If Joe Biden wins in November, he will face a slew of global crises on the first day of his presidency — many of them caused or at least exacerbated by the presidency of Donald Trump.
Climate change has only become more dire. The coronavirus has upended lives and economies around the world. America’s allies trust it less and less. China has taken advantage of the chaos to gain more power. Countries like Iran and North Korea have moved closer to obtaining nuclear weapons or strengthened their arsenals. And, lest we forget, the nation remains at war.
It’s a daunting set of challenges for any new president to face. “He’s looking at an across-the-board restoration project,” said Derek Chollet, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “Biden would be facing the most chaotic international environment since 1945” — the year World War II ended and the Cold War started to ramp up.
Biden is a creature of the American foreign policy machine. From his years serving as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his time in Congress and later as point person on key aspects of Barack Obama’s handling of the world as vice president, Biden knows what it’s like to have his hands on the controls.
That’s the kind of background and knowhow few commanders in chief have. “He will come into office with a résumé that’s unmatched on foreign policy experience,” with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush, said former Biden congressional adviser James Rubin.
The bad news is that Biden hasn’t always been — and, according to some, never was — successful on the world stage. His critics, including those on the left, contend he made America’s postwar Iraq efforts worse, got too close to authoritarian leaders, and never had a signature foreign policy achievement in Congress or as Obama’s No. 2. And their hopes for Biden’s ability to get the US out of the global hole Trump dug for it are low.
“Biden is not going to be the leader of our times or for our times,” Daniel Bessner, a University of Washington professor and adviser to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, told me. Having Biden in charge, instead of someone with more progressive foreign policy ideas like the Vermont senator, “is pretty grim from my perspective. It’s a world historical loss for this nation.”
But if Biden finds himself back in the Oval Office on January 20, he’ll be the one in charge. It’d be too much to expect him to solve the world’s ills on day one — no president could — but he’ll have to start making significant moves right away to stitch a frayed world back together.
How Biden will aim to do so is still not fully clear. His campaign declined multiple requests for an on-the-record interview with the candidate or staff to get a better understanding of his foreign policy plans. But Biden and his aides have made many statements on foreign policy during the 2020 campaign so far, and the former VP has a long record from which to glean insights. Interviews with those who worked with him and other experts help fill in the details.
What follows, then, is how Biden would likely handle the top foreign policy challenges facing the country right now.
Global health: Climate change and coronavirus
Biden’s team has made no secret of what the newly elected president would do in his first hours on the job.
First, he would recommit the US to the Paris climate agreement. America’s participation in the accord ends on November 4, 2020 — the day after the election. The move to end US participation, initiated on November 4, 2019, fulfilled Trump’s campaign promise to withdraw from the pact even as US greenhouse gas emissions were rising, reversing years of decline.
Reentering the agreement would be a significant development: The 2015 Paris agreement set a target for limiting warming this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Under the accord, signed by the Obama administration, the United States set a target of cutting its emissions 13 to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
(For a fuller explanation of Biden’s climate plan, read my colleague David Roberts’s story.)
Biden would also start combating the coronavirus right away. “Job one will be to get Covid under control,” Tony Blinken, Biden’s foreign policy adviser who’s expected to get a top job in the administration, told Axios last month.
People close to Biden, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because the campaign didn’t give them permission to talk, said Biden’s coronavirus plan would put an equal emphasis on handling the health crisis and the simultaneous economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
It’s no surprise that Biden would push on these two issues from the start. Climate change is the greatest medium- to long-term threat facing the world, and Covid-19 is the top short- to medium-term threat. Promising to tackle those issues, then, is not only out of necessity, but also to display he intrinsically understands these problems more than Trump.
“Biden knows that we’re in a super-deep hole,” an aide to Biden while he was vice president told me, “while the president keeps digging it.”
Biden has spent much of the past few months of his campaign outlining a coronavirus plan that focuses heavily on domestic efforts like increasing the supplies of available tests and personal protective equipment, as well as reversing the nation’s economic slide. He’s spent less time detailing the international aspects of his pandemic solutions, though he’s offered some policies.
A major component includes reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the World Health Organization (WHO), the globe’s premier health body. “We have to immediately restore our relationship with the World Health Organization, for all its shortcomings and missteps around Covid-19,” Biden said during a June 30 speech in Wilmington, Delaware, noting the WHO was slow to call the outbreak a pandemic and challenge China’s obfuscation.
