War Stories

What Will Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Look Like?

The president-elect’s emphasis will be on restoring U.S. alliances. But is it too late for that?

Biden, getting off a plane, stands on the stairs and holds the railing
Joe Biden at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 31. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden’s top priority in foreign policy is to restore America’s relations with its allies, for the sake of our democratic ideals and our vital interests. To his mind, the big problems can’t be solved by the United States alone. But the question is whether the allies will embrace his overture—whether four years of President Donald Trump’s belligerent isolationism has made them leery to reciprocate. Biden may be a trusted figure, but given Trump’s continued popularity and the weird chaos in American politics, who knows how long the bonhomie will last?

Biden ran for president as a restorationist candidate, and while his domestic agenda has shifted to a more ambitious gear, his international agenda has not. Though he recognizes that the world has changed since he was vice president, and far more so since the decades when he sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his main goal is to restore American leadership in a world that’s keen to follow it. The members of his national security transition teams and the tea-leaf-stained lists of his likely Cabinet secretaries—all smart, competent Washington insiders, most of whom worked with him in the Senate, the Obama White House, or both—reflect a similar frame of thought.

This is fundamentally fine with the “core allies” in Europe, whose leaders heaved the deepest sighs of relief at Biden’s victory. Whatever their doubts about post-Biden America, they will seize the moment eagerly. For one thing, they don’t have much choice. Soon after Trump’s first trip to the continent, four months into his presidency, when he declined to endorse Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, in which NATO members pledge to defend one another if they’re attacked, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, in a speech in Bavaria, that Europeans “must take our fate into our own hands” because the “times in which we could rely fully on others … are somewhat over.” Yet, in the subsequent 3½ years, neither she nor any other leader in the European Union has made the slightest progress in creating an independent defense force. No EU nation has the political will to lavish the necessary money on the military; nor does any one of its nations have the clout to present itself as a coalition leader, in the same way that the U.S. is the leader of NATO. The Europeans need America as the glue to a continental defense.

The main obstacle that Biden will face in revamping ties with Europe is that it’s unclear just what “Europe” means these days. The Western half of the continent still shares our values, by and large, although post-Brexit Britain has dwindled in size and power, while France faces domestic crises over immigration, and Germany may tilt toward right-wing populism with a neo-Nazi tinge after Merkel leaves office next year. Meanwhile, Turkey is barely pretending to be a Western power, and some of the former Soviet allies in central and Eastern Europe—notably Poland and Hungary, which began the post–Cold War era with a democratic flourish—have retreated to authoritarianism. Biden has said that “democratic principles” should lie at the heart of our alliances, calling for a “global summit for democracy” to deliberate the world’s problems. But with those principles in decline, are the alliances weakening at their core?

Luckily for Europe, Russia doesn’t pose the threat it once did. However, it grows stronger as the West frays (its main foreign policy involves exploiting those frays). Meanwhile, though, it remains a major nuclear weapons power, and one thing President Biden will do, very early in his term, is extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. (The treaty, signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, expires this February. One clause allows both parties to extend its terms by five years: Vladimir Putin is keen to do this; Trump isn’t.) Other than that, Biden is inclined to pursue areas where U.S. and Russian interests converge, but to let things lie—or mobilize containment, if necessary—where their interests conflict.

In Asia, things are complicated in a different way. China is, of course, the rising power, and its leaders are using their power not to build a cushier position in the international system—as many, including Biden, once hoped—but rather to transform the system in a manner that lures or coerces other countries away from Western institutions and into Beijing’s orbit. At the same time, the U.S. relies on China for trade, consumer goods, and crucial links in the supply chain for manufactured products, including medicines—as well as for cooperation in dealing with terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the antics of its neighbor, North Korea. Presidents since Bill Clinton have entered office pledging to clamp down on China’s excesses, but soon realized that, given our mutual dependencies, this is harder than it seemed. Biden will face the same dilemmas, but more so.

At the same time, Biden is much better suited to grappling with the problems than Trump has been. Biden has said that dealing with China requires, above all, forming a united front with allies. Trump faced China’s economic aggressions more head-on than his predecessors, but his solution—a trade war—was self-destructive. And waging a trade war, while simultaneously imposing sanctions on Canadian steel and German cars (many of which are made in the U.S.), was idiotic. Whatever balance Biden strikes between engagement and containment in dealing with China, he will conceive and enforce the formula with like-minded allies—and that will make diplomacy and confrontation more effective.

