What to Expect in Biden’s First 100 Days in Foreign Policy
From climate change to China to ending the forever wars, here are 10 of the biggest challenges facing the Biden foreign-policy team as it takes office.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
During his first 100 days in office, U.S. President Donald Trump issued sweeping executive orders aimed at reversing and dismantling key elements of former President Barack Obama’s legacy and pushing an “America First” platform that upset decades of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.
Now, the reversal of Trump’s reversals is coming, as President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to unwind major Trump-era policies to contend with a massive array of new national security threats, from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to a surge in U.S.-China tensions to an Iran nearing the cusp of producing a nuclear weapon.
All the while, Biden will have to grapple with political upheaval in the wake of the violence that swept the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and led to Trump’s second impeachment with just days left in office—which could lead to an another impeachment trial in the Senate that could set back Biden’s legislative agenda that the president-elect’s advisors had hoped to boldly attack on Day One. “The strategy is: go fast, be bold,” incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos for his 2020 book on Biden. “He’s not thinking on a two-year time frame, he’s thinking on a first-few-months time frame.”
The combination of national security threats and bitterly divided partisan politics at home poses a daunting challenge for the incoming administration, former senior U.S. officials and experts said.
“I think you first have to understand and appreciate that we are living in unprecedented times. We’ve never been in this situation before, domestically and internationally,” said Chuck Hagel, who was a U.S. defense secretary during the Obama administration and also a colleague of Biden in the Senate for 12 years. “What he has to do goes well beyond the first hundred days. He is going to have to move immediately to rebuilding, restoring our alliances, reassuring them that America is back in the game to lead.”
Some see silver linings in the looming clouds ahead of Biden’s term, however, after Trump shocked bipartisan consensus on foreign policy out of its decades-old rut and pared back U.S. leadership on the global stage.
“While everyone’s talking about restoring and reengaging globally, we’re actually looking at a moment where a Biden administration can really reimagine what U.S. foreign policy means,” said Sarah Margon, the director of foreign policy at Open Society-U.S. “It’s not just picking up where they left off at the end of the Obama administration.”
Hagel, who has engaged with the Biden-Harris transition team, said he anticipates that the incoming administration will prepare an immediate strategic review, coordinated out of the White House, of U.S. foreign-policy interests and relationships. “It should be the direction of his administration in foreign policy,” Hagel said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t adjust and adapt as things change, but you’ve got to pull your compass out and shoot a North Star. I’m not sure we’ve known where we’re going on foreign policy over the last few years. It’s all been transactional, and you can’t conduct foreign policy like that.”
Here is a guide on what else to expect when Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris begin to implement their foreign-policy agenda.
All about China
Trump’s hard-line approach to China is expected to continue under Biden, albeit with less bluster and closer coordination with allies. One early potential flash point could be Beijing’s response to the Trump administration’s decision to lift long-standing self-imposed restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their counterparts in Taiwan, which China views as part of its territory.
“The elephant in the room is what China’s response is. They tend to not take these kinds of moves sitting down,” said Rui Zhong, the program associate for the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, noting that Beijing was likely to focus its response on Taiwan and not the United States directly. Another early challenge will be how to respond to China’s widening human rights crackdown in Hong Kong, where dozens of opposition lawmakers and activists were arrested this month.
Biden will inherit Trump’s trade war with China but told the New York Times in December that he would not make any immediate moves to lift tariffs. While Trump was preoccupied with the trade deficit with China, Biden has spoken and written at length about a “foreign policy for the middle class” that protects U.S. jobs and industry from intellectual property theft. For a look at who will be shaping Biden’s China policy, take a look at this recent profile in Foreign Policy on Kurt Campbell, set to be the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
But some former U.S. officials worry that the violence at the Capitol and Biden’s inauguration occurring under the looming shadow of security threats in Washington will leave a lasting stain on America’s reputation with both allies and adversaries, setting the incoming administration back in the rivalry with China.
