The Biden Administration and the World

Elliott School experts weighed in on the potential changes the Biden administration may bring to American foreign policy.

February 17, 2021


Elliott School faculty experts and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker analyzed what is to be expected of the Biden administration and foreign policy. (Photo by: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

By Tatyana Hopkins

While people tend to expect more changes in the Biden administration’s approach than continuity of Trump-era policies, the world is more likely to see continuity than change in a number of top foreign policy matters, said former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker.

“People get very easily distracted by the personality of President Trump and the way he talks and the way he treats people,” said Mr. Volker, M.A. ‘87. “It just infuriates people. [But] if you focus on the actual policies, I would argue, there is a great deal of continuity between the Trump administration and the Obama administration, and there will be a great deal of continuity with the Biden administration as well.”

Mr. Volker shared his thoughts during a virtual discussion, which he moderated for the Elliott School of International Affairs, that surveyed the Biden administration’s potential policies and relationships with Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

The panel included David Shambaugh, the Elliott School of International Affair’s Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science and International Affairs and director of the China policy program; Kimberly Morgan, professor of political science and international affairs; and Marc Lynch, professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.

Dr. Shambaugh agreed that the world is more likely to see continuity than expected from the Biden administration, especially in the Indo-Pacific Asia region.

“I think there’s a lot that the Biden administration actually agrees with the outgoing Trump administration when it comes to this part of the world,” he said. “Overall, the changes will be really around the margins, tactical you might say, not necessarily strategic.”

However, Dr. Shambaugh said while the Biden administration is likely to manage and prioritize its competitive relationship with China in a similar manner to the Trump administration, it is also likely to make “significant qualitative changes” in other policies in the area.

Biden and the World

From left: Kimberly Morgan, Marc Lynch, David Shambaugh and Kurt Volker. 

Among the leading changes to be expected from the Biden administration is prioritizing repairing and restrengthening alliances and the American image in the region.

“In the case of Asia, our alliances as elsewhere, are in a state of disrepair, and they need work,” he said. “We have to rebuild the sense of the United States as a dependable and engaged ally, and we have to take undertake tough repair work here at home, and that is going to have various international implications.”

However, he said that while the region was likely to receive the “lion’s share” of international resources, it would not be the administration’s number one strategic priority. Instead, he said Europe will re-emerge as the United States’ the top regional priority.

Dr. Morgan argued there would be less continuity of Trump-era policies and strategies in the Biden administration’s European policy. 

“I think in contrast to China, we're more likely to see change as opposed to continuity [in Europe], although I think there are a couple of areas where we are likely to see some similarities with the Trump administration,” said Dr. Morgan.

While she said she thought Asia actually would be the administration’s top regional priority, she said Europe will be an important for helping the United States achieve its global objectives.

However, she said, the new administration will need to rebuild alliances to make Europe a significant site of diplomatic dialogue.

“It's worth recollecting just how much damage the Trump administration did in our relationships with the EU and European governments,” Dr. Morgan said.

She said the Trump administration weakened relationships with the European Union and European governments through a number of actions including leaving the Paris Climate Accord, the ongoing tariffs wars and the unilateral cut of troops in Germany.

But she said the Biden administration is already making an immediate and “sharp about-face” by starting the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement and freezing the proposed retreat cut in Germany.

Some areas where the Biden administration is likely to continue Trump-era policy, Dr. Morgan said, are in trade as well as refusing to rejoin Iranian nuclear negotiations unless Iran makes further concessions.

In the Middle East, Dr. Lynch said change is almost certain to outweigh continuity.

He said the Biden administration is moving as quickly as possible to clear away the “low hanging fruit” in the region such as repealing the Muslim ban and delisting Yemen’s Houthi rebel as a terrorist group.

But he said once the “bad polices” are reversed, the Biden administration will have to confront really “difficult realities” in a region that favored Mr. Trump.

“This was the one region of the world where our regional allies loved what Trump was doing,” Dr. Lynch said.