Looking Forward in December 2020 2.

            President Joe Biden will face three chief problem areas in foreign policy.[1]    

            First and foremost, there is the problem of Asia.  “China is sort of the radioactive core of America’s foreign policy issues.”[2]  The phrase “U.S.-Chinese relations” offers an umbrella for two main issues.  The first is economic, covering trade and technology.  The second is China’s current and projected outward reach, meaning—for the moment– Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.  Donald Trump replaced the long-term American policy of co-operation with one of confrontation.  The central pillars of this approach have been tariffs, harassing the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and talking about building up the over-stretched U.S. Navy.  The Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uighurs, Hong Kong, and internal critics of its response to the Corona virus show the direction Zi Jinping intends to take on internal affairs.  Will the same be true in foreign policy?  To what extent will President Joe Biden change course from the Trump administration?

            There is no good solution in sight to the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea.  Plastering the little country with economic sanctions didn’t work.  Trump’s initiative to open direct contact with North Korea didn’t work.  Somehow (or from someone) North Korea acquired ICBM rocket engines and the ability to stop the US from messing up its missile test launches.  Biden has roundly denounced Trump’s appeasement of North Korea, but hasn’t suggested any alternative beyond rhetorical initiatives.  If the Obama administration wouldn’t bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program, would a Biden administration bomb North Korea? 

The second is the Middle East.  For a long time, America’s Middle East policy sought to limit Soviet influence in the area and to gain security for Israel through a resolution of the Palestinian problem.  Events have by-passed by far this policy.  The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the scale of that danger.  However, the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war[3] took its place. 

The Obama administration negotiated an agreement to limit Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for a time, but left other aspects of Iran’s assertive behavior for some future day.  President Trump abandoned that agreement and restored unilateral, but painful for Iran, sanctions.  President-elect Biden has said that he will reverse course by rejoining the agreement, but he also has said that Iran must commit to additional negotiations.  “Iran is desperate for a deal.”[4]  How desperate? 

Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran strengthened both Israel and Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by the more accommodationist policy of the Obama administration.  An Israel-Sunni Arab coalition is well under construction, with knock-on damage to the long-term Two States solution to the Palestinian problem.  Will the Biden administration reverse course on the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam?  Will it restore support for a Two State solution?  How will it deal with the Crown Prince (and likely future king) of Saudi Arabia?[5] 

            The third is relations with America’s European allies.  In 1949, the United States created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deter the existential threat from a Soviet attack on Western Europe.  Forty years later the Soviet Union disintegrated.  NATO faced a new existential threat: what was its purpose?  No one has come up with a good answer. 

Trump openly and repeatedly disparaged our Continental European allies, while hoping for better relations with post-Soviet Russia.  Will the Biden administration find common interests with Russia in areas like arms control, even if it means throwing overboard the kleptocracy in Ukraine?  Will the Biden administration bear with the continual post-Trump whining from E.U. leaders to “prove you love me”? 

Seeing Britain’s departure from the European Union (E.U.) through the same optic of “tribalism” and “nationalism” as they saw Donald Trump, both former President Obama and presidential candidate Biden opposed “Brexit.”[6]  Trump thought that he saw a kindred spirit in British prime minister Boris Johnson.  Now Trump will be replaced by Biden, but both Johnson and “Brexit” are still there.  Will the Biden administration really want to make things difficult for America’s most reliable ally now that “Brexit” is a done deal?    

Joe Biden seems adept at dealing with realities as they exist.  It is at least possible that there will be an uncomfortable degree of continuity between the foreign policies of the Trump and Biden administrations. 


[1] Rick Gladstone, “Biden to face a Long List of Foreign Challenges, With the Chinese at the Top,” NYT, 9 November 2020. 

[2] Orville Schell.  On Schell, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orville_Schell 

[3] Essentially this pitted Shi’ites in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon against Sunnis everywhere else, with Saudi Arabia taking a leading role. 

[4] Cliff Kupchan.  On Kupchan, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_Kupchan    

[5] The man appears to be a very able psychopath. 

[6] “Brexit” seems to me to be an understandable bad idea with much deeper historical roots than is often recognized.