The Biden 100-Day Progress Report
We asked 25 experts to grade the administration’s start on foreign policy
President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy motto is “America is back.” And he is losing no time: In perhaps the busiest start of a new administration since Ronald Reagan’s in 1981, Biden and his new national security team have corralled allies in Asia and Europe, rejoined global institutions, and turned up the heat on authoritarian regimes. He has moved quickly to revoke the Trump administration’s immigration bans and pledge cash to vaccinate the world’s poorest. What’s more, he has done all that amid what is still a devastating pandemic—and following the first violent presidential transition in U.S. history.
Around the world, Biden is being met with a wave of goodwill. In the aftermath of his election victory, 79 percent of Germans, for example, said they trusted him to “do the right thing” in world affairs—compared with only 10 percent who said that of President Donald Trump a few months earlier, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. The sense of relief is especially strong among allies in Asia and Europe, whose citizens watched the Jan. 6 insurrection in the capital of the world’s leading democracy with a mix of horror and fascination.
It’s as if Trump has been forgotten—and not just because Twitter has taken away his megaphone. Rather, it’s the exigencies of global politics that have old allies and new partners looking to Washington for leadership again. An increasingly confident, aggressive, and technologically sophisticated China is challenging the Western-dominated global order on a growing number of fronts. Across the democratic world, angry populists continue to mobilize—and the United States just gave them a model for challenging election results they don’t like. It’s a very different world from the last time Biden held office.
There is skepticism as well. Some governments were very happy with the Trump team’s policies, such as those of Israel and the Arab world, which struck historic, U.S.-brokered peace deals in the Middle East. In Asia, Trump’s tough tone on China had many fans. And it’s still unclear how Biden will bridge the chasms between the moderate political middle for which he has long stood, the powerful progressive wing of his party, and the challenge from the nationalist right. That will affect, for example, the U.S. position on the trade agreements on which many countries’ prosperity depends.
The new administration’s speed at moving to heal alliances and reassert the U.S. global role is a surprise to many at home and abroad who expected Biden to be busy nursing the country’s wounds—a botched pandemic response, a half-frozen economy, and a society riven by racial and political divides—before turning his attention outward. Instead, a strong and experienced team led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (who, like many others in the new administration, has written in Foreign Policy) has unleashed a flurry of real and virtual diplomacy.
As a result, the contours of a Biden-era foreign policy are fast coming into focus. Great-power competition between the United States and China—simultaneously a global contest between democratic and illiberal models of government—has emerged as central to U.S. policy. Add to that a new emphasis on climate change, human rights, and using trade to create jobs at home. Biden seeks to strike a new balance between U.S. interests and values, between domestic concerns and global engagement.
Below, prominent experts from around the world take a closer look at Biden’s foreign-policy agenda—from restoring alliances to handling China to combating climate change. Foreign Policy asked 25 thinkers to give us their takes on his first steps on nine key issues and grade the administration on its start. To read their views, either scroll down or jump to one of the topics below.
—Stefan Theil, deputy editor
Alliances: Leadership Restored
By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general and the CEO of Rasmussen Global
Despite a packed domestic agenda, Biden has made great strides to restore the United States’ determined global leadership. The world needed it. But the big tests are still ahead.
Biden’s personnel choices are faultless. Having worked with many of them, I can attest to their skill and understanding of their country’s indispensable role in the world.
We’ve already seen the Biden administration coordinate more closely with allies, from Secretary of State Blinken’s intensive conversations with European Union foreign ministers to Biden’s virtual appearance at the Munich Security Conference and first-ever summit meeting of the Indo-Pacific Quad. This administration has set out clearly where it stands on some critical fault lines between freedom and autocracy, including on Taiwan and Ukraine.
NATO is also finally in a position to move on and build its new strategic concept without having to worry about presidential tweets and tantrums. However, Washington’s European allies are also under no illusion that Biden will go soft on their commitments to spend more on defense.
Biden has taken the first steps to rebuild and reform our multilateral world, not least by rejoining it. He needs to build on these steps to drag multilateralism out of its malaise. We need strong action by the free world to formulate new multilateral standards—for example, in the regulation of emerging technology.
