How will President-elect Joe Biden change U.S. foreign policy?

UChicago scholar examines international relations—and if a return to normalcy is possible

Since he took office in 2017, Donald Trump has started trade wars, embraced strongmen and withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. But how much has U.S. foreign policy actually changed in the past four years—and how might it change in the next four?

Trump’s approach to diplomacy has been unlike that of any recent president, and President-elect Joe Biden will need to rebuild and redefine relationships with both allies and adversaries. However, University of Chicago scholar Paul Poast argues that the global trends which shaped the Trump presidency will continue to affect American diplomacy for years to come.

An associate professor of political science, Poast is a leading expert on international security and alliance politics. In the following Q&A, he discusses what he expects the Biden administration’s diplomatic priorities to be—looking beyond the rehabilitation of America’s image abroad to explore some of the policies that could define international relations over the next few decades.

Before we talk about the next president, let’s talk about the last four years. To what extent has Trump’s presidency constituted a paradigm shift from traditional American foreign policy?

Trump did not change U.S. foreign policy as much as his rhetoric may have suggested. That’s not to say there haven’t been some substantive policy changes. There have been, especially on immigration—just not on the scale that one would think. Part of that is because a lot of what Trump has tweeted about or proposed hasn’t actually come to pass: He hasn’t pulled all troops out of Syria, for example, as he once said he would.

I can give you many examples of continuity with the policies of past administrations. Though Trump takes credit for defeating ISIS, he just followed policies that had started under the Obama administration. We’re also still involved in Afghanistan. Tensions with China have escalated, but those tensions go back decades. And many U.S. presidents besides Trump have also accused NATO of freeriding, including George W. Bush. Like Trump, Bush also took the U.S. out of arms control treaties and environmental agreements. Even the Mexican border wall wasn’t conceived under Trump. So overall, things haven’t changed as much as it seems, though the tone has certainly been different.

Biden ran on decency and stability. To what extent will his presidency be a ‘return to normalcy’?

When Biden takes office, there will immediately be a change of perception around the world. It will send a strong signal that allies can feel confident in American leadership again, which could translate into better coordination and collaboration than we’ve seen under Trump. Obviously, we’ll also see a change in rhetoric: Biden’s tone has always been much more diplomatic.

I anticipate substantive changes on policy as well. First, we’ll see Biden go for what I would call ‘the low-hanging fruit.’ These are things that are very easy for him to change right away, because they don’t require action by Congress—such as rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, signing on to the Iran nuclear deal again and reengaging with the World Health Organization. The biggest change, probably, will be on immigration policy. Biden will stop building the wall, revise policies for dealing with migrants at the border and perhaps change H1B forms and other aspects of the visa process.

On other issues, Biden probably won’t depart much from the current state of affairs. On China policy, for example, we may actually see a continuation of the escalation we’ve seen over the last few years. The tariff war might not continue as it did under Trump, but concerns about our economic approach to China, intellectual property theft and China’s potential exploitation of its own status as a developing country (to, for example, be exempt from certain environmental or labor regulations) are bipartisan, and will remain relevant.

Over the past four years, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has begun to wane. Will that change U.S. relationships in the Middle East?

During the Trump administration, we began to see the normalization of relations between Israel and several other states in the region. As the U.S. has become the biggest oil producer in the world, it’s become less reliant on the fluctuations of the global oil market. So some long-term allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are asking: Is the U.S. going to stay engaged in the region when its geopolitical and economic interests there are becoming less acute?

These nations are most concerned about Iran. Trump’s policy toward Iran was aggressive, but many regional allies questioned the depth of America’s commitment to stopping Iran from supporting Hezbollah, or acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Biden administration will try to avoid reneging on American commitments with respect to Iran, but I think the long arc of U.S. foreign policy will pivot away from the Middle East and toward East Asia.

COVID-19 has paralyzed many economies around the world, including America’s, while East Asia has made one of the strongest recoveries. How will the new administration’s handling of the virus change perceptions abroad, and influence American competitiveness over the next four years?

There’s only so much the federal government can do with respect to domestic policy on COVID-19—so much of it is set at the city and state level. Trump hasn’t done much to help the situation, but it’s also unclear whether the situation would be dramatically different if Hillary Clinton were president. We’d still have a lot of Republican governors who would feel pressure to keep their economies open, and we’ve seen resurgences even in states that have tried to manage the pandemic responsibly.

The question that’s most relevant for this pandemic now is how we cooperate with other countries to develop—and, more importantly, distribute—the vaccine. The development of the institutions necessary for vaccine sharing is much more likely to come about under Biden.

Trump became president in part because of disillusionment with the trend toward globalization. How does Biden—who deliberately appealed to some of those disillusioned voters—reconcile an ‘America first’ mentality with a desire to restore America’s position of global leadership?

In a way, I’ve thought about both Trump and Obama as part of the same phenomenon: A pushback against what’s called the ‘Washington Consensus,’ which is a suite of economic policies that include free trade, open capital markets and economic globalization. Both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration pushed for the opening of international markets.

However, few were paying attention to the domestic fallout of those policies, which many Americans felt personally harmed by. Biden has to be sensitive to the fact that there’s a reason Trump was president. And it may not be all that different from the reason Obama was elected: a desire for change and the appeal of an ‘outsider’ to the Washington establishment.

We’ve already seen—and will continue to see—a shift away from pursuing economic globalization for its own sake. But it was hard for both Obama and Trump to significantly change the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy over the past two to three decades. Those international trends toward globalization will keep pushing the next president forward.