After four years of norm-bending, treaty-disrupting and alliance-shaking foreign policy from the Trump administration, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is promising to return the US to its more traditional role on the world stage.
Biden has said he will make significant changes to US foreign policy should he win Tuesday’s presidential election. People familiar with the former vice president’s plans say he would immediately reverse Trump policies on Iran, climate change and the World Health Organization.
Biden’s goals share a common theme that breaks sharply with President Donald Trump’s isolationist approach: rebuilding alliances, a strategy meant to repair frayed US international ties and reflect his belief that America’s toughest challenges, including the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, require international cooperation and coordination.
“Trump’s ‘America First’ has been ‘America Alone,’” said Brian McKeon, a Biden foreign policy adviser and a former White House and Pentagon adviser in the Obama administration. “On his first day in office, [Biden] will get on the phone to key allies and say that America is back and America has your back.”
Here’s a breakdown of what a Biden foreign policy would look like:
Returning to the table with allies
Trump has “poked his finger in the eye of all our friends and allies, and he’s embraced every autocrat in the world … we have lost all our friends,” Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper in September.
Biden’s advisers say he believes US national security is stronger, and more impactful, when it is approached in partnership with treaty allies. “We have a network of alliances that the Chinese don’t have, the Russians don’t have and we are stronger when we work together with these allies,” McKeon said.
Trump has publicly questioned and denigrated the value of the US’ most longstanding alliances, including with NATO, Germany, South Korea and Japan. He has also pulled the US from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization and a slew of other United Nations agencies.
Biden will convene a “Summit for Democracy” in the first year of his presidency to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda,” the former vice president wrote in a Foreign Affairs essay. Corruption, human rights and the fight against authoritarianism will be major themes.
Biden has declared he would rejoin the Paris climate accord “on day one” and then “rally the world to push our progress further.”
Trump, who took the US out of the Paris Agreement, called it “one of the greatest disasters of all time.”
The Democratic candidate told a CNN town hall last year that he would ask countries in the agreement to boost their commitments “because we’ve learned so much just in the last three years about the science, about what has to happen quicker.” Biden also pledged to sign a “series of new executive orders” that surpasses the climate ambition of the Obama-Biden administration and to develop tools to crack down on China’s use of coal and their outsourcing of carbon pollution.
Early in his campaign Biden said he would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Iran starts complying with the pact, a move that advisers say will require close work with allies and a near immediate start of new negotiations.
“If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would re-join the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” Biden said during a foreign policy speech last year.
Iran announced last year that it would no longer limit itself to the restrictions contained in the deal in response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.
Covid and the WHO
A return to the World Health Organization is also on Biden’s list of immediate policy changes. This comes after Trump, earlier this year, said that the US would leave the organization.
Biden advisers say he would work to reform the WHO and focus on ensuring that China abides by international protocols when it comes to pandemic protections. Biden would also reverse Trump’s decision to pull US health scientists out of China, where they worked on pandemic detection and surveillance.
The precise plan for how a Biden administration would reenter the WHO and hold it accountable will be determined during a transition, his advisers say.
They add that at home, Biden’s focus will be on vaccinating every American. Advisers say Biden’s Covid response team would bring together domestic and foreign experts.
The US-China relationship is probably the most consequential and tricky one any modern American president has to deal with.
Biden called Trump erratic on China and his foreign policy advisers have said that the President’s approach – particularly taking action without consulting allies – has undermined the ultimate goal of competing with China. Biden has said there are areas where it is in the US interest to work with Beijing, including on climate change and North Korea. Biden advisers say he will work closely with allies to present a united front on issues such as technology, including Huawei and 5G, intellectual property theft and China’s expansion in Asian waters.
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In public comments, Biden has reflected the Obama administration view that incorporating China into the world system is the most effective way of ensuring it adheres to international rules and norms. In the past, Biden supported most favored nation status for China and allowing it into the World Trade Organization. “We wanted China to grow. We don’t want to have a war with China,” Biden said in a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper when asked about his support for those initiatives in the past.
The last remaining nuclear proliferation pact, the New START Treaty, expires shortly after the election. Biden aides say that if the Trump administration fails to renew it, he will make it a top priority to extend the agreement.
Otherwise, Biden wants to work closely with allies to counter Russian aggression and disinformation, saying in the second presidential debate that Moscow “will pay a price” for its election interference and declaring Russia the biggest threat to America’s security.
Biden’s advisers say he wants to wind down military commitments in Afghanistan and continue to support intra-Afghan negotiations, but don’t offer details on how he will do that. That’s partially because it’s not clear exactly what sort of situation they’ll inherit, they say.
It is unclear if Biden will give his team the green light to directly engage with the Taliban, like the Trump administration has.
Biden advisers emphasize that during the Obama administration, Biden opposed both the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and the intervention in Libya in 2011. “I would not say he is quick to support military intervention unless he sees that it is warranted based on national security interest and that we can accomplish our objectives,” McKeon said.
In a stark contrast to the Trump administration, Biden would end support for the Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen, which many in Congress oppose because of reports of ongoing and serious human rights violations. There has been a major push from the progressive arm of the Democratic Party for Biden to adopt this policy.
Biden has ridiculed Trump’s pursuit of friendly relations with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, who has continued his country’s nuclear program despite concessions and high-level meetings.
“He’s made some cockamamie deal to his good friend, sending love letters to Kim Jung-un…What in God’s name is that all about,” Biden asked on CNN. Trump “gave him legitimacy. We had firm, firm constraints on what they could buy and what they could sell in their economies. He’s blown it. He’s giving them so much credibility. They’re closer to a nuclear weapon than they were before. He did the same thing in Iran. I mean, this America first has made America alone.”
Biden said during the last presidential debate that in order for him to meet with Kim, the North Korean leader would need to agree to draw down his nuclear capacity. Putting the bar so high – given that Kim is unlikely to make that commitment – has made South Korea, which favors engagement, nervous.
Israel and the Palestinians
Biden aides signal some shifts from Trump’s approach. The President has made some controversial moves to favor Israel – including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the city to be Israel’s capital, but these steps will be hard to reverse.
Biden has said he will not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, but that he will restore engagement with Palestinians that Trump has cut off, will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem that was meant to serve the Palestinian population, restore assistance to Palestinians and the United Nations agency that supports them and help reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission in the US, which was shut down by Trump.
“Biden is a strong supporter of the state of Israel and assistance to it and always has been. But he also believes in a two-state solution in dealing with Palestinians and not taking measures that make it harder to get to a two-state solution,” McKeon said.
Rebuilding the State Department
Biden has committed to rebuilding the diplomatic corps of the State Department.
Obama said that Trump has “systematically tried to decimate our entire foreign policy infrastructure,” during an interview earlier this month. He added that Biden would rely on the expertise of career diplomats and rebuild the State Department.
Former senior diplomats who left the department due to the way that the Trump administration treated career diplomats have warned that if nothing is done, the damage could be irreversible.
“The damage may be generational,” wrote Michael McKinley, a widely respected 4-time ambassador who testified during impeachment and resigned last year, in an Atlantic essay last week. He spoke about how politicized the department had become under the Trump administration.