Keeping the US in the WHO would be a major boon for it. The health body will lose nearly $900 million in US contributions every two years — by far the most it receives from any nation — if the US leaves in July 2021, when Trump’s withdrawal is slated to go into effect. Trump had already frozen about $400 million of that money in April when he first halted funding during a review of US-WHO relations, subsequently harming the agency in the middle of the pandemic.
Biden also wants the US to head a global coalition to find a vaccine and other remedies for the disease. “It is essential to coordinating the global response during a pandemic, and the United States should be leading that response as we had in the past,” he said in the same Delaware speech. “We should be leading a coordinated global approach on the science, not disregarding experts while pushing dangerous and disproved drugs as if they’re treatments.”
Most experts I spoke to applaud this concept, namely because a coordinated global effort might minimize the consequences of “vaccine nationalism.” As Vox’s Jen Kirby explains, “the race to discover and distribute a coronavirus vaccine pits countries against each other” as “each nation prioritizes its own interests, inside its own borders, rather than cooperating and fighting against a pandemic that respects neither.”
The current administration may be exacerbating the problem. Trump often complains that the world is taking advantage of the US; he has eschewed global cooperation and, according to some reports, has tried to negotiate exclusive access to vaccine doses for the United States. Others might be taking Trump’s cue: Russia announced it would start using and distributing a still-unproven vaccine, shortly after the US and its allies accused Moscow-linked hackers of stealing vaccine research.
The hope, those close to Biden argue, is that having the US coordinate a global response instead of allowing every nation to fend for itself — or having countries like China or Russia lead the global response — would benefit everyone.
It’s possible Biden has other ideas he’s not fully articulating at the moment. Experts, though, would like to hear more on his global health plans and are offering their own thoughts in the meantime.
Chollet, who is now at the German Marshall Fund think tank, said he expects more money will be allocated for global health in Biden’s federal budget. If that’s the case, it’s likely some of those funds will be taken out of defense spending and moved into combating the coronavirus at home and abroad (more on that in the last section).
Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen would like to see that. “The first thing Biden needs to do for global health is to invest in pandemic preparedness across the board,” she told me. That means, among other things, more cash for lab fieldwork and research in coordination with other countries, including China.
Such a commitment must be sustained, she continued, “as the ‘boom and bust’ cycles of funding on emerging viruses have greatly hindered our ability to effectively respond to them and one reason why we are scrambling to counter this pandemic.”
While Biden may adopt these and other ideas down the line, those close to him tell me he’s thinking about the broader message that having the US at the forefront of handling the pandemic really sends. In the former vice president’s mind, quickly changing course from Trump’s “America First” approach would signal the US has returned as a world leader capable of solving global problems and its own issues at home.
“Biden’s foreign policy, in the first instance, is about fixing us here,” the former aide told me. “You can’t be a city upon a hill if your city is tarnished.”
It’s a concept Biden has championed often. “In over 45 years of working in global affairs, I’ve observed a simple truth: America’s ability to lead the world depends not just on the example of our power, but on the power of our example,” he wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed.
Taking on such tasks is monumental, experts say, and would require the US to coordinate more closely with allies. The US, after all, couldn’t possibly do all of what he wants to address alone.
Biden sees it the same way.
Alliances: “Build from the free world out”
Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have pursued largely similar approaches to US foreign policy. Presidents from both parties have used US power to underwrite and maintain what’s called the “liberal international order,” which basically means a set of economic and political rules and values that major democratic powers believe help the world function.
The US never did this out of the goodness of its heart. Promoting free trade and liberal democracy was meant to provide America with markets to sell goods to and countries with which to build alliances against adversaries. It was never a perfect system, and the US made many, many errors along the way. But overall, that grand strategy helped the US maintain its position as the world’s preeminent power.
That, in a nutshell, is the world Biden wants to restore and protect.
“For the past seven decades, the choices we have made — particularly the United States and our allies in Europe — have steered our world down a clear path,” Biden said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, just three days before leaving office as vice president. “In recent years it has become evident that the consensus upholding this system is facing increasing pressures, from within and from without,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order.”
The best way to do that, Biden contends, is to maintain and bolster America’s system of alliances that form the heart of that order.
