4 foreign policy challenges for the next US president
Amidst a deluge of legal challenges and refusals to concede from the incumbent administration, Joe Biden has begun his transition to the White House. Some of the President-elect’s earliest cabinet nominations were among his national security team. In this blogpost we take a look at recent work in International Affairs on US foreign relations to identify the key issues facing the incoming Biden administration.
Rethinking the liberal international order
The next administration will face a daunting challenge given the fragile position of the US as leader of the liberal international order. Undoubtedly some blame for the current state of affairs can be attributed to the highly erratic leadership of the Trump administration. However, while in many respects Biden has pitched a return to a US-led liberal international order (LIO), questions remain about whether that order is as durable and desirable as its proponents suggest.
The end of liberal international order?
For seven decades the world has been dominated by a western liberal order. After the Second World War, the United…
This is not to say the US-led international order that existed prior to the Trump administration is without its high profile proponents as the best imperfect option available, or that those who highlight structural inequalities within the LIO are necessarily opposed to its return in a reformed way. The term liberal international order is itself a contested category given the substantive changes that have taken place in the international system since its establishment in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Rather, within the journal we have seen numerous authors highlight the profoundly uneven power dynamics within the LIO which are structurally constitutive both of the pre-Trump LIO and the Trump administration’s response to it. As structural features, the societal racism and stark class divisions exploited by the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020 remain a feature of American political life. At the international level, the tensions caused by the racism present in the LIO’s elitist structural underpinnings predate Trump and will not suddenly disappear when Biden takes office. While many celebrate the prospects of a return to normal, this normal may be too exclusionary to survive long term without systematic attempts to address its underlying imperial inequities. The wider politics of crisis the LIO provokes is less an exogenous product of Trump than of its own power relations, which will still be around on 21 January. While many celebrate the prospects of a return to normal, this normal may be too exclusionary to survive long term without systematic attempts to address its underlying flaws.
US-led liberal order: imperialism by another name?
Abstract. This article argues that the biggest challenges facing the post-1945 liberal international order are the need…
Dealing with COVID-19 and anthropogenic climate change
A key question for the next presidential administration is how to deal with the immediate crisis of COVID-19 and its longer term impact both domestically and internationally. With the possible exception of monetary policy, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been limited. Coordinating an effective public heath response as the death toll continues to rise should be the first priority for the Biden government.
However, beyond providing much-needed domestic leadership, it is vital the new administration adjusts on a strategic level to ensure the United States treats future pandemics as the existential threat they are. Given the propensity for anthropogenic climate change to make the emergence of zoonotically transmitted diseases more likely, and the corresponding threat to US citizens this represents, the new administration needs to do more to treat climate change and the increased pandemic risk it creates as central to its understanding of security. While re-framing security in this way is a matter of domestic political discussion, building resilience to the threats posed by climate change and pandemics can only be achieved through global cooperation. Whether a re-engaged United States is welcomed back into the global health and climate architecture or whether a Biden administration would be able to successful divert security funding towards these existential threats remains to be seen. Nonetheless a failure to act in this area could further undermine the United States’ ability to act as a leading power in the world, weaken its economy and put its citizens lives at further risk.
Is COVID-19 the end of US hegemony? Public bads, leadership failures and monetary hegemony
COVID-19 jeopardizes all dimensions of human activity, qualifying as the most invasive global crisis of the postwar…
Managing relations with China
One area where convergence from President Trump’s approach is less obvious concerns the United States’ relations with China.While in some areas such as the United States’ policy on Taiwan the level of Trump’s policy shift from previous administrations has been overstated, the Biden administration will face significant challenges in its attempts to return to more liberal internationalist ways of confronting China. From the increasing prominence of technology as a sphere of interstate competition and as a means of strengthening authoritarian governance, to China’s continued rise as alternative model of state-society relations, the Biden administration may struggle to unilaterally return to any pre-existing liberal status quo. Given the relative leeway Trumpian isolationism has given the Chinese government to expand its role as a provider of economic governance, it is unclear in political economic terms what a return to US international leadership would mean in the context of shifts economic governance already underway. Indeed, considering the exclusionary grounding of the LIO and the tensions this produces, it remains to be seen whether another round of economic and military great power competition in the LIO’s defence is feasible in the long term.
US Foreign Policy Priorities
The authors of this collection consider the most pressing foreign policy challenges for the next US president, and…
Restoring transatlantic relations
The relief emanating from European governments in the wake of Biden’s victory was palpable, but serious questions remain for transatlantic relations. The Biden administration has a role to play navigating the fallout from Brexit and rebuilding relations NATO members, many of whom have seen many of their most significant diplomatic achievements hampered by Trump’s foreign policy.
In terms of Brexit, how the Biden administration chooses to wield its considerable influence is something of an open question. Boris Johnson’s government in effectively pursuing a no deal Brexit has put itself in a position where it is heavily dependent on the US should an increasingly likely no deal Brexit occur so the incoming Biden administration will likely be able to leverage its position effectively as it chooses.
Engagement with NATO and the EU represents a key litmus test in assessing how far Biden is successful in reaffirming the liberal international order. Beyond pursuing disputes that pre-date Trump about NATO funding commitments in less public arenas, US nuclear policy should be understood as a source of friction that needs addressing. The Trump administration’s dalliance with the idea of pre-emptive nuclear strikes and its lax approach to arms control played a key role in distancing the United States from its NATO partners. This is not to say that Trump’s rhetoric on the pointlessness of the alliance is reflective of its impending collapse, but rather that adopting a nuclear posture which causes less domestic political friction for European governments is worth consideration. Effective signalling and adjustment on US nuclear policy will need to take place alongside re-joining the Paris accords and declining to engage in the kind of public conflict over burden sharing characteristic of the Trump presidency but would be a good additional step to take. In addition to this, Biden’s professed interest in re-joining the JCPOA with Iran should help build confidence with European leaders, although whether this administration will be able to effectively reinvigorate the agreement remains unclear.
Joseph Hills is the Editorial Assistant for International Affairs at Chatham House.
If you would like to find more US foreign policy research from International Affairs, explore our ‘US foreign relations’ reading list.