The good news is that many countries, especially allies like South Korea, Japan, and Australia, are fed up with China’s ham-fistedness in expanding its zones of interest. So these countries will welcome Biden’s inauguration as well. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal that would have provided a potent bulwark against China’s economic ambitions, was a major setback. Biden probably won’t be able to revive the TPP (many Democrats, especially in the party’s progressive wing, also opposed it), but he will be able to negotiate trade and security policies less formally. (The fact that the other signatories formed their own pact—a TPP minus the United States—will make these informal deals easier to coordinate.)

Meanwhile, despite Trump’s lack of interest, U.S. air and naval forces in the region have maintained a presence to stave off China’s ambitions to militarize the South China Sea. And, though Trump might have withdrawn troops from South Korea if given another four years, those troops remain as a deterrent to North Korean adventurism.

Trump’s open bromance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been one of the most baffling aspects of his presidency, especially since it yielded no payoff. Kim continued to build long-range missiles, enrich uranium, and devise ploys to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies—demanding (and getting) the cancellation of joint military exercises, test-firing short-range missiles across the Sea of Japan, and pushing for (but not getting) a “peace treaty” that would have ended the legal basis for keeping U.S. troops in South Korea—with no pushback from Trump whatsoever.

Biden’s advisers say he will resume talks with North Korea only if it first makes moves to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, and he will strengthen commitments to the allies’ security, regardless of Kim’s rhetorical bombast.

As for the globe’s long-reigning hot spot, the Middle East, Biden will probably clarify U.S. ambitions (Trump’s zigzags have left us without the barest hints of a policy) while also winding them back. When Obama and his advisers debated how to fight the war in Afghanistan, Biden was almost alone among them in opposing expansive “nation-building” rather than simply training the Afghan army and going after terrorists. (He turned out to be right, as Obama later recognized.) He is likely to take the same stance not only on Afghanistan but on Syria and Iraq as well—retaining a small contingent of Special Forces to fight off ISIS and, in Syria’s case, facilitate humanitarian assistance.

He will also try to restart the Iran nuclear deal, as long as the Iranians agree to resume complying with its terms. Trump broke the deal by withdrawing from it and reimposing sanctions; Iran, after failing to rouse trade with other nations despite the sanctions, resumed its nuclear program. In the interim, Trump’s withdrawal—and his subsequent regime-change rhetoric—strengthened Tehran’s hard-liners and made even more moderate officials wary of trusting Washington. Iran would like to return to the nuclear deal, if just to get the crushing sanctions lifted. But the timing will be delicate; rebuilding mutual confidence, and figuring out who takes what steps first without arousing political opponents in both countries, will require the most skilled and patient diplomats.

It will also be a delicate matter to coordinate this diplomacy while stepping away somewhat from Saudi Arabia. Biden plans to launch a strategic review of U.S. relations with the Saudis. One element of that will be to stop supplying the Saudi-led war in Yemen—which will probably have the effect of ending the war—and cracking down on, or at least no longer blithely tolerating, Saudi violations of human rights.

Otherwise, Biden is determined not to let the Middle East take up America’s precious time, a goal that is more feasible than any time in decades, given changing energy markets, public exhaustion, the return of great power competition, and the urgent need to focus on domestic renewal. One adviser says that the Middle East “ranks a distant fourth on our regional security list—after Asia, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.”

Then again, Obama came into office 12 years ago with a similar plan to move away from the ancient quarrels that had embroiled America in too many conflicts at too much cost—but, as Michael Corleone said in anguish of his mafia blood ties in The Godfather Part III, they kept pulling him back in.

Biden’s presidency will be a vast improvement—for our ideals, our interests, our prestige, and the possibilities of peace and prosperity—than a second term of Donald Trump would have been. But it is a messy world out there. Biden knows it, and he knows what needs to be done—and what shouldn’t be done—to navigate it. Whether he can get it done, given the reduced scope of American power and given the mischievous maneuvers of his political foes in Washington and elsewhere, is another matter; it’s a good part of what makes the world so messy.