Biden’s commitment to building the global democratic alliance is personal and unwavering. Some say he should first focus on rebuilding U.S. democracy at home rather than convening his promised Summit for Democracy later this year. I disagree. The events in Washington on Jan. 6 gave us all a glimpse of democracy’s fragility and the urgent need to form a common, mutually reinforcing front line in its defense. However, we will soon need to see the Biden administration flesh out a clear action plan for how the summit will work in practice. The Copenhagen Democracy Summit on May 10-11 would offer that opportunity.
John Ikenberry, Princeton University
Biden has brought back the core convictions guiding U.S. foreign policy since World War II: The country advances its interests by building and leading the international order; alliances and institutions make U.S. power more effective, durable, and legitimate; and global engagement sustains this order. So far, these convictions are promissory notes, but the new team is looking very creditworthy.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Center for a New American Security
The Biden administration is working to revitalize alliances and multilateral institutions. Its actions are generating helpful headwinds to Russia’s and China’s efforts to weaken cohesion among democracies and dilute U.S. influence in key regions and international bodies. Already, the combative responses from Beijing and Moscow suggest that Washington has gotten their attention.
Economy: Tough Love on Trade
By Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Biden’s strategy for global reengagement on economic policy has two elements. The first is reasserting U.S. leadership—subtly, not aggressively, as Washington needs to rebuild trust. The second element is to link trade with Biden’s other priorities, such as creating jobs and cutting emissions. Not only has he rejoined the Paris climate agreement, but he also plans to reengage with the World Trade Organization—and work with allies to reform it. But while these actions reflect the administration’s affinity for multilateralism, Biden isn’t going soft on trade. His executive order reinforcing Buy American provisions for government procurement signals his intent to forcefully protect U.S. commercial interests. Biden’s agenda puts on notice U.S. trading partners that might have hoped for a less aggressive approach on trade and investment. The administration also intends to fold labor protections, climate policies, and human rights into trade negotiations. Beijing’s hopes of a de-escalation of trade disputes have already given way to the prospect of rising tensions as Washington brings a broader range of issues to the table. Some changes are in the air: Tough but substantive negotiations will replace the hotheaded rhetoric and unilateral sanctions that defined the Trump administration’s approach to trade and economic disputes. Biden is likely to work with allies to pressure China to change its economic practices. Contentious issues won’t necessarily be resolved more easily or quickly. But it will be a more rational and concerted approach—perhaps with more effective and durable solutions.
Shannon K. O’Neil, Council on Foreign Relations
Biden’s team has smartly launched a long-overdue review of global supply chains. But its reflexive opposition to trade is a knock against it. Exports create middle-class jobs. The United States needs more free trade agreements—before other nations rewrite the rules in their favor.
Mohamed A. El-Erian, University of Cambridge
Biden’s historic fiscal relief package will turbocharge U.S. growth and serve as a needed engine for the global economy. His team could quickly earn an even higher grade with measures to promote productivity, defend against the growing risk of financial instability, and reinvigorate multilateral institutions.
Pandemic: Making Up for Lost Time
By Laurie Garrett, science writer and columnist at Foreign Policy
Biden’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded at a breathtaking pace and scope, domestically and internationally. Even more important than the $4 billion he committed to the COVAX Facility—which aims to level the playing field for global vaccine access—are his administration’s many diplomatic health engagements. For global health efforts that have long relied on U.S. leadership for financing, innovation, and policy, Washington’s absence over the last four years created a vacuum at the top. Now, America is back—not only inside the World Health Organization and with an open checkbook but throughout the multilateral systems. Washington is discussing pharmaceutical patents in the World Trade Organization and drug distribution at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Biden team is pushing to include health issues in the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, in November and backing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which include a wide range of global public health priorities—from raising vaccination rates to lowering child mortality to improving access to clean water and nutrition. As Biden said on Feb. 19: “You can’t build a wall or a fence high enough to keep a pandemic out.” He reminded us of what should have been clear all along—that every country remains at risk as long as the coronavirus circulates and mutates anywhere else in the world.
Ashish Jha, Brown University
Biden is doing a great job maximizing the response at home but could be more global-leaning. Engaging WHO and COVAX are good steps. What’s still needed is more aggressive action to combat the pandemic worldwide—including by pressuring Brazil to better control its outbreak and by ramping up global vaccine production.
