What leaders overseas will want to ask of the Biden administration

Flags of the world

The U.S. election was watched closely around the world, with foreign leaders acutely aware that in some ways, the result of the presidential campaign could have major impacts on their future relations with the United States.

As Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House in January, what questions or concerns is he likely to hear from his counterparts in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, as well as officials from international institutions? Below, Brookings Foreign Policy experts channel the priorities — and in many cases anxieties — of foreign capitals as Washington approaches a leadership change.


Norway hopes for a re-energized U.N. Security Council.

Pavel K. Baev, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
As with nearly all European states, Norway holds great expectations about the forthcoming shifts in style and substance of U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration. Rehabilitating trans-Atlantic ties and strengthening NATO cohesion are pivotal for Norway, which anchors the Northern flank of the alliance. Oslo remains fully committed to increasing its defense expenditures, without further prompting from Washington. There are also some particular and urgent Norwegian hopes shaped by the prospect of taking a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council beginning in 2021.

Some initial steps in asserting greater U.S. commitment to international agreements and institutions — like restoring ties with the World Health Organization and rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate — can be taken quickly and effortlessly. Some others — like ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law on the Sea — may be marked as a long shot. Every advance along this road depends on the appointment and confirmation of an influential U.S. ambassador to the U.N., with a strong profile in the Biden-Harris team, and emphatically not an “America-firster.”

Where Norway expects the most significant impact from this shift is in the Middle East, a region where the new administration can build on recent achievements and bring them under the umbrella of U.N. resolutions and engagements. The single most important issue is the de-escalation of tensions around Iran. It is hardly possible to hope for a full restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but Tehran’s return to compliance may be facilitated by a U.S.-backed U.N. engagement to provide badly needed humanitarian aid. The tall order of unscrambling the mess with Iranian nuclear and missile programs can only proceed through opening multi-channel talks with Tehran, and Norway is ready to contribute.

Leaders in Italy and the rest of Europe will seek closer economic coordination with the United States.

Carlo Bastasin, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
Italy’s economic fragility exposes the country to all sorts of political and financial risks. The country would benefit more than others from revitalized U.S.-European Union cooperation aimed at reenergizing the global economy. Returning to the spirit of the 2009-2010 G-20 initiatives that followed the 2008 financial crisis is therefore critical for Italy.

For domestic political reasons, neither the U.S. nor Europe can extensively use their fiscal tools. With interest rates at zero, some form of innovative coordination between fiscal policy and monetary policy is necessary. But this can only work if the U.S. and Europe coordinate and do not neutralize each other.

In this context, tax cooperation is of particular relevance for Italy, given its fiscal instability. Tax competition is eroding national tax bases to the benefit of a rich few, affecting the stability of the Western democracies. The level of U.S. tax revenues (relative to the business cycle and to GDP) is the lowest since 1965. However, President Trump’s own personal story shows that raising taxes on high-income individuals might be ineffective if cross-border fiscal loopholes remain open. For the president-elect, who has Irish origins and lived most of his life in Delaware, there is an aspect of personal credibility in tackling fiscal safe havens.

Finally, a multilateral U.S.-EU fiscal initiative could become a platform or even leverage for implementing other “values-based” multilateral initiatives, from regulating tech companies to sanctioning pollution emitters.

Leaders in Europe and elsewhere will wonder whether the U.S. can demonstrate that it’s serious about climate action.

Sadie Frank, Project Manager and Research Assistant in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, and David G. Victor, Nonresident Senior Fellow and Co-Chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate
After the U.S. rejoins the Paris Agreement — which President-Elect Joe Biden has already said he’ll do on Day 1 — how do we signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is serious about climate action? This is a question coming from Europe, in particular. Without a “green wave” sweeping more climate-conscious Democrats into Congress, the best plans seem to involve a hodgepodge of administrative and regulatory actions rather than new federal legislation.

Financial markets, however, offer a path for more lasting shifts. This is because once the markets see new rules, it will be harder to reverse course — and market participants are already on notice that the rules may soon change.

U.S. financial regulators already know, for the most part, what to do: Disclose climate-related risks more fully and do more stress testing, as is happening now in Europe. Just this week, for the first time, the Federal Reserve added climate change to its systemic risk report. There are encouraging signs at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as well, although updating SEC reporting standards (and enforcement) around climate-related disclosures is long overdue. And in September, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission released a bipartisan report on climate risks to the U.S. financial system.

