What to Expect from US Foreign Policy in 2021

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Inauguration Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol
President Joseph R. Biden Jr. addresses the nation after his oath of office at his Presidential Inauguration Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. (Charlotte Carulli/DoD photo)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

2021 brings a new administration to the White House. For the first time since 2008, the Democratic Party will control both chambers of Congress and the executive branch. Such dramatic realignments are often expected to herald significant changes in U.S. foreign policy.

While the style and rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy will modify with new administrations, its content usually changes far less. With the Biden administration poised to take power, what can we expect from U.S. foreign policy in 2021?

The two most significant legacies of the Trump administration's foreign policy are a sharply confrontational relationship with China and a radically different Middle East. It is unlikely that the incoming administration can or will want to change either policy to any significant degree.

The Trump administration moved quickly to confront China over what it saw as unfair trade practices, Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, and mercantilist economic policies that it believed had resulted in the loss of high-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Despite a highly touted agreement with China in which it promised to dramatically increase its purchases of U.S. goods, especially agricultural and energy products, Beijing has failed to live up to its commitments.

Given that roughly two out of every three Americans see China as a threat to the U.S., according to a recent PEW survey, the Biden administration will have a hard time reversing course on Trump's China policy. President-elect Joe Biden has already indicated his support for repatriating supply chains to the U.S. for critical goods, such as medical equipment and PPE supplies, and for a "Buy American" policy in federal procurement.

Moreover, China is likely to test the incoming administration with one or more provocative acts. On Jan. 5, for example, Hong Kong police arrested 53 pro-democracy activists as Beijing moved openly to squash any dissent. The arrests were condemned by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who threatened to impose sanctions on those responsible, as well as by Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for the position.

Resetting Relations with China

The Biden administration will want to reduce the Trump administration's confrontational attitude toward China and reset relations between Washington and Beijing. Unless China abandons its aggressive posture in East Asia, however, that will prove difficult without making it appear that the U.S. is appeasing Beijing.

Hence, it's unlikely that the new administration will dismantle anytime soon the sweeping tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump or the restrictions placed on the ability of Chinese government-linked companies to access American technology and financial markets -- although some selective rollbacks may be possible.

What is more likely is that Washington will try to enlist European support for a coordinated response to China's unfair trade practices; the bullying of its South and East China Sea neighbors; and the internal repression of Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities in China.

It's also likely that the Biden administration will signal its willingness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latest version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration in 2016.

Both efforts, however, will take a long time to resolve so it is unlikely that either effort will come to fruition in 2021 or that the tenor of Sino-American relations will change, barring a de-escalation on Beijing's part.

How forcefully the Biden administration responds to Chinese provocations will set the tone of Sino-American relations for the foreseeable future. Three key benchmarks will be how strongly it pushes back on Chinese repression in Hong Kong and elsewhere; its willingness to supply Taiwan with advanced weapons; and its continued use of Freedom of Navigation Operations to symbolically protest Beijing's militarization of the South and East China Seas

Overall, however, American public opinion, national security concerns, continued questions about how beholden Biden and his family are to China, and the lingering legacy of Trump's policy toward Beijing will limit the Biden administration's freedom of action concerning China.

The Middle East

The Middle East is a radically different place in 2020 than it was in 2016. The ISIS Caliphate has been destroyed. Although ISIS continues as an organization, and is indeed thriving, it no longer directly threatens the U.S. homeland or its military personnel.

Jihadist groups have learned that if they stage attacks against Americans, especially if they do so on U.S. soil, they will find themselves in the crosshairs of America's formidable military machine. As long as they operate elsewhere, however, they are unlikely to be subjected to the full weight and power of American military forces, even if their actions ultimately work against the foreign policy interests of the U.S.

The Abraham Accords, a 2020 joint declaration between the U.S., Israel and the United Arab Emirates, have now led to peace treaties between Israel and four other countries -- UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. It's likely that other Middle Eastern countries will sign the agreement. The Trump administration has been lobbying the Saudi government to be the next signatory and to do so before Trump leaves office.

