What’s in President Biden’s foreign policy in-tray? (Part 2)

Author(s): Adam Hug

January 20, 2021

President Biden arrives in office with a full foreign policy in-tray, albeit one that will have to compete for attention with myriad domestic priorities from tackling run-away virus to repairing the foundations of its own democracy. Most of America’s traditional allies will let out a huge sigh of relief that his predecessor has left the building, with Biden and his team known quantities with more similar values. Their number will include the UK despite the well-known scepticism of the Prime Minister within Biden world. However for some of America’s Middle East Allies who have been the recipients of Trump’s largess, there will be more nervousness with the US returning to play a somewhat less overtly partisan role in the Israel/Palestine conflict and taking action against Saudi behaviour in Yemen and on human rights.

The pandemic response will clearly be the primary short-term goal, reintegrating the US into the global coordination structures and seeking opportunities to demonstrate restored American leadership. However it is not as if the world is short of things to worry about right now. A brief tour of the global risk map might include: increased tensions in the Pacific as strategic competition between China and the US and its allies intensifies, particularly as attempts are made to hold Beijing to account for its abuses of the Uighurs and in Hong Kong; uncertainty in the Middle East over whether Iran reengages on a nuclear deal or lashes out over the assassination of its officials while the Saudi’s and Emiratis fret over what Biden’s approach means for the balance of power; potential flash points around North Korea after the failures of Trumpian personal diplomacy; the risk of Hungary and Poland’s deteriorating relations with other EU member states over their slide towards authoritarianism paralysing European institutions; the possibility of further escalation in border tensions between India and Pakistan spiralling out of control; and potential disputes between the global north and south over the rollout of Covid vaccines.

Biden will seek to use two international conferences this year in particular to fulfil domestic political priorities and reset America’s global leadership: 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and his own proposed ‘Summit of Democracies’. The international community has a brief window of opportunity after Joe Biden is inaugurated to kick on after years of delay to address both the climate crisis and rising authoritarianism, the two challenges that may define foreign policy for decades to come.