Our research shows that firms are already reporting to markets quite a lot of information about their emissions and risks to valuation as emissions rise. The more urgent need is more disclosure on exposures to the physical risks of climate change. In the municipal debt markets, in particular, disclosures lag far behind exposure to an array of pernicious climate perils such as floods and wildfires.

When the financial markets shift, then capital will flow in different ways. Firms and their leaders will take the climate problem more seriously, and political action in the country will get easier in time — even amidst prolonged political polarization in Washington.

Italian leaders are focused on economic cooperation with the U.S.

Giovanna De Maio, Nonresident Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
Italy — which in January 2021 will assume the chairmanship of the G-20 — will vigorously try to engage the United States on trans-Atlantic economic synergies on trade, technology, and climate. While over the past four years Italy has been able to avoid the brunt of U.S. tariffs on European goods, trans-Atlantic tensions over trade have not benefited export countries like Italy. Given the devastating impact of the global pandemic and the risk for more protectionist policies worldwide, it is in Italy’s interest to attract foreign direct investment from the U.S. and work with the United States to rebuild conflict-free trade relations (the U.S. and Italy trade in several sectors, from pharmaceuticals to machinery to defense), and develop new technologies (in digital fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and space). Developing and boosting such synergies would be crucial for reducing the West’s technological and supply-chain dependence on countries like China. Stronger economic and technological cooperation in strategic sectors between Italy, Europe and the U.S. will represent an obstacle to Chinese economic influence in Europe.

Italy will also co-chair the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021. It will seek cooperation based on the commonalities between the European Green Deal (and the Italian Green Deal) and the Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice, as well as leverage longstanding U.S.-Italy cooperation in both traditional and alternative energies.

Europe is focused on the trans-Atlantic security agenda.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
European leaders will want to know: How can America and Europe jointly set up a new trans-Atlantic security agenda that a) makes room for a greater European role in European security; b) keeps America in Europe; c) extends the agenda beyond deterrence and defense to global great-power competition (with China as a top priority); and d) recommits the alliance to liberal democracy as a foundational value at home and abroad?

Russia’s focus is on New START.

Angela Stent, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
The top priority for President Vladimir Putin will be the extension of the New START treaty regulating the strategic nuclear weapons arsenals of the United States and Russia. The treaty expires on February 5, so the Biden administration will have two weeks to come to an agreement with Russia, probably extending the treaty for five years, during which both sides will begin negotiations on a new, more comprehensive treaty. The Trump administration started renewal talks late, and until recently insisted that Chinese nuclear weapons be included in the negotiations, to which the Chinese objected. Despite Putin’s insistence that Russia is developing new super-weapons, Russia does not have the resources to spend on a costly new arms race if the treaty were to expire, so it would prefer to extend the treaty for another five years with its verification provisions.

The Russians also hope that the extension of New START will be part of a broader process of restoring diplomatic channels with Russia that have largely atrophied during the Trump administration. The U.S-Russian relationship is adversarial, but Washington and Moscow both recognize that the absence of regular contacts on a number of issues has increased the danger of conflict over a range of issues. They are wary of some aspects of the Biden campaign’s positions, but they would welcome some predictability about the institutional aspects of bilateral engagement.

European leaders want to cooperate with Washington on China.

Torrey Taussig, Nonresident Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe
European Union (EU) leadership and EU member-state leaders will want to know how Europe and the U.S. under a Biden administration can work together on China. It is clear that China will be a top foreign policy priority for the Biden administration, as it was for the Trump administration. Yet President Trump’s approach toward China was unilateral and antagonistic; it lacked a clear strategy for bringing allies on board with a more coordinated approach toward Beijing. Case-in-point was the Trump administration’s threat to cut off intelligence-sharing with Germany should Berlin decide to allow Huawei to build out its 5G network.

President-Elect Biden has indicated that he wants to reinvigorate America’s alliances and work through multilateral institutions rather than against them. This opens the door for a more productive and strategic conversation on China between European capitals and Washington. But key questions remain. How will the U.S. help to strengthen Europe’s technology industry (including 5G providers Nokia and Ericsson) so that it is not overly reliant on Chinese providers? What asks will the U.S. make of its European allies in pushing back against Chinese human rights abuses and growing authoritarian influence? Can the U.S. and Europe overcome their Boeing-Airbus dispute at the World Trade Organization in order to launch joint cases against unfair Chinese trade practices?