Democracy & Human Rights: Enlist Europe
By Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America
Biden’s team gets an A for rhetoric—putting democracy and human rights at the forefront of public statements on the Xinjiang genocide, the Myanmar coup, the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong, the imprisonment of the Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, and the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Words matter: They create pressure to act when others demand that you live up to them.
Some of that action has been forthcoming. The U.S. Treasury has imposed or expanded sanctions against China, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others while maintaining Trump administration sanctions on many more, mostly related to democracy or human rights.
The problem is that these sanctions are not stopping or deterring democracy suppression and human rights abuses. Only when Washington and its allies go all out and try to shut down a country’s economy—as with Iran—can a government be brought to the bargaining table. The recent U.S.-Canadian-European sanctions against China for its genocide of the Uyghurs were an important but largely symbolic step.
Which brings us to Biden’s greatest failing so far. The single most important thing he could do to promote democracy and human rights globally is to reach a long-term accord with the European Union so that serious economic and regulatory pressure can be coordinated. Europe is both Russia’s and China’s largest trading partner. With U.S.-European alignment on values, interests, and policies, the opportunities for successfully promoting democracy and human rights are far greater. Mobilizing the Quad is fine, but it is a marriage of anti-China convenience and lacks the ability to act as an alliance.
Yet where is the EU in Biden’s plans? No czar for Europe in the White House, no special envoy. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Chinese officials in Alaska, Biden would do better back-channeling with Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, sending top officials with the clout and credibility to start the long process of negotiating a serious long-term economic and political alliance. It will be long, slow, and frustrating—far less flashy than macho displays of great-power competition but far more consequential.
Nathan Law, former political prisoner in Hong Kong
Biden had a decent start by prioritizing democratic alliances and pressuring Beijing for its human rights abuses. I expect strong continuity on an assertive China policy, including the crucial implementation of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. But the Biden team can do more to connect civil society worldwide and treat the global democratic recession with a clear vision, plans, and actions.
Kelebogile Zvobgo, William & Mary
The Biden administration has taken key steps promoting human rights at home and abroad, including executive orders to advance racial equity, rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council, and taking a tougher stance vis-à-vis rights-violating countries. Biden has also reversed Trump-era sanctions against International Criminal Court personnel. But, like Trump, he objects to the court’s lawful investigations implicating Americans in possible war crimes in Afghanistan.
China: Accelerate the Pace
By Elizabeth Economy, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations
Overall, Biden’s China policy is off to a good start. He has moved quickly to fill key positions with top China experts. Quantity and quality are both high.
All the elements of a strong policy are in place as Biden systematically follows through on the pledges of his campaign. Washington is rejoining international organizations and agreements, reconnecting with Europe to reach a common line on China, and reassuring Asian allies. Biden has reaffirmed U.S. support for Taiwan and launched a review of U.S. military needs for the 21st century, including in the Indo-Pacific. Just as importantly, he is keeping climate advisor John Kerry and his team in check until the terms of engaging with China are clear.
But Biden’s to-do list on China is long. Progress is needed on technology policy, the Trump tariffs, Xinjiang, and U.S. participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. There is North Korea, Hong Kong, the conflict over the South China Sea, and the decision on whether to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, among other pressing matters.
The administration has demonstrated refreshing unity in words and action, easily showing up both the early years of the Obama administration and all four years of the Trump administration. Biden quickly and effectively quashed pesky rumors that the Pentagon was pursuing its own strategy on China. He scores extra points for not trashing—either rhetorically or literally—the previous administration’s policies.
But even if Biden was quick off the starting block and has made all the right first moves, he will need to accelerate the pace to make it through his to-do list. Because this is the A-team, expectations are high. Coordinating vaccine diplomacy in Asia among the Quad was impressive, but the testy meeting between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Alaska in March revealed that Biden has to move quickly to craft a long-term China strategy that puts Washington in the driver’s seat, something both previous administrations largely failed to do.
Toshihiro Nakayama, Keio University
The Biden administration has added smartness to Trumpian toughness on China—a huge welcome to Washington’s allies and partners in Asia. The more sophisticated the policy gets, the more complicated the execution becomes. The end goal is still not clear.
Raja Mohan, National University of Singapore
Essential continuity with the Trump administration’s China policy is reassuring for Asian partners facing threats from Beijing, even as Biden better balances engagement and contestation. By integrating China strategy with domestic economic and technological renewal, Biden lays the basis for a durable consensus at home. The appointment of a competent team lends credibility to his strategy. While many China challenges await, a job well begun is nearly half done.