He hit that theme in a July 2019 foreign policy address at the City University of New York. “America’s security, prosperity, and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us,” he said. “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”
This stance, the centrality of America’s alliances to US foreign policy, is key to understanding how Biden thinks about almost every global issue, experts and those close to him told me. “Expect Biden’s approach to be much more multilateral” than Trump’s, Mira Rapp-Hooper, author of a well-regarded book on America’s alliances, told me. “There is no major approach that could be taken unilaterally.”
A former aide explained Biden’s view on this to me in terms of “concentric circles.” Those circles, which variously could be labeled “coronavirus” or “China” or “climate change” (take your pick) all have one common core: allies. For Biden, then, no problem can be solved unless America’s friends in Europe, East Asia, and beyond are fully engaged.
“He would build from the free world out,” the aide said.
It’s why Biden takes almost any chance he gets to reiterate that message while blasting Trump for pushing allies away out of a belief they mainly free ride off America’s favor.
“Working cooperatively with other nations that share our values and goals does not make the United States a chump,” Biden wrote in a January Foreign Affairs article. “It makes us more secure and more successful. We amplify our own strength, extend our presence around the globe, and magnify our impact while sharing global responsibilities with willing partners.”
But reestablishing America’s relations with allies is easier said than done.
Biden would have to rebuild trust lost during the Trump years. In 2018, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country could no longer lean on the United States to help maintain order in the world. “We can’t rely on the superpower of the United States,” she said during a news conference.
Last month, after years of frosty Washington-Berlin relations during the current administration, Trump ordered the removal of nearly 12,000 US troops from Germany because he claimed the key European ally wasn’t pulling its weight on defense.
Such instances of ally abuse will be hard for America’s friends to forget. “There has been damage that can’t be undone so simply,” said James Mann, author of a book on the Obama administration’s foreign policy and now at Johns Hopkins University.
Indeed, experts say Biden may initially feel like he can just proclaim that “Uncle Joe is back, and America is back,” but he’d be better served going on a listening tour first.
“It would be wise not to assert any specific agenda at the outset,” but instead coordinate conferences with allies in Europe and Asia — perhaps both together — “and start listening to what they see as the top global threats to their countries,” said Rapp-Hooper, who is at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank and informally advises the Biden campaign.
In his July 2019 speech, Biden committed to hosting a summit of the world’s democracies in his first year “to put strengthening democracy back on the global stage.” Reclaiming that alliance system, then, will be a major lift for Biden.
Reshaping alliances for the future will be even harder.
Rapp-Hooper told me the way America set up its post-World War II alliance structure — mainly to deter a conventional war with powers like Russia and China — “isn’t as effective as it once was.” The reason is straightforward: That system was actually very successful, so Moscow, Beijing, and others adapted their strategies. Russia started showing it could chew off parts of Europe bite by bite, and China gained more control of waters near its territory also claimed by US allies.
Sprinkle in government-backed disinformation campaigns and it becomes clear America’s adversaries are running a long-term alliance erosion play. The problem, Rapp-Hooper told me, is “America’s alliances haven’t moved” to meet the new challenge.
Critics say Biden is too steeped in Cold War thinking — after all, he spent decades of his career during that time — and is too captured by the traditional alliance model to catalyze a needed reformation. His supporters, meanwhile, note the line in the January Foreign Affairs article in which Biden wrote, “I will do more than just restore our historic partnerships; I will lead the effort to reimagine them for the world we face today.”
Biden may also need to reimagine who, exactly, counts as a US ally. Two traditional American friends in particular have come under increased scrutiny.
Democrats are very critical of Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his coziness with Trump and his desire to further infringe on the rights of Palestinians. Biden has often stated America’s commitment to Israel would be “ironclad” during his administration, but those close to him say he would push the prime minister harder than previous presidents.
“As long as Israel’s government is as far to the right as it is, there will be disagreements,” the former Biden aide said, “but that doesn’t undermine America’s support for Israel’s security.”
The former staffer also said Biden would look to manage the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict crisis instead of seeking a two-state solution. The conditions just aren’t there for it.
“The time is not right for a two-state outcome,” the former staffer told me. “The goal right now is to stop the bleeding” and “minimize the unilateral steps that make a two-state outcome less and less viable by the day,” such as pushing for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. “We need to put a bandage on a gaping wound. We’re not going to cure the patient.”
The other ally under a microscope is Saudi Arabia. Under Trump, Saudi Arabia has grown closer to the US than it has been in decades — in large part due to the close personal relationship between the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Trump son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner.