After four long years of tense relations with Europe, President-Elect Biden has indicated that the U.S. will seek to reassure and work with its European partners to take on shared challenges. But the devil is in the details — and China will be a high priority on the trans-Atlantic agenda.

Broader Middle East

Pakistan cares most about Biden’s approach to Afghanistan.

Madiha Afzal, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program
For Pakistan, the top question is not about Biden’s approach to Pakistan, but his approach to Afghanistan. Afghanistan has not only defined the U.S.-Pakistan relationship for the last 40 years, it has been instrumental in resetting the relationship during the Trump administration, as Trump sought to withdraw troops and Pakistan helped with the Afghan peace process.

The big question for Pakistan is: Will Biden continue with the (currently stalled) Afghan peace process as is? Will he, in his bid to withdraw responsibly, slow down the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan? Will he be harder on the Taliban, insisting it cuts ties with al-Qaida, and will that lead to the U.S.-Taliban deal breaking down? Will Biden insist on maintaining a residual counterterrorism force in Afghanistan, leading the Doha deal to break down then? And if the deal breaks down, what are the repercussions for Pakistan? Does Pakistan’s usefulness to the United States wash away, leading to another downward turn in the relationship? Will the relationship then revert to the status quo ante of the Obama-Biden administration, a relative low point when the U.S. insisted Pakistan do more on counterterrorism?

Whatever happens in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan, a breakdown of the deal would clearly spill over the border into Pakistan. For Pakistan, the key questions — and the immediate future of its relationship with America — all flow from Biden’s approach to Afghanistan.

Iraq and Libya are looking for U.S. action.

Ranj Alaaldin, Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy
Leaders in Iraq and Libya will want to know how the U.S. will help them achieve a durable peace in their countries. Will the next administration be committed to addressing inter-locked challenges in complex environments that are underscored by poor or authoritarian governance, weak institutions and socio-economic deprivation, and the proliferation of armed groups? It is also up to leaders in both countries to produce their own realistic and actionable policy recommendations for the Biden administration. These recommendations cannot be recycled versions of tried and failed approaches, and require a degree of ingenuity and originality that too often has been missing.

In Iraq, the U.S. has troops that have come under attack from Iran-aligned militia groups, which have undermined attempts to secure the lasting defeat of ISIS. In Libya, the U.S. has played a nominal role (compared to elsewhere) in the war between the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and General Khalifa al-Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France. Washington cannot escape its responsibilities in a conflict where its allies and rivals exploit U.S. inaction. The war has aggrandized Russia and destabilized the Eastern Mediterranean.

The U.S. must decide whether it wants to affect lasting change (which is possible but needs a serious commitment) or simply contain the fallout (which may bring reprieve but not long-term stability). The Biden administration should look to de-escalation and diplomacy, and work on establishing political coalitions that can muster the domestic capacity and momentum to push back against malign actors and make it easier for the U.S. to assert itself with its rivals at the international level. The Biden administration must heed the lessons of the recent past: Inaction should not be an option. Where the U.S. fails to act, it provides tacit acquiescence to the conduct of its rivals and enemies.

Iran will want to know if it will receive the economic benefits it believes it was entitled to and never received under the JCPOA.

Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Of the new Biden administration, Tehran will likely ask: You say you are willing to return to compliance with the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) if we do. But are you prepared to end the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, remove all the sanctions it imposed since May 2018, and assure the international business and banking community that it can take advantage of sanctions relief and reengage with Iran without fear of U.S. sanctions?

Leaders in Libya will hope to see deeper and wider engagement from the next administration.

Federica Saini Fasanotti, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
When it comes to Libya, we must distinguish between two current governments: one in Tripoli, another in Tobruk. Both will view the new Biden administration with caution. The Libyans have learned over time that the United States is not particularly interested in their dossier. Washington’s counterterrorism focus to date, on limited and concentrated targets in certain areas of the country, has brought few results.

What has been lacking since the Obama administration, and certainly during the Trump administration, has been a clear U.S. strategy regarding Libya — ideally in collaboration with Italy and France. Libyans will ask the new leadership in Washington: Are you ready to help us in a concrete way, and with a clear strategy?

Many Libyans still see the United States as an independent actor that can serve as a disinterested mediator; Libyans also often see the U.S. as a beacon of democracy. The current U.N. special envoy to Libya — Stephanie Williams, an American — has helped bring different factions to the table in a serious way during her tenure.

But to achieve any sort of lasting ceasefire in Libya, the United States would have to invest more. One step is to considerably increase the presence of U.S. Africa Command, which the Trump administration decreased. As my Brookings colleagues and I wrote in 2019, the United States should reinvigorate its engagement in Libya, including via renewed diplomatic engagement and efforts via the United Nations. It should also focus on empowering individual municipalities in Libya via a city-first paradigm.

Afghan leaders wonder when the U.S. will withdraw all its forces and under what conditions.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology and Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors
The Afghan government’s top question is whether President Biden will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 2021 as specified in the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement of February 2020. The Afghan government has lobbied to avert this outcome.

President Trump has been determined to carry it out, irrespective of the intense violence in Afghanistan, the lack of prospects for a comprehensive ceasefire, and the stalled intra-Afghan negotiations.

A senior member of the Biden team has stated that President-Elect Biden intends to keep a limited counterterrorism force in Afghanistan in the “low thousands” of U.S. troops. Such statements are a source of relief for the Afghan government: The Taliban is ascendent on the battlefield, and Afghan security forces have not weaned themselves off the U.S. military.

But the mission of any residual U.S. force matters. If focused on counterterrorism only — i.e. against al-Qaida and ISIS — the force will be of little help to the embattled Afghan government, beyond occasional air strikes against massed Taliban. It will not radically change the battlefield trends. Nor will it induce the Taliban to make significant concessions in negotiations.

Instead, even such a limited-mission U.S. force will be unacceptable to the Taliban. The group may abandon negotiations and/or start attacking U.S. bases, shelling them with truck-mounted missiles a la pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

The United States may then face the choice of withdrawing from Afghanistan without any commitment from the Taliban to counter ISIS and al-Qaida (however meagerly implemented) or fall back into open-ended counterinsurgency, with the attendant need to increase U.S. force levels. The Afghan government would welcome that. But there would still a very low likelihood of significantly weakening the Taliban.

Moreover, regional actors — Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, the latter controlling the air and ground access for the U.S. military to Afghanistan — may actively oppose such open-ended U.S. military presence.

Saudi Arabia will be concerned that Biden will privilege engagement with Iran.

Courtney Freer, Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy
Leaders in Saudi Arabia will want to know whether the Biden administration’s hopes to foster a relationship with Tehran through re-engagement with the Iran nuclear deal will leave Riyadh isolated in the region. Indeed, Biden’s rhetoric about Saudi Arabia has been tough; he has said the country’s government has “very little social redeeming value,” that Riyadh had murdered “children … and innocent people” in Yemen, and that the state is a “pariah” and will be treated as such. It is unlikely that Biden’s actions will fully match this rhetoric, especially since Saudi security is important for the broader region, but his administration will still need to balance its desire to continue engagement on both sides of the Gulf.

While Biden is likely to end American support for the Yemen war, a move that has enjoyed widespread support in Congress, it will need to do so in a way that prevents Yemen from providing a power vacuum for Tehran. Further, through its re-engagement on the nuclear deal, the administration must be careful to include Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors, since President Obama’s exclusion of all states but Oman in the process made him deeply unpopular in the region.

Even as the new administration seeks re-engagement with Tehran, it will also work with the Saudis on urging normalization with Israel. And indeed one way for Saudi Arabia to ingratiate itself with Washington would be to move toward normalization. Another would be to show progress on human rights (for instance, by releasing the women activists imprisoned since 2018). Another could be movement on the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis that has left Qatar blockaded by its neighbors. Overall, though, Saudi Arabia will be concerned that Biden will privilege engagement with Iran over catering to the concerns of the kingdom, as the Trump administration did, unless it alters some of its domestic and foreign policies.

Qatar will seek the Biden administration’s help with ending the blockade it faces.

Courtney Freer, Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy
A top question for the Qatari government moving forward is on Joe Biden’s willingness to pressure Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt to end the blockade that has been in place since 2017. Biden’s tough rhetoric in the past on Saudi Arabia, and his outspoken desire to re-engage with Tehran on the nuclear deal, may signal a broader re-orientation of American interests: away from Trump’s allies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and toward Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman that are more willing to engage with Iran. Indeed, Qatar shares a gas field with Iran and so has a major economic incentive to advance ties with Tehran.

The Biden administration’s top priorities when it comes to the Middle East are unlikely to lie on the Arab side of the Gulf, however, as he is expected to privilege re-engagement with Iran and progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, and will look to the Arab Gulf states insofar as they can support these broad initiatives. To both ends, strengthening ties with Qatar by putting pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end the blockade could be a useful strategy to gain buy-in from the rest of the Arab Gulf and to make clear that the new administration will not allow Saudi Arabia and the UAE free reign on the Arabian Peninsula.

Nonetheless, even if progress is made on ending the blockade, the U.S. under Biden will continue its warm relations with Israel and attempt to continue pushing forward additional normalization accords in the Gulf. Tensions with Qatar, whose foreign ministry spokesperson has said normalization “can’t be the answer” to resolving the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are likely to emerge on that issue.

Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani wants a U.S. commitment to keep some presence in his country.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
President Ashraf Ghani may say to President Biden: The United States has done much for Afghanistan already, but with some added patience we can solidify our gains — even if they aren’t quite what we’d originally aspired to build in the land of the Hindu Kush.

Rather than make U.S. and NATO withdrawal itself the objective, Washington should think in terms of counterterrorism and regional stability. Afghanistan can do most of the work; its brave soldiers, police, and other citizens are risking so much every day already. Afghans would hope that America might plan to maintain about 5,000 troops for four to five years (or longer) to establish some consistency and resoluteness — as negotiations between the Taliban and the government, along with broader Afghan society, hopefully get going. The February 29 Washington-Taliban accord does not require the U.S. and NATO to pull out all forces by this May, unless there is a complete break in ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida (which has not happened), and unless there is a comprehensive roadmap for power-sharing and peace among Afghans (which there certainly is not, as the Taliban have not been serious about negotiating with the Afghan government).

Yet the Taliban have the sense that America is almost out the door. This is a misinterpretation of the February accord from which they must be disabused — the sooner the better. Otherwise, the Taliban will assume they are in the driver’s seat and simply try to run out the clock in negotiations, waiting for the U.S. and NATO to depart and for victory to fall into their laps (which might not happen — but in this case, mistaken perceptions could be highly dangerous themselves). President Ghani hopes that Biden will conclude that the current U.S. posture in Afghanistan is tolerable and sustainable. It is only 5% of the peak of a decade ago, and constitutes a modest and reasonable investment in South Asian stability and in regional counterterrorism efforts.

Jordan is seeking reaffirmation.

Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy
King Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will seek an early reaffirmation of the strength and importance of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship. Ever since his father, King Hussein, visited Washington in 1959, the Jordanians have sought close personal relations with the American president. This has not always worked as well as Amman hoped, but it has never been as damaged as in the last four years.

Abdullah tried early and hard to work with Trump. He visited in February, April, and September of 2017. But he found that the administration was preoccupied with favoring Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman at the expense of Jordan’s interests. The king’s last meeting with President Trump was in June 2018, two and a half years ago.

The king knows President-Elect Joe Biden well from his years in the Senate and the vice presidency. An early invitation for a state visit by the king and his wife Queen Rania to the White House would be an opportunity to reaffirm the relationship visibly. The pandemic complicates travel, but should not preclude a safe trip. Given Jordan’s importance to several key issues in the region, from Syria to Iraq to Jerusalem, it would be a wise investment for the new administration.


Some in Taiwan seem worried about the Biden administration, but should take a nuanced view.

Richard C. Bush, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy and the John L. Thornton China Center
Observers in Taiwan seem very worried about what the Biden administration will bring. This reflects unfounded, negative memories of the Obama administration, and an excessively positive view of Trump administration policy. The picture on the latter is actually mixed. Taiwan’s leaders appear confident about prospects for Biden policy, and they should. I offered my reasons in this interview with Taiwan’s CommonWealth magazine.