“The expectation that Biden gets us back to where we were under Obama is completely unrealistic,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement at the White House during the Obama administration. “The dam of American diplomacy hoping to hold back rising threats and the rise of China will continue to spring leaks because of the earthquake and the tremors of the Trump presidency and the events of Jan. 6.”
No reset with Russia
Despite Trump’s unexplained affinity for his Russian counterpart, his administration enacted hawkish policies aimed at isolating Moscow and expanding economic sanctions over its roles in election interference, disinformation campaigns, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Biden is expected to continue to hold a firm line with Moscow with experienced Russia hands such as Victoria Nuland and Andrea Kendall-Taylor taking up key positions in the State Department and National Security Council, respectively.
“This is one where I think the Biden administration will not have a difficult time,” said Daniel Fried, a retired diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under former President George W. Bush.
Biden will inherit a laundry list of early national security challenges involving Russia. Less than two weeks after Biden’s inauguration, the New START treaty with Russia—the last remaining check on the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals—is set to expire. Both Biden and Russia have signaled a willingness to extend the treaty. Other early challenges will include responding to Russia’s hacking of at least a dozen U.S. federal agencies; the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, which is nearing completion despite Washington’s feverish efforts to stymie the project; and the poisoning and latest arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
Back to the drawing board with Iran
Just as Trump followed through on promises to undo the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran, Biden has vowed to return to diplomacy with Tehran. But with the deal on life support, and Iran taking steps to revive its nuclear weapons program, picking up where Obama left off won’t be as simple as just rejoining the deal.
The Trump administration has slapped further sanctions on Iran, with another round announced as recently as Friday, stoking tensions with Tehran in the last days of the administration. In an op-ed for CNN in September, Biden wrote, “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Iran now has 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the nuclear deal, giving it significantly more leverage at the negotiating table.
While Sullivan has hinted that the new administration could look to reverse some of the sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and its proxies, such as a recent terrorist designation against Yemen’s Houthi group, Biden may want to find a new avenue to check Iran’s growing ballistic missile arsenal—a long-standing priority of Republicans—in a new nuclear deal. Some former officials expect the new president to drive a hard bargain with Tehran using Trump-era sanctions.
“We are going to see Biden try and leverage some of the more extreme positions that Trump staked out on China, Iran, and Cuba to extract additional concessions and to be able to plausibly claim that this isn’t Obama’s deal and this isn’t Obama’s foreign policy,” Bruen said.
Ending the forever wars?
Biden’s plans in Iraq and Afghanistan will build on Trump’s efforts to withdraw troops from the region. Like his predecessor, Biden has pledged to end the “forever wars,” a reference to the costly, almost two-decade-long U.S. military expansion in the Middle East. But as with Trump and Obama, there’s a big difference between promising to end the wars and actually ending them.
“These ‘forever wars’ have to end,” Biden declared last September, before adding: “I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem: We still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State].” The Trump administration can boast that it rolled back the Islamic State’s caliphate and dealt crippling blows to the terrorist organization, but it is leaving Biden with a precarious situation in the Middle East, with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad still in power and propped up by Russian and Iranian backers and high tensions with Turkey over ongoing U.S. support for Kurdish fighters who aided the anti-Islamic State campaign.
Less than a week before Biden’s inauguration, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that the U.S. military had drawn down its troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each, even as Taliban violence spikes. “This drawdown brings U.S. forces in the country to their lowest levels since 2001,” Miller said in a Jan. 15 press release, noting that the United States would continue to conduct its counterterrorism mission in both countries. He said the country could reduce troop levels to zero by May, conditions on the ground permitting.
Extending an olive branch to Europe
In one way, Biden has it easy in bettering relations with Europe after four years of abuse from Trump.
“I think he doesn’t have to do much. He has to show up,” said Marina Kaljurand, the former Estonian foreign minister who now represents her home country in the European Parliament.
Biden will still have to grapple with ongoing disputes, and though the tone will certainly change, the new president is expected to keep pushing NATO allies to spend more on defense. But he also may quickly review and reverse Trump’s efforts to slash the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany by one-third. Less clear is the future U.S. presence in Poland and the Baltic States that had hoped for a greater rotational presence of U.S. forces. “For Russia, it is much more difficult to shoot an American soldier, a German soldier, compared to an Estonian soldier. That’s a fact,” Kaljurand said.
