Joe Biden’s in-tray: The five key foreign policy issues
Whenever there is a new leader behind the desk in the Oval Office, they are sure to be tested by America’s adversaries. Joe Biden will be no different. In fact, because of the unconventional nature of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, it is logical to assume that more than few leaders around the world will be interested in testing the next administration.
Many wonder — both friend and foe, and not unreasonably — if President Trump has changed the way US foreign policy is made for good, or will Biden bring it back in line with the status quo ante?
Heading into 2021, the next administration’s in-tray will be full. Undoubtedly, the focus will be the domestic situation in the US. Top priorities will include rolling out the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine and dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic. Nevertheless, global events do not slow or stop just for a new president. There are five areas in which President Biden and his administration will be tested early when it comes to international affairs.
Top of the list is Iran. Biden in the past has criticized the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal, along with the killing of Qassem Soleimani and the “maximum pressure campaign” against Tehran. Even so, it is hard to deny that Iran is weaker and less of a threat thanks to many of the actions taken by Trump.
Many in Iran were hoping that Trump would lose the election to see if a Biden administration would change tactics. There is no doubt that in the coming months many of America’s friends in the Gulf and in Israel will be watching events closely and nervously. Expect Iran to challenge the US and its allies in the region early on in order to gauge what policies Biden might pursue against Tehran.
Another area to watch will be China. Trump had a particular way of engaging with President Xi Jinping. Although the US leader was desperate to secure a better trading arrangement between the two countries, little progress was made on the issue. Any momentum toward improving US-China relations was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent years, the Trump administration did a good job raising awareness of China’s nefarious activities around the world. His administration rallied Europeans against adopting 5G technology from Chinese companies. The US State Department has highlighted what China has been doing in the Arctic, across Africa and in the Indo-Pacific to undermine US interests in these regions. Expect Biden to continue this tough line against Beijing. The incoming president will enjoy not only bipartisan support for taking a hard line against China, but also the backing of the American public. Areas where China could make trouble early on for the next administration include the South China Sea, aggression against Taiwan and further crackdowns in Hong Kong.
It is hard to deny that Iran is weaker and less of a threat thanks to many of the actions taken by Trump.
Another early challenge will likely come from Russia. As vice president, Biden was part of the Obama administration’s failed Russian “reset” policy. However, he also led the US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into 2014 after it became clear that reset had failed and he has since taken a hard line against Moscow. Many Democrats still believe that Trump was elected in 2016 because of Russian interference. Therefore, Biden will have support from his own party in Congress to take a tough line when it comes to Moscow. It remains to be seen if he will retry the failed approach of rapprochement as Obama did, or if he will take a harder line against Russian aggression in places such as Ukraine, Syria and Belarus.
The Taliban will also want to test the Biden administration’s views on the Afghan peace process. After successive administrations pointed out the necessity for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, only Trump had the political will to bring about peace talks. Trump has also overseen a greater US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan than any other president. This led to the Taliban even endorsing his re-election in the hopes that the US troop reductions would continue.
While Biden is likely to continue supporting talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it is a real possibility that his administration will slow US troop withdrawals while assessing the situation on the ground. In the first few months expect the Taliban to test the resolve and commitment of the Biden administration to Afghan security and the intra-Afghan talks.
Finally, after enjoying a relatively cozy relationship with Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will want to gauge the new administration’s approach. Despite two high-level summits between the US and North Korean leaders, nothing of significance materialized to improve the situation. North Korea still maintains its nuclear weapons. In 2019, the regime conducted 26 missile launches, a record for any year. Last March alone, Pyongyang launched nine missiles — the highest number ever in a single month. In the past North Korea has ramped up tensions early in any new US administration and there is every reason to expect the same approach with a Biden administration.
How the incoming administration deals with, confronts and engages with these challenges will set the tone for the next four years. Other than with Iran, there is generally a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington on all these issues. This should make things easier for the new administration.
Having spent almost half a century working in Washington, and much of that time dealing with foreign policy, Biden has experience. However, the world has changed greatly since he was last in office.
How quickly he and his team adjust to this new reality will determine how safe the US and its allies will be. But make no mistake, he will be tested.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey