In normal times, one would expect a change in U.S. administration would result only in a modest change in foreign and security policies. The old saying that politics stopped at the water’s edge held true for much of the post-World War II period. This is not to say that there were not disagreements between the two major political parties, but allies, partners, and even potential adversaries could count on U.S. policy remaining within a wide and fairly predictable band of consensus. This changed with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 whereupon the President, with the support of large portions of the Republican Party, adopted a very different foreign policy – termed “America First” – that sought to change much of the broad consensus of the previous seventy years.
The change now from the Trump administration to the Biden administration will represent a similar break with the past four years but a move back to within the broad band of historic U.S. foreign and security policy. Despite what many see as “old faces” in the upcoming administration, the early indications from the President-elect, the Vice President-elect, and their senior foreign policy advisors is that they know that the world, and the U.S., have changed fundamentally over the past four years. So, despite the naming of numerous people from the Obama administration to high-level positions, do not look for the Biden administration to be an Obama 3.0.
The Biden administration’s approach to international issues will look most like the past in that the new President wants to work with allies and partners and to use negotiation and diplomacy as a first, and likely second, approach to most issues. This means, as has already been announced, returns to multilateral agreements such as the Paris Agreement that the Trump administration left. It also means utilizing a range of international governmental organizations such as NATO, the WTO, and the United Nations to tackle issues and coordinate policies. A return to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) may be the most critical diplomacy for the oil sector.
The lineup of appointees for the State Department are all highly experienced in diplomacy, reflecting a desire to rebalance away from the military instrument or the U.S. Department of Defense as being the first or only answer to most problems abroad. Many are very familiar with issues that will be early on the agenda, such as Wendy Sherman who was the lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear agreement being put up for the number two job – Deputy Secretary – at the State Department. The appointment of retired career ambassador William Burns to lead the CIA also points towards a policy in which intelligence collection, analysis, and operations will be more closely coordinated with Washington’s overall diplomatic approach.
This is not to say that a Biden administration will shy away from using “hard power” – military or intelligence operations. Biden, in his time both as Vice President and Senator, was willing to commit U.S. forces to missions abroad, but he often wanted to scope their use so as to keep the commitment limited in time and space. The new President is well aware that the American public is not looking to have the U.S. take on all global problems, particularly without the political, economic, and military support of others.