Biden may find it easier to push back against far-right extremism in Europe now that countries have seen what happened in Washington on Jan. 6. But for others in Europe, after Trump, there’s no turning back the clock—meaning that they will continue to chart a course to lessen the continent’s reliance on U.S. diplomatic and military might and economic influence.
“The distrust won’t go away easily,” one senior German official said. “No matter what comes next, America will now always be the country that elected Trump.”
No orb for Saudi Arabia
Over fierce objections from the U.S. Congress, including the president’s own Republican allies, the Trump administration has backed Saudi Arabia to the hilt, batting away lawmakers’ attempts to halt U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. And Trump refused, despite U.S. intelligence, to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to account for the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
The Biden team has clearly telegraphed a different course. “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil,” Biden said in a statement last October, marking the anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing. Many experts close to the Biden transition team expect the new president to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and put a pause on massive arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and neighboring United Arab Emirates. But given Riyadh’s geostrategic importance for the United States, it’s unclear whether Biden will dramatically alter the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Grappling with Trump’s legacy on Israel
Under Trump, Israel became an even bigger focus of U.S. foreign policy. Trump cut aid to Palestinians, recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, and moved the U.S. Embassy there—all indications of his administration’s close alignment with Israel. The Trump administration also helped broker normalization ties between Israel and four Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—diplomatic breakthroughs that senior Trump officials characterize as historic game-changers for the Middle East.
The Biden administration will likely adopt a more impartial position. Biden, who has been critical of Trump’s changes, called his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem “short-sighted and frivolous” but said on the campaign trail that he would keep the embassy there. He also promised to restore U.S. aid and development funding to the West Bank and Gaza, which had been slashed under Trump.
Biden has reiterated his support for a two-state solution, which critics said the Trump administration’s ill-fated peace plan would have nixed. But he will face serious obstacles along the way. In the latest of a series of last-minute efforts to shape Biden’s inherited foreign-policy agenda, on Jan. 14 Trump ordered U.S. Central Command to include Israel, a move long advocated for by pro-Israel groups. And on Jan. 11, Israel announced plans to construct 800 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, posing another challenge to the new administration.
No good options on North Korea
Despite high hopes from the Trump administration and a pair of flashy summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea just displayed what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, throwing down the gauntlet for the incoming Biden administration.
“Typically North Korea does something in the first few months of a new South Korean or American administration to ‘train them like a dog’ as one defector told me,” said Bruce Klingner, an expert with the Heritage Foundation and former CIA analyst. Klingner noted that early provocations by North Korea have pushed previous administrations to adopt a hard-line approach. In a saber-rattling speech last week at the 8th Party Congress, Kim unveiled ambitious plans to develop new weapons, making it clear that a new administration in Washington would not change the regime’s behavior.
Tackling climate change
One of the biggest policy U-turns will be over climate change. Trump long downplayed the effects of climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence and increasingly catastrophic natural disasters. He withdrew the United States from the landmark 2015 Paris climate accords aimed at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions, and rolled back U.S. environmental regulations. Biden, who has called climate change the “existential threat of our time,” is expected to rejoin the Paris accords on his first day in office and has tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate issues.
Unraveling pandemic fallout
Biden announced a team of 13 health advisors to manage his coronavirus pandemic response within days of his election in November, and, in the immediate term, Biden transition officials told Foreign Policy that the president-elect is expected to immediately have the United States rejoin the World Health Organization—which Trump left amid the pandemic after accusing the body of covering for China following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.
Biden unveiled a massive $1.9 trillion economic and health care relief plan aimed at tackling the virus and its knock-on economic impacts at home. At the White House, Biden also announced that he would reestablish the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security, which was consolidated under the Trump administration’s plans to shrink and streamline the NSC. The directorate will be headed by Beth Cameron, a biologist and biodefense expert who argued that closing the NSC office contributed to the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch