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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris face reporters after meeting with members of their coronavirus disease "Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board" in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
On the Record

Brookings experts comment on the future of US foreign policy under a Biden administration

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The Biden administration will quickly face an array of challenging foreign policy matters — from managing alliances in Europe and Asia, to addressing an array of questions vis-à-vis China, to managing a fraught situation with Iran, to tending to global institutions, and beyond.

On November 9, experts from the Brookings Foreign Policy program joined an on-the-record call with reporters to discuss what might be to come in 2021.

David Dollar, (@davidrdollar), Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center: “I think the basic story is there will be no dramatic change in U.S. policy toward China, but there will be subtle and important differences…First, the Biden administration is clearly going to rejoin various international agreements: the Paris Accord, the World Health Organization, and probably try to work out a new Iran deal. That will force the U.S. to cooperate with China. We don’t have to be friends. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we’re going to be working together on global issues…Second and more narrowly on the economic side, the Biden team has talked about working more closely with allies, and I think that’ll be welcome from the European side, and it’d be welcomed from Asia-Pacific allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand. But very quickly we’ll get into the practical issue of: What does that mean, to work together on China policy? And in my view, it really has to be in the context of international agreements. The Europeans will want the U.S. to recommit to the World Trade Organization, get the dispute resolution mechanism working again…And then the third point is that we have this very specific Phase One trade deal between China and the U.S….I don’t think there’s an appetite on the part of the Biden administration to ratchet up more tariffs. So we’ll probably see some kind of a truce.”

Ryan Hass, (@ryanl_hass), Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy: “I think that the main through-line from Trump to Biden on China is going to be the competition will remain firmly at the center of how the U.S. approaches its relationship with China. I think that we will see this play out on a variety of dimensions: technology, economic issues, military issues, governance issues, geopolitical issues, et cetera. And as David was suggesting, I think that we can safely forecast that the relationship will remain highly competitive at least through the first year of a Biden presidency…Even so, I do think that the manner by which the competition has been carried out will have a few points of departure in a Biden administration, [versus] a Trump administration…The first point of departure is that there will be a real focus at the outset on shoring up America’s sources of strength, its international leadership on climate, economic, and security issues, its alliance network, and its domestic cohesion, and then re-engage in China from a position of greater strength later on. I think that secondly, there will be a focus on aggregating the voices of America’s allies to push back on problematic Chinese behavior rather than doing so unilaterally…Thirdly, I think that there will be a real effort to restore values promotion to the center of American foreign policy under a Biden presidency. And this will manifest itself in a China context, probably through more pointed commentary on issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and others. And then fourth is, as David suggested, an effort to preserve some space in this highly competitive relationship for cooperation with China on shared challenges, whether it’s climate, COVID-19, possibly Iran, possibly North Korea. There will be a return to the view that it is possible to cooperate with competitors in instances when it serves our interests.”

Suzanne Maloney (@MaloneySuzanne), Vice President and Director of Brookings Foreign Policy: “The Trump administration walked away from the [Iran nuclear] deal largely as a way to differentiate itself from its predecessor. And I think a Biden administration obviously is going to prioritize getting back to the nuclear deal as a symbol to the world that the United States is prepared to once again, re-engage in serious diplomacy to solve the world’s toughest problems, and that the United States is prepared once again, to work with partners, even where there are differences on a range of other issues to try to solve those problems. The challenge of course is going to be that Iran has a say in all of this, and while the Iranians want sanctions relief, they also want a number of other things from the United States in particular, which is to say that they believe that the United States walked away from the deal illegitimately, and that there has been a consistent message in the Iranian diplomacy around what comes in 2021 that essentially is looking for some kind of compensation for the hundreds of billions of dollars that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy has cost the country. My guess is what we’re going to see is an early push around diplomacy and some efforts to try to get both sides back into greater compliance with their obligations under the nuclear deal, but not necessarily a full-footed jump back into the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] entirely, because it is going to require serious concessions on both sides to, in fact, create the conditions that would permit both sides to begin to re-honor their obligations under the deal. That will probably translate into something that looks like an interim nuclear deal.”

Michael O’Hanlon, (@MichaelEOHanlon), Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Security, Strategy, and Technology: “Interestingly, [the Pentagon and the defense budget] could be an area of remarkably little divergence from Trump to Biden, although there is one bigger issue hanging over everything, which is of course the budget problems…I think you all know that the national defense strategy, which was the signature accomplishment in policy and conceptual terms of the Trump administration in regard to the Pentagon came out two years ago under Jim Mattis. Jim Mattis may not have been popular with Donald Trump when he left office, but he was popular with just about everybody else on both sides of the aisle, which means that there was a lot of credibility associated with that review. And it built on the Obama administration’s last two years with their so-called third offset. And they’re beginning to focus on China and Russia much more than all post-Cold War defense policy and budget had done up until that point. And therefore, we have a natural progression here, starting in around 2015, really right after the Russian seizure of Crimea and aggression in the Donbass, as well as the Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and elsewhere. That has been very much grounded in both parties’ views.”

Célia Belin (@celiabelin), Visiting Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: “[Even with Joe Biden projected president-elect], Europe has changed its perspective on the U.S. overall. As the [European] Commissioner for internal markets said this morning, the era of European naivete is over [but] you will see Europeans still breathe a sigh of relief over the election of Joe Biden, just because it’s a personality…that many of them know and like already, but also [because they] know how they will work with him and his team. [French President Emmanuel] Macron tweeted congratulations, and that there’s “a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges.” It [reflects] the feeling, coming from Europe, that there’s going to be a lot of work [ahead]. And that’s where Europeans are most happy with the results: They potentially have the impression that you will have at least a dialogue over some of these challenges, versus just plain opposition.”

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