The Five C’s of Biden’s Foreign Policy

World Politics Review, 21.04.2021
Judah Grunstein, editor en jefe (WPR)

President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House.
(AP/Andrew Harnik)

If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s hard to deny that Donald Trump is a tough act to follow. As much as the return to calm since he left office—and more importantly, since his Twitter account was suspended—has been welcome, the drama and unpredictability he brought to the American presidency was as transfixing as it was unprecedented. This was perhaps truer in the realm of foreign policy than elsewhere due to the outsized autonomy U.S. presidents enjoy in the conduct of diplomacy, but also because of the impact Trump’s disregard for conventional wisdoms and established protocols had on America’s national interests and security.

It was no surprise, then, that for months before the U.S. presidential election, and in the months between the election and Joe Biden’s inauguration, more attention was given to how he would conduct U.S. foreign policy than any other issue, with the possible exception of his plans for handling the coronavirus pandemic. The challenges Biden faced were well-known: to repair the damage Trump had done to America’s alliances and partnerships; to reestablish America’s credentials as a “responsible stakeholder” in multilateral institutions and diplomacy; to reassert American leadership on issues that transcend borders, like climate change; and to do all of that while rehabilitating America’s reputation as a champion, but also an upholder, of human rights.

How he would go about addressing these challenges, however, was the subject of much speculation. Would he seek to quickly undo Trump’s legacy on multilateralism and climate diplomacy? Would he give more purchase in the formulation of policy to the Democratic Party’s centrist foreign policy establishment or to its more progressive left wing? Would he remove U.S. sanctions on Iran unconditionally or use them for leverage in renegotiating the multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran? And perhaps most critically, would he prioritize cooperation or confrontation with China, as well as with Russia?

Three months after Biden took office, clear answers have emerged to some of those questions. He moved quickly on some of Trump’s more controversial moves, returning the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement and reversing Trump’s ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries immediately upon taking office. It took him longer to lift Trump’s sanctions against officials of the International Criminal Court, but he ultimately did so earlier this month.

With regard to who would have his ear on foreign policy issues, Biden’s appointees ended up coming primarily from the Democrats’ centrist camp. But they have embraced a number of policies—like tackling corruption, reviewing the use of armed drones outside of active battlefields and, especially, fully withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11—that should please the party’s more progressive wing. And when progressives reacted with outrage to the announcement that Biden would break his campaign promise to raise the cap on refugees admitted into the country set by the Trump administration, he immediately reversed course.

Answers to some of the other prominent questions surrounding Biden’s foreign policy remain more tentative. He has yet to lift any of the Trump-era tariffs, not only against China, but also against America’s European allies. And his team was slow out of the blocks on diplomatic engagement with Iran and has yet to articulate its strategies on Venezuela and North Korea.

But if actual policies have yet to emerge on many of these issues, we know enough about how the Biden team intends to manage foreign policy to have an idea of what they plan to do. That approach can be summed up as the Five C’s.



One of the reasons that Biden’s foreign policy is taking shape at such a measured pace is the deliberative approach his team has taken to many of the most pressing issues. Part of that deliberation has been internal, with reviews still in the pipeline for Venezuela and North Korea policy, among others. But a good deal of it has been with U.S. allies and partners who for the previous four years had often found out about major shifts in U.S. policy from Trump’s Twitter feed.

Observers, even sympathetic ones, have expressed a lot of frustration and impatience over the perceived lack of urgency on a range of pressing issues, particularly with regard to discussions over the Iran nuclear deal. But here, as elsewhere, the preparatory consultations with allies serve two purposes: to help formulate a collective approach and to reassure them that Biden’s plan for mending ties damaged by Trump includes listening.



While putting an emphasis on consultation with allies and partners, the Biden team has also clearly signaled its intention to convene groups of like-minded states as well as meetings with a broader range of attendees, in order to deepen ties, promote its agenda and build new multilateral formats. An early example was the first-ever leaders’ summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—an informal grouping known as the Quad, comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia and India—held virtually in March.

Next up is a climate summit set for Thursday with 40 leaders of the world’s biggest economies, at which Biden is expected to unveil ambitious U.S. targets for emissions reductions in a bid to reclaim the leadership role on climate diplomacy that Trump abdicated. The climate summit is notable for being more inclusive than the G-20, but less unwieldy than the United Nations framework that includes nearly all of the world’s leaders. Another big test of Biden’s convening power will be the response he gets when he formally announces his global democracy summit, which he pledged to hold in his first year in office.



Much of the speculation over Biden’s foreign policy had to do with how he would handle America’s rivalries with China and Russia. While Trump himself was wildly erratic and incoherent on China, his administration significantly hardened the U.S. approach to managing bilateral ties. On Russia, Trump was missing in action when it came to responding to Moscow’s election meddling and cyber intrusions, but his administration on several occasions sought to impose costs on Russia for its problematic behavior. There was some expectation that Biden might try to wipe the slate clean and lead with cooperative engagement with Beijing and Moscow, thereby weakening Washington’s hand.

Those fears seem to have been misguided. Instead, Biden’s team has shown a deft touch when it comes to holding both China and Russia to account, without backing away from engagement when it is in America’s interests. With China, that meant announcing sanctions against two dozen Communist Party officials for Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy, just days before the first high-level meeting between the two sides in March. That was followed by another list of sanctions days later, this time targeting Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Nevertheless, Biden didn’t hesitate to send his climate envoy, John Kerry, to China last week for talks in advance of this week’s climate meeting, to which he also invited Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Similarly, Biden announced sanctions against a range of Russian entities, including a ban on U.S. financial institutions trading in Russian sovereign debt, in retaliation for Russian acts of cyber espionage and meddling in the 2020 presidential election, just days after he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin to propose a summit to discuss nuclear arms control and other issues of bilateral concern. The two leaders had already extended the New START nuclear arms treaty with little fuss. Clearly, Biden has no trouble being firm with China and Russia when necessary, while also cooperative with them when useful.



Perhaps more than anything, Biden has managed to calm the tumult of the Trump years, through a combination of strict discipline when it comes to messaging and measured purpose when it comes to actions. Hewing to a strategy that paid off during his presidential campaign, Biden has treated Twitter as an afterthought, using it as just another platform to broadcast boilerplate policy statements and press releases. Meanwhile, by restoring a sense of order to the U.S. policymaking process, he has allowed allies, partners and rivals alike to base their perceptions and calculations on a more recognizable and dependable America.



All of that leads to the fifth and final C. The Biden team understands that American global leadership, and the international order the U.S. helped build and backstop, can no longer be taken for granted. Both have their skeptics, both within the U.S. and outside it, and the world now has alternatives. For the U.S. to maintain its leadership position, and the many benefits and advantages it procures the American people, those skeptics will have to be won over.

The Biden administration gets this and has so far unveiled a well thought-out operational approach that seeks to reconfigure American diplomacy for the changed international landscape, while using a more traditional conceptual and practical toolkit than Trump did. That won’t necessarily guarantee results; in foreign policy, as in war, the other side gets a say. But it will avoid many of the errors Trump made. If that makes for a more boring U.S. foreign policy, it’s a price worth paying.

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