2019, experts warned that reengaging the Iranians would be easier said than done, and those experts have been proved right — to date at least. From the first days of the Biden era, when Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president who originally negotiated the 2015 pact, was still in office, the two sides have clashed over questions of sequencing: The Americans said Iran should halt enrichment activities first; the Iranians said the Americans were the ones who had violated the deal, and thus the first step had to be the lifting of Trump’s sanctions.
In August, hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi was elected, and although talks continue, a return to the deal looks unlikely. And the “maximum pressure” sanctions Trump instituted — part of an approach that constituted a campaign for regime change in all but name — remain in place.
Closer to home, Biden has taken no steps to revisit the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. As a candidate, he promised to “reverse the failed Trump policies” toward the island nation, which he said had only harmed ordinary Cubans while doing little to advance democracy or human rights. But as president, he hasn’t lifted the restrictions on travel or remittances to the island that were imposed during the Trump years, nor has he restaffed the U.S. embassy in Havana.
Cuba policy is still “under review,” but Democrats’ recent electoral drubbings in Cuban American strongholds in Florida may have dampened enthusiasm for dramatic moves on this issue. In March, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that “a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.”
Then there’s immigration, the issue in which foreign and domestic policy are most intertwined. Biden certainly doesn’t demonize migrants as Trump did; he isn’t building a wall along the border, and he has taken meaningful steps to make the U.S. asylum system more humane. But he has followed Trump’s lead in effectively outsourcing immigration enforcement to Mexico, reaching a deal with that country’s government to deploy thousands of troops to its southern border to stop migrants from heading north. The administration has also continued the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sends any migrants claiming asylum back to Mexico to await their hearing.
This latter extension of Trump policy wasn’t entirely intentional. The administration announced the suspension of new enrollments in the MPP on its first day in office, but an August Supreme Court decision ordered that the program be reinstated.
Critics have charged that in renegotiating implementation of the program with Mexico, the administration has gone beyond what was required. Pedro Gerson, a professor at the California Western School of Law who has worked on immigration issues in both Mexico and the U.S., told Grid he believes the administration is doing everything possible to avoid the optics of building new refugee camps at the border: “When they eased restrictions, there was going to be pent-up demand from people to come across the border, and that was always going to be a problem for them.”
In terms of overall refugee policy, candidate Biden called Trump’s approach to asylum-seekers “cruel and shortsighted,” but in April, the White House announced it was keeping the historically low cap for refugee admissions set for fiscal year 2021. That decision was quickly walked back after backlash from Democrats and immigration activists, but refugee admissions were still at a record low last year.
What has changed
From a global perspective, perhaps the most significant difference between Biden and Trump has to do with rhetoric and overall approach toward traditional American allies. The current president has continually emphasized the importance of alliances, which Trump saw as narrowly transactional.
To counter the current Russian threat to Ukraine, the administration is coordinating closely with members of NATO — an alliance Trump consistently disparaged as unnecessary and threatened to leave. And Biden has shown no qualms about forceful criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader Trump defended at nearly every turn.
When it comes to the international pandemic response, the U.S. has rejoined the World Health Organization (which Trump pulled out of) and become the leading funder of its global vaccine initiative (which Trump did not want to fund at all). And in addition to rejoining the Paris Agreement, the Biden team has elevated climate change to a major national security priority.
In some cases where the policy goals are the same, the approaches to achieving them have been very different. For instance, while Biden and Trump may share a view of China as a security challenge, Trump’s protection racket-like threats to cut military support for U.S. allies including Japan and South Korea undermined efforts to meet that challenge.
“The biggest difference is working together with allies and partners, and rejoining multilateral institutions and using those in ways that are more advantageous to us,” said Glaser, referring to Biden’s approach in Asia.
A more basic shift? When Biden applies pressure to an adversary — be it China or North Korea, he doesn’t do it via threats and mockery on Twitter.
Why haven’t we seen the dramatic shift we might have expected one year ago?
Ewers, who served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, says a certain amount of continuity is natural: “It does take time for the new team to review the state of affairs and determine not just how it is going to fulfill the foreign policy commitments laid out during the campaign, but also determine the reality and details of what’s been done by the previous administration, the institutional steps that have been taken … and the implications if you reverse them.”
International issues also don’t always map neatly onto partisan divides. The left of the Democratic Party shared Trump’s desire to get out of Afghanistan; human rights hawks also wanted to get tough on China. Both tendencies have been reflected in aspects of the Biden approach. The Trump administration often seemed to be running two parallel foreign policies: Trump was a nationalist with a narrowly transactional view of alliances and isolationist tendencies; many of his top military and political officials — Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, to name a few — were more traditional Republican hawks.
The Biden administration’s caution has on occasion made nobody happy, irritating both the traditional internationalist establishment and his party’s progressive wing. In the former camp, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass recently criticized Biden for moving too slowly to undo Trump’s foreign policy. He sees this as troubling evidence of an emerging “America first” foreign policy consensus, which rejects the long-held view that the U.S. should play a leading role in maintaining international security.
Progressives, meanwhile, have been alarmed by the tough talk on China and Russia. Stephen Miles, director of the activist group Win Without War, told Politico early in Biden’s term that the administration seemed to be continually “looking over their right shoulder” in foreign policy debates and was motivated by “fear of being attacked on the right of not being tough enough on China or Iran or other issues.”
There may be merit to these critiques, but it’s also true that the administration is operating within the constraints of the world it inherited. The Biden team has often appeared animated by a desire to preserve stability in a time of global upheaval, rather than launching grand ideological projects. This has sometimes meant adjusting or even continuing Trump’s approach, rather than — in Trumpian fashion — simply overturning the status quo to impress his supporters.
Perhaps Biden’s caution is an admirable impulse, but it may also have the unwanted consequence of giving a more disruptive administration the power to set the terms by which its more cautious successor has to operate. Future presidents will no doubt take note.