Middle East: No Damage, No Achievements
By Mina Al-Oraibi, editor in chief of the National and columnist at Foreign Policy
Biden says “America is back.” But in the Middle East, it’s not yet clear what being back will mean.
As a candidate, Biden promised to make reentering the Iran nuclear deal a priority in the Middle East. As president, he has gotten little traction putting the deal back on track—or containing Iran. Tehran has escalated and hardened its position, including restarting uranium enrichment. Furthermore, the regime’s proxies have escalated their activities across the region, from the Houthis’ rocket fire on Saudi Arabia to Iran-backed militias targeting U.S. personnel in Iraq.
Little has come from Washington but words. One notable exception was the Feb. 25 strike on a Syrian base housing Iran-backed fighters in retaliation for attacks in Iraq. But a reactive, ad hoc approach is not yet a policy.
Importantly, Biden and Secretary of State Blinken chose Iraq as the first Arab country to call. The gesture was noted in Baghdad and the region, indicating diplomatic and perhaps even military support for Iraq.
Biden has created momentum in the region by appointing a special envoy for Yemen and making it a priority. With the Saudi proposal to end the war, Washington must now press Iran and the Houthis to commit to peace. To Riyadh, Biden has conveyed that he has concerns but that the alliance will endure.
He has an opportunity to build on the Arab-Israeli peace accords and should seek to leverage the role the United Arab Emirates can play as Washington reestablishes ties with the Palestinians. A two-state solution remains best but needs a concerted U.S. effort to happen.
Biden gets credit for the Middle East team he has put together—including experienced hands such as Barbara Leaf at the National Security Council, Brett McGurk as White House coordinator, and Tim Lenderking as special envoy for Yemen. This is a knowledgeable team that can bring about change if it chooses to do so.
Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations
It’s early days, but Biden has kept his commitments. His team is exploring ways to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, seeks to reform but maintain ties with Saudi Arabia, and hopes to end the war in Yemen. Biden is moving cautiously on Israel and the Palestinians. The stage for Biden’s agenda is set—but beware that the best-laid Middle East plans often go astray.
Dennis Ross, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
On Iran, Biden is sticking to his principle of compliance for compliance and no unilateral concessions. On Saudi Arabia, Washington will not check its values at the door but has clear interests in the relationship. On Israeli-Palestinian peace, the team understands this is not the time for a big peace initiative, but policies should still be geared toward preserving two states as the outcome and actively supporting the normalization process.
Russia: Engage, Deter, Speak Up
By Michael McFaul, director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
In his first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden laid out clear contours for his administration’s policy toward Russia: offering progress on arms control, reaffirming support for Ukraine, and raising concerns on cyber-espionage, Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. In other words, engage with the Kremlin where interests overlap, deter Putin’s belligerent foreign policies, and speak up on human rights abuses in Russia. Perfect.
Biden’s team then matched ambition with action, extending the New START arms control treaty for five years, sanctioning some of those responsible for Navalny’s poisoning and arrest as well as the pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and affirming the U.S. commitment to deeper ties with NATO. Biden has implemented new sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats in response to the SolarWinds cyberattack and Russian interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. At the same time, he has offered to hold a summit with Putin. Fantastic start—Biden has engaged, deterred, and signaled that he wants a more stable, predictable relationship. But does Putin? For stable relations, it takes two to tango.
Like all U.S. administrations trying to engage autocracies, the Biden team is still finding its way on how also to support democratic values in Russia and the region. Ignoring Navalny’s pleas, Biden and his team decided not to sanction any of the Russian oligarchs underwriting Putin’s autocracy. They have not yet articulated a comprehensive strategy for supporting democrats in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. One way to help meet regional demand for U.S. engagement would be to reappoint a special envoy to Ukraine—but expand the post’s writ to include the whole region. But the administration is still in its early days and operating with a skeletal senior staff. Before we give Biden the next grade, let him get his full team on the field.
Constanze Stelzenmüller, Brookings Institution
So far, we have Biden calling Putin a “killer” and his secretary of state threatening Europeans with sanctions over a pipeline. What’s needed is a coherent trans-Atlantic strategy addressing all the risks and threats posed by Russia in Eurasia and beyond.