But many Democrats, and especially progressives, question the wisdom and morality of such staunch US support for Saudi Arabia given the regime’s myriad human rights abuses — such as the 2018 murder of dissident journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence believes was directly ordered by top Saudi leaders, and the Saudi war in Yemen.
“Our interests are going down and our values are getting further apart,” another former Biden aide said. “Democrats feel there’s no going back to a previous era of US-Saudi policy,” Rapp-Hooper noted, referencing years of an understood trade of cheap Saudi oil and support against Iran in return for US weapons and funding.
All this means Biden will have the immense task of stopping America’s alliance structure from crumbling, finding a way to make alliances stronger, and changing the way the US engages with troublesome friends all at the same time. To do that at any point would be difficult, but to do it with a major global challenger testing those relationships at once will be even harder.
Countering China requires “a democratic alliance to save the world”
Despite Biden’s increasingly tough rhetoric on China, it doesn’t rank quite as high on his list as the aforementioned policy issues.
It’s not that the US-China relationship doesn’t matter to Biden — it does, and I’ve been repeatedly told he’ll make it a top priority. But he firmly believes the US will only get the upper hand on China by proving it is strong at home and has a coalition of friends willing to thwart Beijing’s most troublesome policies in unison.
Think of it like a geopolitical gang-up: the US and its crew versus a mostly lonely China. “We need to rally the democratic world together more than ever,” said the first former Biden staffer. “It’ll be a democratic alliance to save the world.”
For years now, Democrats have signaled the party would take a more confrontational stance toward China. An influential 2018 Foreign Affairs piece by Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, the latter of whom is advising Biden, made that explicit. Here’s the key part:
Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process. ...
[B]uilding a stronger and more sustainable approach to, and relationship with, Beijing requires honesty about how many fundamental assumptions have turned out wrong.
That tone is a marked shift from, say, the first term of the Obama administration.
Back then, President Obama made hopeful cooperation with China one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy; he became the first US president to travel to the country during a first term in office. But after China broke off a 2015 agreement to stop the cybertheft of intellectual property — a deal announced by Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping outside the White House, no less — the administration’s and the party’s attitude changed.
“They started to get tougher,” said John Hopkins’s Mann, who also wrote a book titled The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. The question many have is just how tough Biden — along with America’s allies — wants to get with Beijing.
To hear Biden tell it, he’s ready for a showdown. “We do need to get tough with China,” he said in his July 2019 speech. “If China has its way, it will keep robbing the US of our technology and intellectual property, or forcing American companies to give it away in order to do business in China.”
How to confront Beijing? You guessed it: with allies. “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior — even as we seek to deepen cooperation on issues where our interests converge, like climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation,” Biden continued.
That all sounds well and good, but one of the main critiques of Biden’s handling of foreign policy is that he did next to nothing to blunt China’s military and economic rise over two terms as vice president.
On the military front, despite declaring a strategic “pivot to Asia” to counter Beijing, Obama’s team put few resources behind making it actually happen. In 2015, Xi promised at the White House that China wouldn’t militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea, an area the country claims mostly for itself but that is disputed by a number of other countries.
But over the following months, it became clear that Xi had broken his vow, leading to rising tensions in those waters and between the US, its allies, and China writ large. That militarization persists and would be an issue for Biden to contend with.
On economics and trade, too, some experts feel Biden will have trouble responding. “The Obama administration was asleep at the wheel on this issue,” Edward Alden, a global trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me in June.
In 2010, major credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard, and American Express pleaded with Obama’s trade representative to take action against China for shutting them out of the country’s market, especially since Beijing had promised them access by 2006. But Obama’s team didn’t succeed, making it an issue for Trump to deal with during trade negotiations.
The Obama White House also didn’t push back much on China’s gaming of the World Trade Organization during the first term, essentially allowing China to continue to cheat on trade at America’s expense. It was only in Obama’s second term that the White House took the issue more seriously.
So the question remains: Would a President Biden hew more closely to his vice presidential days, or would he opt for a more aggressive stance?
Some say Biden will follow his relatively hawkish China advisers, perhaps prodding Beijing more than necessary. Others close to Biden say he has strong views on the issue: He’d like to compel China to change its ways on trade, cybertheft, technology, and human rights, but he also recognizes that Washington and Beijing need to cooperate on major issues like the coronavirus and climate change.
“The relationship can’t be a complete race to the bottom like a new cold war,” said a former Biden foreign policy aide.
One of the trickiest issues Biden must deal with early on is the ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, a province in western China. The Chinese regime has interned at least a million Uighurs against their will in vast prison camps, where officials use torture and brainwashing to “reeducate them” to more closely align with the Communist Party’s beliefs.
Biden hasn’t minced words on this issue, or on President Xi. “This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body,” Biden said during a February Democratic debate. “This is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.”
His campaign also has said a Biden administration would crack down on China for its encroachment on the democratic rights of Hong Kong.
Blinken, the top Biden foreign policy aide, told Reuters in May that Biden would “fully enforce” a law which requires the State Department to certify the democratic nature of the city, “including sanctions on officials, financial institutions, companies, and individuals.”
In a July statement to Reuters, Biden said China’s recently imposed national security law would equate to “dealing a death blow to the freedoms and autonomy that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of China.” Should Beijing cite those laws to stamp out the city’s pro-democracy movement — which it looks like it’s doing — then Biden said he’d further sanction China.
The Biden campaign is also keeping an eye on potential Chinese moves to destabilize or even attack Taiwan, the breakaway democratic island Beijing considers part of the country. The US supports Taiwan’s democracy with weaponry and funding as a way to deter China from trying to bring the island back into the government’s fold.
“If China is getting signals of impunity, then one’s concern is it may think it can do the same with regard to Taiwan,” Blinken told Bloomberg last month. As president, Blinken said, Biden would “step up defenses of Taiwan’s democracy by exposing Beijing’s efforts to interfere.” It’s unclear, though, if that means sending more fighter jets to Taiwan, as some Democrats have advocated for.
Neither of these stances gives Biden much wiggle room. He’s quite committed now to confronting China on these issues, preferably with US allies working alongside him to urge Beijing to change these practices. Most say the chances for success are minimal, but even some Republicans say Biden might have the chops to pull it off.
“The Biden administration would be much better positioned to marshal a coalition of countries” to counter the most troublesome Chinese policies than Trump, former Louisiana Republican Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., who spent years in the House working on Washington-Beijing relations, told me.
Biden may need such multilateral assistance for another major challenge: stopping the growing proliferation risk around the world.
Nuclear proliferation: Russian, North Korean, and Iranian efforts “a major problem”
Just over a week before leaving office as vice president, Biden gave a major speech on the Obama administration’s nuclear security legacy. Among the successes he touted, he said the US had struck nuclear deals with Iran, Russia, China, and others. He pressed the next administration — the Trump administration — to follow a similar course.
“Arms control is integral to our national defense and — when it comes to nuclear weapons — to our self-preservation,” Biden told the crowd at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Yet the threat of nuclear proliferation — that is, countries with the bomb strengthening their arsenals and those without one moving closer to it — is higher now than when Biden left office. Trump has either broken or eschewed nuclear agreements with other countries, leading some to worry the guardrails around nuclear proliferation have all but come down.
A quick look around the world makes that clear. The US and Russia are months away from not having any nuclear agreements between them just as Moscow builds a nuclear-powered cruise missile. North Korea is closer to hitting the US with a miniaturized nuclear weapon atop a long-range missile. And Iran is inching toward getting its first bomb, should it actually seek one.
Experts say nuclear issues may feature more prominently during the Biden era, then, than in past administrations. “Nuclear proliferation is going to be a major problem for sure,” said Peter Rough, a US foreign policy expert at the Hudson Institute.
Here’s a quick look at each of those four top proliferation risks, and how Biden might handle them.
The US and Russia are just months away from losing the last major arms control agreement between them: New START, short for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That agreement limits the size of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, which together account for 93 percent of all nuclear warheads on earth. The deal expires on February 5, 2021, and those sitting around the table feared its demise.
That means New START may soon join other defunct arms control agreements, including one prohibiting ground-based intermediate-range missiles scrapped in 2019 and another allowing overflights of nuclear facilities likely to end this year.
And if that’s the case, there will be no formal treaties limiting the size and strength of each other’s nuclear arsenals — which understandably has some experts quite worried. “We’re creating the greater threat of a conflict that could literally destroy each country and perhaps even our planet,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and defense secretary under President Obama, told me earlier this month.