Regardless of who else signs the Abraham Accords, unofficially they are compelling proof that concerns about Iran now supersede any other issue in the Middle East, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

It's unclear whether the Biden administration will continue to push to expand the Abraham Accords, and if it will be willing to facilitate new agreements by offering concessions to the signatories to the same extent the Trump administration has. Blinken has, however, praised the accords.

Since the Biden administration will eventually have to deal with the issue of Iran, it will be in the White House's interest to support the accords as they strengthen the administration's hand in dealing with Tehran.

The Trump administration was confident that if it won a second term, it would be able to reach an agreement with Tehran. U.S. sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy. Iranian oil exports have declined by around 70%, from 2.5 million barrels of petroleum a day to about 750,000, although they can vary quite dramatically from month to month. Over the course of the Trump administration, Iran's economy has declined by an average of 6% a year.

During the presidential campaign Biden indicated that he would support reviving the Iranian Nuclear Agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action/JCPOA), in collaboration with America's European allies. How viable is that option?

It's unlikely that the Biden administration could muster Senate ratification of a formal treaty. That means, just as with the Obama administration, any agreement would be only as good as the willingness of the next administration to support it. Tehran has learned that lesson the hard way and may be unwilling to roll the dice again.

Moreover, the Iranian government has insisted that the restoration of the JCPOA is predicated on it receiving $70 billion in compensation for the damage done by the Trump administration to its economy from lost oil exports. Such a concession, even a significantly smaller one, would be unpopular in the U.S., even among Democratic voters. It would paint the Biden government as being "weak" on Iran.

It's possible that the Biden White House will offer Tehran some relief on sanctions. Iran is likely to ask for it as a precondition of beginning negotiations. It's also likely that Tehran will test the Biden administration with a provocative act. Iran's most formidable threat is its ability to interdict tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. The world is awash in oil, however. Disrupting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf doesn't pack the punch it used to.

Elsewhere around the world, the Biden administration has been vague about its intentions. In Afghanistan, America's longest ever running war, the Biden White House is likely to maintain the status quo: pulling back from the withdrawal demanded by Trump, or at the very least how speedily that happens, but it is also unlikely to increase the U.S. troop presence.

North Korea

North Korea is another hot spot where the incoming administration has not disclosed its intentions. Here, too, Pyongyang is likely to test Biden and push for a return to the Obama-era policy of offering North Korea concessions in return for agreeing to negotiations.

On Jan. 9, in a speech to the Eighth Party Congress, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called the United States his "biggest, main enemy," and said that Pyongyang will keep developing its "long-range nuclear strike capability" to deter any threats to its sovereignty.

The Biden White House may offer to roll back some sanctions on humanitarian grounds, but a complete rollback of those sanctions is unlikely. North Korea's intercontinental missile development poses a much more tangible threat to the U.S. today than it did during the Obama administration.

The most likely North Korean provocation is another test of an intercontinental-range missile. This will likely be staged as a series of escalations, each designed to raise the stakes, finally culminating in a missile test that could demonstrate that Pyongyang's missiles have an intercontinental range capable of reaching the lower 48 states.

On the other hand, it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged North Korea's economy, already a basket case to begin with, so Pyongyang's options are also limited. Biden may opt to let South Korea take the lead in dealing with North Korea in the short term -- at least until North Korea becomes his first foreign policy crisis.

Venezuela is unlikely to be a priority for the Biden administration, because for the short term there is little that it can do to change the situation there. Long term, the transformation of the Maduro government into a narco-state and its ever-growing links with organizations like Hezbollah and the Iranian revolutionary Guard, and many of the Mexican drug cartels, pose a threat to the U.S. Until there is a violent incident on U.S. soil that can be directly linked to the Maduro government, however, the situation in Venezuela will stay on the back burner.