North Korea will focus on whether the Biden administration is prepared to endorse Trump’s overall approach and make key concessions, including on security issues.

Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Pyongyang will want to know: Is the Biden administration willing to support the framework for peace on the Korean Peninsula, U.S.-North Korea normalization, and denuclearization adopted at the June 2018 Singapore summit meeting? Will it take concrete steps to end U.S. hostility toward North Korea, including by continuing to suspend U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which in Pyongyang are considered war games?

Beijing wonders how America will promote human rights and ethnic minority rights in China while confronting systemic racism at home.

Cheng Li, Senior Fellow and Director of the John L. Thornton China Center and Ryan McElveen, Associate Director of the John L. Thornton China Center
The Chinese leadership often decries the double-standard to which it is held by the United States on issues of human rights and ethnic minority rights. The Trump administration has fanned the flames of human rights hypocrisy by implementing a travel ban on Muslims, promoting harsh treatment of refugees, and failing to denounce white supremacy or police brutality against Black Americans.

Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung-flu” has resulted in a rash of hate crimes against Chinese and Asian Americans. New FBI initiatives have targeted Chinese Americans, increasing racial profiling and public concerns about a new McCarthyism. These actions have only worked to the advantage of authoritarian governments, tarnishing the American image in the eyes of the world.

Over the past few years, Beijing has increasingly pointed to these human rights abuses in the United States to justify its own ruthless crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and political repression of lawyers and religious practitioners in the name of national security, similar to the justifications of the Trump administration.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s approach, Antony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden, has said that the United States needs to be engaged in “a race to the top, not a race to the bottom” with China. The Biden administration presents an opportunity for the United States to rejuvenate its values and regain the moral high ground on human rights. As a promising start, the president-elect has designated addressing racial inequity as one of his top four priorities.

While national security should be vigorously protected, efforts to do so should neither compromise American values nor erode soft power outreach to the Chinese people. In Biden’s words, the time has come for America to “lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

South Korea will prioritize working with Washington on the North Korean nuclear threat.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea will likely stress with the new administration that we have only a short time to explore a deal with Pyongyang on its nuclear weapons, before his term winds down and before Biden begins to face the 2022 and 2024 election seasons.

President Trump’s approach — to threaten war, then have three summits with Kim Jong Un, then let negotiations bog down — clearly didn’t work. But neither, with respect, did President Obama’s. On the latter’s watch, North Korea tested nuclear weapons on four occasions (out of six tests total); during both U.S. presidents’ times in office, Kim continued to build perhaps six new bombs per year. Trump and Moon got Kim to stop testing nukes and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which is good — but it’s not clear that accomplishment will be durable. Having seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Moammar Gadhafi when they fought the United States without the bomb, Kim is very unlikely to denuclearize completely unless we literally risk — or fight — a war to coerce him. Seoul, with 25 million inhabitants and over 100,000 Americans in residence, could be largely destroyed in the process; thousands of American soldiers could also lose their lives in combat. That’s unacceptable for South Korea and the U.S.

As such, what makes sense is not attempting the impossible — complete denuclearization — but instead striving for a partial, interim deal. Such an accord would feature a verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear production capability (its capacity to make more bombs) in exchange for a partial lifting of U.N. and some U.S. sanctions. With this approach, North Korea gets to keep its existing bombs (which are much smaller and easier to hide than production facilities) for now. The U.S. and South Korea would continue, however, to insist that before any true normalization of ties and complete lifting of American sanctions, it would have to get rid of them someday too. This approach would have the added virtue of providing an issue where Seoul, Beijing, and Washington could work together.

East Asian countries are wondering how Washington will modify its approach to cooperation with the region.

Peter Petri, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center
The Trump administration’s plan for U.S. relations with Asia was framed broadly in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, but its strategy papers and speeches since have offered a one-dimensional translation, focused on strategic competition with China and security ties with Quad countries (the United States, Japan, Australia and India). Secretary of State Michael Pompeo argued: “The challenge of China demands exertion, energy from democracies … especially those in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Economic cooperation, also a feature of the FOIP vision, has lagged far behind, with few and small results. Also, the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and has often derided its economic ties with East Asian countries, citing trade deficits, inadequate cost-sharing in defense, and currency manipulation.

Increasingly, East Asian countries have felt pressured to choose between the United States, their long-standing security partner, and China, their rising economic partner. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, at times countries must be able to say: “Well, I am friends with you, but I have many friends and that is the way the world has to be.” The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ recent Outlook on the Indo-Pacific pointedly omitted language that would isolate China.

President Trump, and often his leading officials, skipped Asian meetings that would have allowed them to hear this message and to build American soft power through people-to-people diplomacy. Nearly half of the world’s people and production are in Asia and deserve more nuanced U.S. attention.

Chinese leaders will want to understand the terms of U.S.-China coexistence during a Biden administration.

Robert D. Williams, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center
Chinese leaders may see a tradeoff with President-Elect Biden. On one hand, they stand to benefit from improvement in the coherence of U.S. messaging and predictability of actions. They will also anticipate opportunities to put guardrails on bilateral competition through renewed cooperation on global challenges like climate change, public health, and nonproliferation. At the same time, however, Beijing may assess that it’s in for a formidable challenge with a U.S. administration focused on reengaging with allies and partners to coordinate pushback on unfair or abusive Chinese practices, particularly on technology issues that combine national security, economic, and human rights considerations.

Among other things, Beijing will want to know whether and how Washington will continue targeting Chinese technology companies like Huawei, ByteDance, Tencent, and SMIC. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan makes clear that technological “self-sufficiency” will remain a central economic and political objective in the years ahead. Yet China’s progress toward that goal will be conditioned in part by Chinese tech companies’ global prospects and their access (at least in the near term) to U.S. technology. Will the Biden administration continue efforts to limit Huawei’s role in global 5G infrastructure? To what extent will it restrict U.S. technology exports to Chinese companies to protect national security or deter and punish human rights abuses? How will it seek to govern cross-border data flows? Will the U.S. be overzealous and isolate itself from the global innovation ecosystem of data, investment, and talent?

With Chinese officials increasingly convinced of the United States’ inexorable decline, Washington’s success in navigating these issues will require careful policy calibration, multilateral coordination, and investment in the United States’ competitive strength. Beijing may be simultaneously hopeful and fearful that a Biden administration will usher in greater U.S. competence on all three fronts.

China would like a high-level dialogue mechanism with Washington.

Daniel B. Wright, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center
As much as anything, China’s leadership would like a new kind of high-level, regularized interaction with senior members of the Biden administration. From Beijing’s perspective, regular senior-level communication would serve to acknowledge China’s status as a global power, create an opportunity to restore trusted working relationships on issues of common interest, and provide China’s leadership more predictability in its interactions with the Biden administration.

The U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED), founded and led by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, serves as a model. The SED demonstrated that bi-annual, Cabinet-level engagement and pursuit of joint action was responsive to China’s desires. At the same time, it advanced concrete U.S. interests on critical issues like market access, energy security, intellectual property protection, food safety, climate change, and financial systems stability.

Effective diplomacy recognizes the needs of the other party while advancing one’s own interests. I highly recommend that the Biden administration re-establish some form of high-level, regular dialogue, preferably with a small number of senior leaders and action-oriented working groups, not the sprawling effort that evolved the last time Joe Biden was in the White House. A focused reset of a SED-like mechanism would be responsive to what China wants; it would also advance U.S. interests.

Other Regions and International Institutions

Mexican leaders should seek reassurances on trade and cross-border cooperation.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology and Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors
A central question for Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is whether the Biden administration will be willing to maintain the Trump administration’s bargain of giving a pass to Mexico on a host of policies in exchange for Mexico’s crackdown on migration to the United States.

Obsessed with immigration and renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trump White House was willing to pay only scant attention to wide-ranging issues in Mexico: drug-trafficking groups smuggling opioids into the United States, devastating homicide rates, retrogression on energy reforms and the environment, and the quality of democracy in Mexico. In turn, the López Obrador administration didn’t complain about the environmentally-destructive and pointless wall on its border with the United States. Mexico also redirected its National Guard to stop migrants from Central America at Mexico’s southern border, housed those seeking U.S. asylum in Mexico, and put up with President Trump’s deportation policies. Finally, Mexico acceded to Trump’s demands in renegotiating NAFTA, such as allowing greater U.S.-produced content of goods.

