The Electoral College vote concluded on Dec. 14 officially confirmed Joseph R. Biden as the president-elect of the United States, heralding the advent of a new era. Biden will enter the White House amid unprecedented challenges, without the Cold War dividend inherited by the Clinton administration or the strategic consensus forged by major powers under the Obama administration. He will be faced with aggravating strategic power competition, a rift in alliances and partnerships and a fractured and weakened global governance system.
Backlash against the U.S. and mistrust have been mounting internationally, compounded by a diminishing sense of authority, a declining strategic reputation and declining power. President Donald Trump’s irresponsible and unpredictable approach has accelerated this process. Hence, the first priority on the foreign policy front for the Biden administration is to unwind the damage to national image inflicted by the previous administration, including restoring relations and reestablishing the reputation of the United States.
Looking ahead to the Biden administration, it is likely it will inherit, and then improve, the national security strategies of the Obama administration, in what can be called “Obama 2.0,” as reflected primarily in its goals and means.
In terms of goals, the Biden administration will seek to continue and strengthen U.S. leadership in the world, and in fact “leading the world” will become the buzzword for U.S. global strategy again. In terms of means, it will seek to restore it global moral authority, recalibrate foreign policy, revive alliances and return to multilateralism. It will also look to improve its deployment in the Indo-Pacific region.
First, restoring U.S. leadership. The U.S. will lead by example with the aim of restoring its standing in the world. It will attempt to restore its moral leadership by highlighting U.S. democratic values and rebuilding an alliance of democratic countries to elevate U.S. influence globally.
Second, foreign policy will serve domestic policy. The Biden administration will follow a policy that generates more or less the same effect as Trump’s “America first” slogan, but Biden’s approach will be mild and focus on coordination. Biden has announced that his administration will pursue a foreign policy that benefits the middle class, and it will engage with the international community while putting U.S. workers first, but in a way that averts an “America alone” scenario.
The Biden administration will pursue a foreign policy that serves its domestic policy. If the past is any guide, Democrats will be keen to promote a liberal agenda. The Biden administration will stick with this but will seek to navigate a liberal global order that serves U.S. interests to the greatest extent possible.
Third, restore relations with allies. Alliances and partnerships are central to any U.S. administration, and even the Trump administration was no exception. But the “America first” policy has positioned the U.S. against its allies and partners and aggravated their differences. Trump-style bluntness has rendered the building of alliances and partnerships halting at best. The Biden administration will engage in cooperation wherever possible and conduct dialogues over differences – and compromise when necessary – which will facilitate major progress in strengthening alliances and partnerships, in particular institutional networks in the Indo-Pacific region.
Fourth, promote multilateralism and play a central role in global rules-making. Biden has stressed that a rules-based global order is imperative. Withdrawing from international treaties does not serve U.S. interests. On the contrary, in-depth involvement and rules-making power is the sensible way to safeguard and expand U.S. interests. Therefore, the Biden administration will return to multilateralism and strive to ensure that the U.S. plays a central role in world affairs. Biden has also said that his foreign policy agenda would bring the U.S. back to the head of the negotiating table, so that it can work with its allies and partners to collectively cope with global threats.
The designated Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also cited leadership, cooperation and democracy as the three building blocks of U.S. foreign policy.
Fifth, further pivot the U.S. policy toward Asia, and improve power projection and deployment in the Indo-Pacific region. Since the Obama administration, the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region has been afoot, and substantial progress has been made, as evidenced by a written White House strategy. The Biden administration will inherit the practices of the Trump administration and set about tweaking them. Biden will abandon the pressure approach toward U.S. allies, in favor of mollifying or reassuring them through enhanced cooperation in the trade, security and military domains.
In sum, U.S. strategic goals and the corresponding means of implementing them will differ considerably under the Biden administration, in that while the Trump administration has sought to reconstruct U.S. engagement with the world through unilateralist means – aiming to set up new relationship patterns that feature more reciprocity – the Biden administration will strive to restore U.S. leadership through a multilateral approach. The Trumpian approach may appear to be aggressive, but its objectives were relatively conservative, with limited goals. By contrast, the Biden approach will be more predictable, and may resort to military means to achieve its grand goals. Biden himself stated that he will not hesitate to protect the American people, including, when necessary, by using force. In this sense, the U.S. under the Biden administration may present a bigger challenge to world peace.