Russian policy is another area where the incoming Biden administration has been vague. It will avoid talk of "resetting" U.S.-Russian relations, but it may offer concessions like rolling back sanctions designed to impede the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe and, in particular, the sanctions levied on those companies engaged in building the Nord-Stream II pipeline. What it would ask for in return from Moscow is unclear.

A further eastward expansion of NATO is off the table. It has been for some time, as there is little European interest in doing so. The Biden White House may indicate that it will not interfere or support pro-Western groups in Belarus, and it may hold off from further expanding the U.S. and NATO military presence in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and the Baltic states. It may also signal a willingness to restart arms-control discussions with Moscow and possibly reinstate the treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces.

The situation in Ukraine will remain frozen. Given the past association of the Biden family with Ukraine, that is not an issue that the incoming administration is likely to prioritize.

Immigration and Climate Change

Two issues that will likely impact U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration are its policies on immigration and climate change.

Biden was a fierce critic of the Trump administration's immigration policies. He has stated that he intends to reverse many of those policies and that he supports creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. What his policy will be on new immigration, however, is uncertain.

While a majority of Americans support "normalizing" the status of illegal immigrants, support for more open new immigration is far less. Past experience shows that every time the U.S. government legalizes the presence of illegal immigrants, it spurs a new wave of illegal immigration.

The Biden government's policy on new immigration will impact its relations with Mexico and with the countries of Central America. Mexico, in particular, has been severely impacted by both the decline in oil prices and the collapse of the tourist industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with the continued lawlessness created by the drug cartels, Mexico's long-term stability could become an issue for the Biden administration and have a major impact on the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

The appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as Climate Czar is a clear signal that climate change issues will figure prominently in Biden's foreign policy. The incoming administration has already declared that it would rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Climate change is an issue that is dear to the Democratic Party's progressive wing, and they are likely to demand more concrete action than just rejoining the Obama-era agreement.

The issue is what foreign policy concessions are the Biden administration likely to make in pursuit of its climate change agenda. Would it, for example, make concessions to Beijing's objectives in the East and South China Seas in return for a Chinese commitment to bring down its carbon dioxide emissions faster?

In other words, would it throw Taiwan under the bus in return for a "victory" on curbing China-induced climate change? Probably not, but neither can it be ruled out.

Indeed, offering such concessions may be one way for Beijing to identify common ground and restart a dialogue with Washington without first demanding the Biden administration immediately roll back some of the Trump administration's China policies. Framing any concessions to China in the context of a larger bilateral agreement on climate change may be one way of avoiding the appearance of appeasing Beijing.

America's domestic energy policy may also impact U.S. foreign policy. Given how many times Biden has reversed himself on his policy toward fracking, however, it's impossible to know what that impact will be until there is more clarity on how the Biden administration intends to regulate the oil and gas industry.

During the month of December, for the first time in decades, there were no Saudi oil shipments to the U.S. What happens with the domestic oil and gas industry may ultimately affect the U.S. strategy in the Mideast.

The Biden administration's foreign policy will emphasize coordination and joint action with America's allies rather than the unilateralism that characterized the Trump administration. The U.S. will likely rejoin the World Health Organization and play a more supportive role within international organizations than the Trump government did.

Biden will drop the "America First" rhetoric that marked Trump's foreign policy, but not necessarily all the substance of that policy. Policies that were popular with voters, such as repatriating supply chains; reducing American dependence on foreign -- especially Chinese -- suppliers of critical goods and electronic components; greater accountability and fairer burden sharing in regard to international organizations, will likely continue, albeit under a different name and justification.

Although Biden has expressed support for many of the key elements of the Obama-era foreign policy, a return to those policies will be difficult. Counterparties may not necessarily be willing to return to those agreements. American supporters of those policies will likely demand more far-reaching action than before. Much has changed in the last four years. The world of 2020 is hugely different from the world in 2016. Biden's foreign policy will not be an updated version of Obama 2.0

The Biden administration's foreign policy will have a very different tone and rhetoric, but it will have more in common with the substance of Trump's foreign policy than most observers expect.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. Find more information on how to submit your own commentary.

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