The López Obrador administration wants to keep the U.S. uninvolved in certain issues — areas where the Trump administration looked the other way — such as the fate of U.S. energy companies in Mexico and the implementation of new labor standards as specified by the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Even though migration will be a challenge for Biden, with new large flows from Central America easy to imagine once he takes office, the Trumpian bargain is unlikely to hold. The Biden administration will care about the issues that Trump didn’t. Instead, Mexico should ask whether the Biden administration will be committed to trilateral coordination with Mexico and Canada if it imposes a major COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2021 that shuts down significant parts of the U.S. economy and limits the flow of goods to Mexico and Canada. Better coordination and responsiveness regarding economic sectors that are vital for all three countries will be needed.

U.N. officials want to know if the U.S. will restore its leadership in the multilateral system.

Jeffrey Feltman, Visiting Fellow in the Foreign Policy program
Senior U.N. officials may ask, given the understandable focus the Biden administration must have on domestic concerns: How will the United States restore its leadership in the multilateral system, and particularly in the United Nations? China seeks to replace the U.N.’s “operating system,” the so-called universal values based on Western liberalism, with “software” that is more favorable to non-democratic regimes. Among other things, China downplays traditional human rights concerns and tries to change the definition of “rule of law” from referring to good governance inside states to defining relationships between states.

With its essential “home turf” advantage as the primary creator of the current multilateral system, the United States should stay on the multilateral playing field and compete, rather than create vacuums for China to fill. But will this be the case under a Biden administration that is concentrating on putting its domestic affairs in order? The United States needs to build alliances inside the multilateral system to preserve what matters for its interests and to compete with China for influence. Although the United States, even under the Trump administration, has remained the single largest contributor of voluntary funds to the U.N. for humanitarian and other work, Washington is now over $1 billion in arrears of assessed (mandatory) contributions to U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets. An agreement on how to address the question of arrears is part of a restoration of U.S. leadership, but is a difficult challenge in terms of congressional approval.

Refugee host countries will want to know they’re not out in the cold.

Kemal Kirişci, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, and Sam Denney, Senior Research Assistant in the Center on the United States and Europe
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that the number of refugees worldwide increased from roughly 15 million a decade ago to around 26 million in 2019. 77% of refugees face a protracted situation, without a durable solution (such as voluntary return to their home countries, resettlement, or local integration) for more than five years.

Almost 85% of these refugees are in developing countries, many in fragile states. How to manage their refugee populations, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a key issue in discussions between the new Biden administration and host countries. Already fragile health infrastructures are stretched thin helping local populations, not to mention refugees. COVID-19 has eroded revenues from trade, tourism, and remittances, and the World Bank has warned that the pandemic risks undoing gains made against poverty over the past two decades.

Host countries need urgent support beyond humanitarian assistance. During the campaign, then-candidate, now President-Elect Joe Biden promised to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers and significantly increase yearly refugee resettlement quotas. But with an end to the COVID-19 pandemic nowhere in sight, a more substantive effort is needed to prevent the strain on these countries from leading to more political instability. Endorsing the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) could provide just this support.

The GCR calls on the international community to work to improve the self-reliance of refugees and the resilience of their host communities to transform refugees from being a humanitarian burden to a developmental and economic opportunity. Endorsing the GCR would signal the return of a United States that values problem-solving through multilateralism. U.S. leadership through the GCR would be a force multiplier in the global effort to protect refugees, while also benefitting local communities through the subsequent economic growth.

Allies in Asia and Europe are watching and wondering about America’s military advantage overseas.

Frank A. Rose, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
What steps will the Biden administration take to restore the U.S. military advantage in Europe and Asia? Over the past decade, Russia and China have seriously eroded the United States’ conventional military superiority in Eastern Europe and East Asia through the deployment of a host of anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities like ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and advanced air defense capabilities. Indeed, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy concedes that in the face of improving Russian and Chinese military capabilities, the U.S. “competitive military advantage has been eroding.”

If the U.S. and its allies fail to close this gap, it could have significant political implications throughout the world, especially regarding the credibility of U.S. security guarantees. Therefore, allied leaders will want to know how a Biden administration plans to work with them to restore a more favorable military balance in Eastern Europe and East Asia at a time when U.S. defense budgets are likely to remain flat.

Rachel Slattery provided web design for this post.