Angela Stent, Georgetown University
Biden will work with Russia on issues of vital national interest, including arms control and climate change, but push back against malign activities. The rhetoric has been consistent and tough. At best, this will remain a compartmentalized relationship where cooperation and competition coexist.
Immigration: But Can He Fight?
By Jorge Castañeda, professor at New York University and former Mexican foreign minister
Biden’s first significant move was to undo his predecessor’s disastrous and xenophobic policies: stopping construction of the border wall, eliminating the travel ban targeting Muslims, restoring asylum hearings on U.S. soil, reinstating protections for undocumented minors, and suspending at least some deportations of nonviolent offenders. All these are laudable decisions. A second landmark step was to send major immigration reform legislation to the U.S. Congress. Legalizing the status of more than 11 million undocumented people and giving them a path to citizenship is, as Biden would put it, a big deal. Working with Mexico to invest in the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—makes sense as long as the amounts are meaningful. Granting Venezuelans in the United States temporary protection status also deserves applause. Still, I have two doubts. The first is that the bill in Congress does not address future migration flows that will inevitably continue, mainly due to Mexico’s tanking economy. A major temporary worker program, or a significant increase in H-2A and H-2B employment visas, especially for Mexicans, is an indispensable complement to the regularization of unauthorized individuals currently in the United States. Progress on worker visas is also politically indispensable in order to secure some Republican votes. Which leads to my second doubt: Is Biden really willing to fight—busting the filibuster if necessary—in order to get immigration reform done?
Vivek Wadhwa, Harvard Law School
Biden gets an A+ for his humanity and compassion for the undocumented and his determination to fix a primary cause of hemorrhaging U.S. competitiveness—the exodus of skilled talent. But his immigration plan is a kitchen sink of demands that has almost no chance of passing in the U.S. Senate. By demanding all or nothing, Biden will get nothing.
Climate: Practical, Not Grandiose
By Ted Nordhaus, executive director and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute
Climate change will take many decades to effectively address, so it’s difficult to grade Biden just 100 days into his term. Judged against his own rhetoric—that we are in an unfolding climate emergency, have only a decade to address it, and must completely decarbonize the electrical grid by 2035—Biden would get an F, the grade that the Sunrise Movement memorably gave his climate proposal in the heat of the Democratic primary season.
But a failing grade would not so much reflect policy as the reality that no U.S. president is actually going to advance a climate agenda consistent with the grandiose ambitions to which the activist community demands fealty. Despite headline-grabbing executive orders and Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement, nothing on offer from this administration will remotely deliver on those demands.
Judged in relation to what is actually possible, however, Biden’s start looks a good deal more promising. He has put in place a strong and experienced team in the White House and at the State and Energy departments. Thus far, his plans have ignored the call for emissions caps, carbon taxes, and massive new regulation for a quieter but ultimately more effective climate policy: efforts to develop and deploy technology and infrastructure, sector by sector, with an eye toward the enormous engineering and system-level challenges associated with deeply decarbonizing a large, modern economy.
Biden has now proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure package to, among other things, build long-distance power transmission lines; expand railroads, public transit, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure; commercialize next-generation nuclear, carbon capture, geothermal, and energy storage technologies; and improve the environmental performance of U.S. agriculture. Should he succeed in passing anything close to that, I’ll raise his grade to an A. And if he is then willing to take on the third rail for U.S. greens—the various environmental statutes at the federal, state, and local level that make it extremely difficult to build any of this infrastructure in a timely fashion—I’ll be happy to make it an A+.
Connie Hedegaard, former EU climate action commissioner
Rejoining the Paris Agreement, very strong staff appointments, and John Kerry’s first trip to Brussels have raised expectations that Washington will not only say the right things—but also start to do them. Getting an A would require concrete policies to achieve further emissions cuts and U.S. carbon neutrality by 2050.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, Data for Progress
Biden quickly made the climate crisis a top priority for his administration. While this has been celebrated, bigger tests lie ahead as a more complicated political dance unfolds between global collaboration, diplomatic competition, and domestic compromise. This year, the president’s climate legacy rides on the outcome of the U.S.-hosted climate summit in April and congressional negotiations on clean energy infrastructure.