The concern is justified, as both the US and Russia have moved further away from limiting their nuclear abilities.
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February 2018, lowered the threshold for dropping a bomb on an enemy. Basically, the US said it would launch low-yield nuclear weapons — smaller, less deadly bombs — in response to non-nuclear strikes, such as a major cyberattack. That was in contrast with previous US administrations, which said they would respond with a nuke only in the event of the most egregious threats against the US, like the possible use of a biological weapon.
In February, the US military placed its first low-yield nuclear weapon on a submarine, which means Washington now has a stealthy and hard-to-defend-against way to deliver a nuke to almost any point on earth.
And in March 2018, Putin gave a dramatic speech to his nation in which he boasted about creating an unstoppable, nuclear-powered cruise missile that could hit any point on the planet. (That’s big: Conventional cruise missiles rarely travel farther than 600 miles.) This kind of weapon moves so quickly and flies so low to the ground that it could evade US and European missile defense systems and hit intended targets with a nuclear weapon.
Putin said the new technology would render American missile defense “useless,” but US officials say it needs further testing and is not yet operational. In fact, a radioactive explosion in 2019 in Russia may have been caused by a failed test of this very weapon.
Biden would come into office before New START officially expires, and he has already committed to extending it. “I’ll pursue an extension of New START Treaty, an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia, and use that as a foundation for new arms control agreements,” he said during his foreign policy speech in New York.
Since the presidents of the US and Russia simply need to agree to its extension, Biden and Putin — who already said he wants to keep New START — could add another five years to the deal.
Per a former aide, Biden hopes the extension “could be used as a follow-on for more arms control negotiations with Russia.” It’s unclear that it would lead both countries to ramp down other nuclear moves, but it would certainly be a start.
Trump made history by holding three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But while the meetings were high on pageantry, they were low on substance. As a result, Pyongyang hasn’t halted its nuclear advancements — it has accelerated them.
Earlier this month, a UN report stated North Korea had “probably” figured out how to place miniaturized nuclear weapons on a ballistic missile, moving Kim closer to hitting US territory with a bomb. That tracks with other projections showing North Korea has only augmented its arsenal in the Trump era, which it has vowed to continue to do.
“Even a slim ray of optimism for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula has faded away into a dark nightmare,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon said in a June statement.
It’s clear, then, that Trump’s attempt at personal diplomacy has failed. A former Biden aide familiar with the former vice president’s views told me that “Biden wouldn’t repeat [Trump’s] mistakes” in an effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
Namely, Biden would go back to the traditional model of handling the North Korea portfolio: refusing to hold a nonconditional meeting with Kim while giving space for working-level staff to hammer out critical details of any potential nuclear deal. In the meantime, he’d keep and toughen sanctions on North Korea until it took serious steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
He’d also coordinate actions closely with South Korea and Japan to ensure any move on Pyongyang was done “in lockstep” with them, as well as fold in China due to its immense economic influence on Kim’s country.
He made this clear during his July 2019 speech: “I will empower our negotiators and jumpstart a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others — including China — to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.”
Of course, that approach hasn’t yet worked either, as previous presidents tried similar routes only to see North Korea expand its nuclear arsenal. For that and other reasons, the former Biden staffer acknowledged that “there’s no silver bullet on North Korea.”
A top South Korean official, who wasn’t authorized to speak with me on the record, said they were upset to hear Biden’s stated North Korea plan. The official suggested that Biden not completely throw out the Trump playbook and urged the former VP to “send a clear signal to Pyongyang that he is willing to meet Kim Jong Un without any precondition.”
Such a divergence in stances means there may already be a major split between how a Biden administration would want to handle Pyongyang and how Seoul would prefer things be done. However, Biden left the door open to meeting with Kim in an answer to a New York Times questionnaire: “I would be willing to meet with Kim ... as part of an actual strategy that moves the ball forward on denuclearization.”
A lot of what happens, though, depends on North Korea. If Kim won’t engage in talks of any kind and/or resumes testing nuclear bombs or missiles that could reach the US, it would be hard for Biden to adopt a Trump-like approach, the South Korean official said.
What’s clear, then, is that Biden may have the hardest job of any president yet engaging with North Korea. “North Korea will be the same problem as it was, if not worse,” said Hudson’s Rough.
