How Biden plans to undo Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy and return US to world stage
Biden’s goals share a common theme that breaks sharply with President Donald Trump’s isolationist approach: rebuilding alliances, a strategy meant to repair frayed US international ties and reflect his belief that America’s toughest challenges, including the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, require international cooperation and coordination.
“Trump’s ‘America First’ has been ‘America Alone,'” said Brian McKeon, a Biden foreign policy adviser and a former White House and Pentagon adviser in the Obama administration. “On his first day in office, [Biden] will get on the phone to key allies and say that America is back and America has your back.”
Returning to the table with allies
Trump has “poked his finger in the eye of all our friends and allies, and he’s embraced every autocrat in the world … we have lost all our friends,” Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper in September.
Biden’s advisers say he believes US national security is stronger, and more impactful, when it is approached in partnership with treaty allies. “We have a network of alliances that the Chinese don’t have, the Russians don’t have and we are stronger when we work together with these allies,” McKeon said.
Trump has publicly questioned and denigrated the value of the US’ most longstanding alliances, including with NATO, Germany, South Korea and Japan. He has also pulled the US from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization and a slew of other United Nations agencies.
The Democratic candidate told a CNN town hall last year that he would ask countries in the agreement to boost their commitments “because we’ve learned so much just in the last three years about the science, about what has to happen quicker.” Biden also pledged to sign a “series of new executive orders” that surpasses the climate ambition of the Obama-Biden administration and to develop tools to crack down on China’s use of coal and their outsourcing of carbon pollution.
“If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would re-join the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” Biden said during a foreign policy speech last year.
Iran announced last year that it would no longer limit itself to the restrictions contained in the deal in response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.
Covid and the WHO
Biden advisers say he would work to reform the WHO and focus on ensuring that China abides by international protocols when it comes to pandemic protections. Biden would also reverse Trump’s decision to pull US health scientists out of China, where they worked on pandemic detection and surveillance.
The precise plan for how a Biden administration would reenter the WHO and hold it accountable will be determined during a transition, his advisers say.
They add that at home, Biden’s focus will be on vaccinating every American. Advisers say Biden’s Covid response team would bring together domestic and foreign experts.
The US-China relationship is probably the most consequential and tricky one any modern American president has to deal with.
The last remaining nuclear proliferation pact, the New START Treaty, expires shortly after the election. Biden aides say that if the Trump administration fails to renew it, he will make it a top priority to extend the agreement.
It is unclear if Biden will give his team the green light to directly engage with the Taliban, like the Trump administration has.
Biden advisers emphasize that during the Obama administration, Biden opposed both the surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and the intervention in Libya in 2011. “I would not say he is quick to support military intervention unless he sees that it is warranted based on national security interest and that we can accomplish our objectives,” McKeon said.
Biden said during the last presidential debate that in order for him to meet with Kim, the North Korean leader would need to agree to draw down his nuclear capacity. Putting the bar so high — given that Kim is unlikely to make that commitment — has made South Korea, which favors engagement, nervous.
Israel and the Palestinians
Biden aides signal some shifts from Trump’s approach. The President has made some controversial moves to favor Israel — including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the city to be Israel’s capital, but these steps will be hard to reverse.
Biden has said he will not move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, but that he will restore engagement with Palestinians that Trump has cut off, will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem that was meant to serve the Palestinian population, restore assistance to Palestinians and the United Nations agency that supports them and help reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission in the US, which was shut down by Trump.
Rebuilding the State Department
Biden has committed to rebuilding the diplomatic corps of the State Department.
Obama said that Trump has “systematically tried to decimate our entire foreign policy infrastructure,” during an interview earlier this month. He added that Biden would rely on the expertise of career diplomats and rebuild the State Department.
Former senior diplomats who left the department due to the way that the Trump administration treated career diplomats have warned that if nothing is done, the damage could be irreversible.
“The damage may be generational,” wrote Michael McKinley, a widely respected 4-time ambassador who testified during impeachment and resigned last year, in an Atlantic essay last week. He spoke about how politicized the department had become under the Trump administration.