What to Expect from the Biden Administration and International Affairs

Elliott School experts discussed the new administration’s approach to foreign policy in key global regions.

Joe Biden
Elliott School experts discussed how the Biden administration is likely to approach foreign policy in China, Russia and the Middle East. (Photo by: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
February 01, 2021

By Tatyana Hopkins

President Joe Biden set out broad policy goals in foreign policy on the campaign trail—reconnecting with allies, rejoining international institutions and reversing some of President Donald Trump’s departures from historical norms in the realm of international relations.

Faculty experts from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs shared their thoughts with GW Today on how the Biden administration will approach international relations in critical regions:

China and the Asia-Pacific

Robert Sutter, professor of practice of international affairs and an expert in U.S.-China relations, said America’s partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific have reacted to Mr. Biden’s win with “cautious optimism.”

“Biden promises to consult with them, treat them with respect and avoid erratic unilateral actions hurting their interests,” he said. “A few like India and Taiwan preferred Trump, but most others remain unclear on how Biden will actually deal with a rising China and its various challenges, with some worrying that he won't be effectively firm on important issues to them.”

While Dr. Sutter said Mr. Biden’s policy toward China is likely to be more “predictable, measured and consultative” and less publicly “acrimonious and unilateral” than Mr. Trump’s, U.S. countermeasures against perceived Chinese challenges are likely to continue.

He said although China seems to be prepared to have a dialogue with the United States, it offers no signs of concession or change in policies that are offensive to the United States, and the Biden administration must leverage its concerns with international cooperation.

Dr. Sutter said the new administration should integrate its policy with the concerns of regional allies to tackle key global issues, immediately with the COVID-19 pandemic and later on human rights and economic fairness for U.S. workers and climate change.

“The Biden team seems focused on doing rounds of consultations to get the views of allies and partners on what they deem as important,” Dr. Sutter said. “This is likely to take some time, leading one to forecast that there will be few dramatic changes in the substance of Asia-Pacific policy, with any announced longer-term strategies coming later in the year.”

Russia

While the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all began with trying to improve relations with Russia, this will not be a priority for Biden, who is more concerned about China, trade issues and climate change, said Robert Orttung, a research professor of international affairs and director of research at Sustainable GW. 

“Russia's leaders were not happy to see Biden's victory,” he said. “Trump's deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticism of U.S. allies in Europe and poor cooperation with NATO helped Putin's strategy of driving a wedge between the U.S. and Europe.”

However, he said Biden will likely work to restore the U.S. relationship with Germany, France and other European powers, making it more difficult for Mr. Putin to undermine Western interests. 

Dr. Orttung said Biden will work through a team of experienced diplomats who thoroughly understand Russia’s strategy and tactics to deal with key issues in the region such as reversing the invasion of Ukraine, limiting the growth of the arms race and finding ways to prevent the Arctic from becoming another conflict zone.

“In a broader sense, the U.S. has to work with its allies to prevent Russia, China, Iran and other countries from continuing to undermine public trust in democratic institutions,” he said. “Trump facilitated these attacks on Western values, and Biden will have to work hard to restore their resilience.”

Middle East

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs and an expert in comparative Middle Eastern politics, said U.S. policy in the area has been confronting “deep problems” that have “grown over decades, not months or years.”

The issues, he said, include military overreach, regional rivalries, dysfunctional governance in the region and lack of developed regional diplomatic frameworks.

“The Trump administration faced these same problems and addressed them by undermining or destroying past U.S. diplomatic efforts, particularly those associated with the Obama administration but some—such as Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy—going back much further,” he said.

The Biden administration, Dr. Brown said, is likely to begin its Middle East policy by trying to revive surviving elements of the pre-Trump legacy.

“In general, it will likely be more multilateral, more respectful of traditional alliances and less narrowly transactional,” he said, “and while it is unlikely to take a forceful approach on issues of democracy and human rights, it will likely be less supportive of authoritarian leaders.”

However, he said this approach might realize “isolated successes” but is unlikely to address the long-term problems including a legacy of mistrust.

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