The basic premise of American global policy, at least since the end of World War II, has been that we should work to build a peaceful international order, conducive to democratic expansion and multilateral cooperation. We believed our security needs were best met through a rules-based order based on shared principles, including respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity and compliance with laws and agreements.
Donald Trump upended that consensus. His inflated style, preference for America First isolationism and disinterest in foreign affairs created a kind of vacuum in American global leadership. We withdrew from international organizations, consulted less with key allies, and backed away from containing conflicts. We cut funding for international programs, even for the State Department.
With President Joe Biden in office, we see a return to the historic pattern of American engagement. Biden’s foreign policy, like those of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, will look to diplomacy and cooperation to resolve international issues.
Some aspects of traditional foreign policy continued under Trump. He helped mold a consensus in this country that says Iran, Russia and China pose a threat to our interests. The Trump administration pushed back when those nations challenged us, as will Biden. But other aspects of foreign policy will change.
We will reengage, as we have already begun doing, with our traditional allies. Biden said he has spoken with the leaders of some of our close friends — Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Australia – to reenergize the habit of cooperation, which atrophied under Trump. We will be “standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners again,” he said.
One striking aspect of Biden’s agenda is its priority on climate change as a global crisis. The United States has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and Biden will host leaders from other countries for an Earth Day summit to strengthen commitments to fighting climate change. Americans are receptive to this. They have experienced increasingly destructive storms and historic wildfires, flooding, and drought. They are deeply aware of impact of climate change on their communities and the economy, and they support strong federal action.
Biden also wants the U.S. to take leadership in addressing the challenge of refugees, once an area of bipartisan consensus. He is raising the cap on admissions to 125,000 a year, approximately the level under Obama. With more than eighty million people displaced around the world, we can again set an example by opening our doors and supplying safe haven for those fleeing violence and persecution.
Biden will face foreign policy challenges from China, with its ambition to rival the U.S. for global leadership, and Russia, with its attempts to damage and disrupt our democratic institutions. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to extend by five years the New START Treaty, the only remaining agreement between our two countries that safeguards nuclear stability. But we should not roll over in the face of Russia’s interferences with our elections, cyberattacks and poisoning of its own citizens.
China is a special challenge, a powerful country that violates human rights and engages in attacks on intellectual property. We will cooperate with China when it is in our interest to do so, but we will compete with China by bolstering our institutions at home and working with our allies abroad.
Biden has been clear that America cannot address global problems alone. From climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic to nuclear proliferation, they require finding common interests and working with like-minded partners. And that will require a return to diplomacy rooted in democratic values, such as opportunity and human rights for all, the rule of law and the treatment of all people with dignity.
Embracing these values, repairing alliances, and engaging with our neighbors and allies – as we have done often in the past – will help America reclaim its moral authority and its position as a world leader.
By Lee H. Hamilton