Biden's challenges abroad

President Trump pulled the U.S. back from global leadership. Can Joe Biden restore it? Here’s everything you need to know:

What is Biden facing?
Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was a radical departure from the multilateral approach of the Obama administration, and it has transformed the international landscape. The U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the World Health Organization, and the U.N. human rights commission, and it unilaterally withdrew from the multiparty Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. After four years of being berated by Trump, European allies no longer feel they can depend on the U.S. or its commitment to NATO — although they have, at Trump’s insistence, begun to spend more on defense. The U.S.-China relationship is at its most tense in decades. Both North Korea and Iran are further along in their nuclear programs than they were when Trump took office, with a jubilant Kim Jong Un recently showing off a new ICBM that can reach every city in the U.S.

What will he take on first?
Biden, who has decades of foreign policy experience as vice president and as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, wants to reassert American leadership on the biggest crises facing the globe. Most pressing is the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. will rejoin the World Health Organization and seek to coordinate an international plan to distribute vaccines. Climate change is the other major challenge. Once back in the Paris climate accord, Biden wants to lead global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a $2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan. In his very first week in office, Biden plans to save the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty, New START, which expires in February. While Trump wanted to alter the pact, Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to extend it without changes for five years; Biden will likely agree. But Biden will resume robust support for Ukraine, which is still battling Russia, and it’s possible he’ll further sanction Moscow for its attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.

What about U.S. allies?
Repairing damaged U.S. alliances is central to Biden’s plans — but many allies are wary. Some Europeans, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, say that America’s retreat from international leadership began not with Trump, but under the Obama administration, when the U.S. failed to act against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Even if Biden is wholeheartedly committed to the defense of traditional allies, they are keenly aware the American people could well vote for another isolationist in four years. Europeans can “no longer take for granted that they can trust the U.S., even on basic things,” says former Norwegian premier Gro Harlem Brundtland. Europe itself has changed: Brexit means that the U.K., our closest ally, no longer has a voice in the EU, and London is desperate for a favorable trade deal with the U.S. that it may not get.

What about the Middle East?
Like Trump, Biden sees Asia, not the Middle East, as America’s foremost strategic challenge, so Biden is unlikely to recommit troops to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Still, there will be many changes. The Trump administration has sold Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, but the Biden administration is likely to cut off supplies for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians, and punish the Saudis for human rights abuses such as the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. The Israeli relationship will also change. Biden has always been a staunch supporter of Israel, but he doesn’t see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line policies as beneficial for Israeli or U.S. interests. He will keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, but will oppose continued Israeli settlement building in Palestinian territories and restore U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

What about nuclear proliferation?
Biden wants to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear pact, but Tehran has increased its stock of low-enriched uranium over the past four years and would have to agree to give up the progress it has made toward a nuclear weapon. Further attempts to negotiate with North Korea are unlikely; Biden’s plan there is to re-engage with South Korea, abandoning Trump’s demand for $5 billion to house U.S. troops. But to rein in Pyongyang, he must get the cooperation of its biggest backer, China.

How will he do that?
Like Trump, Biden wants to prevent China from establishing military hegemony in the strategic South China Sea and halt Chinese stealing of U.S. intellectual property. But Trump’s approach, a trade war, hurt the U.S. economy without denting Chinese resolve. Biden is expected to halt the tariff war and instead focus on working with Beijing — along with regional allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia — on areas of common interest. But he also says he will hold Beijing accountable for its atrocious human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its reversal of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. Balancing those competing interests will be extremely difficult. “History cannot be erased,” said French diplomat Jean-Marie Guehenno, a former U.N. undersecretary-general. “The kind of soft power that the United States has enjoyed in the past has largely evaporated.”

‘Forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq
“It’s long past time we end the forever wars,” Biden said in his foreign policy address during the campaign. “We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaida and the Islamic State.” But both Iraqis and Afghans are worried about the aftermath of troop withdrawals. After the Obama administration drawdown in Iraq, Iran asserted more influence there and the Islamic State overran large parts of the country. “We do not want Obama’s policies to return to our country again,” said Iraqi lawmaker Dhafer al-Ani. In Afghanistan, a Biden administration is likely to continue Trump’s planned withdrawals but make them contingent on the Taliban keeping their promises to stop attacks on Afghan forces — which so far they have not done. True peace is likely to continue to be elusive.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

More stories from
5 brutally funny cartoons about Trump’s election denial
America is buckling
The damage Trump would do