The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the US, European powers, Russia, and China put tight restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The Obama administration’s goal was to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon diplomatically instead of by force. But Trump withdrew America from the deal in 2018, reimposed financial penalties on Iran, and asked European countries to cease their business with the country.
That led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last year to announce a series of escalations to move Iran further from compliance with the deal as a way to put pressure on the US and its allies. Rouhani said his nation would start stockpiling low-enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear reactors but not for atomic bombs. And in January, he announced his country was enriching uranium at a higher level than before the nuclear deal restricted that activity.
The Iranian regime has made no secret as to why it’s taking such provocative steps. “In response to the US’s withdrawal from its obligations, we decided to reduce our commitments step by step,” Rouhani said in his address at a meeting with the Islamic Republic’s Central Bank in January.
Iran denies it has ever aimed to get a nuclear weapon, and these and other moves brought it closer — but not close — to that point. Still, it’s fair to say Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 pact made a nuclear Iran more likely in the years ahead.
That leaves a tough test for Biden, who must decide how to handle an increasingly aggressive Iran. A former Biden foreign policy staffer told me dealing with Tehran “will be an early priority” for a Biden administration.
Here’s how the aide described Biden’s Iran plan: First, the US “would be open to mutual reentry” into the Iran nuclear deal as long as Iran moved back into compliance with it. That would mean reducing the enrichment level and stockpile of uranium, among other actions.
After that, the US would work with European allies in the deal to “push for further talks on regional questions.” This might satisfy one of the main critiques of the agreement, which is that the Obama administration didn’t press Tehran hard enough to end its support for proxies in the Middle East or missile program. “There’s a lot of appetite to have those broader conversations,” the aide said.
Should he need to compel Iran to change its behavior on those broader issues, Biden outlined a suite of responses in the New York Times:
This would include: targeted sanctions against Iranian support for terrorism and Iran’s ballistic missile program; ironclad support for Israel; robust intelligence and security cooperation with regional partners; support for strengthening the capacity of countries like Iraq to resist Iranian influence; and a renewed commitment to diplomacy aimed at ending wars in Yemen and Syria that provide Iran with opportunities to expand.
But there’s a complication: Iran has a presidential election next year. Rouhani was president when the nuclear deal was signed, and he certainly views not overseeing its complete death as a legacy issue. Another president might not, which is why experts say Biden would have to move quickly to restore the deal before the Iranian election season really kicks off.
Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, makes that argument. She told me Biden would have to make advances with Tehran early in his presidency. The regime would need to agree to stop further expanding its nuclear efforts by early February, she said, paving a pathway for it to come back into compliance by March or April. The US would by then have to provide financial relief to Iran for doing so.
Having the Iran deal back in place would set the stage for the Biden administration to have those further talks on regional issues with the next Iranian leader’s team, Geranmayeh claimed, but not direct president-to-president negotiations. “There’s still a big political stink” to having those, she told me.
Biden, however, may not even get the chance to have such talks. The Trump administration may further impose sanctions on Iran later in the year, which may cause Tehran to sprint even faster toward a bomb or launch further attacks on Americans. At that point, the deal would all but collapse and the former VP wouldn’t have the political space for diplomacy.
“We may be in a situation where Iran is expanding activities,” and “it could land us anywhere,” said Geranmayeh — including war.
That’s troubling. In a New York Times questionnaire, Biden said he would consider military action to preempt Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. “Force must be used judiciously to protect a vital interest of the United States, only when the objective is clear and achievable, with the informed consent of the American people and, where required, the approval of Congress,” he said. “[T]he nuclear ambitions of Iran pose such a vital interest.”
Biden, however, seems committed to a diplomacy-first course. “The only way out of this crisis is through diplomacy — clear-eyed, hard-nosed diplomacy grounded in strategy, that’s not about one-off decisions or one-upmanship,” he said during a January foreign policy speech.
Would Biden’s preference for diplomacy over war also extend to America’s continuing conflicts around the world? Maybe.
America’s wars: “It’s past time to end the forever wars”
It’s always worth repeating that the US has been at war since 2001. Thousands of American and non-American lives have been lost. Trillions of dollars have been spent. And, for all that’s happened, it looks like the US made much of the world worse.
It’s no wonder, then, that a bipartisan movement in the US pushes for an end to the “forever wars.” If Biden is president, he’ll face pressure to deliver that. “Now is the time to roll back America’s military misadventures,” said Bessner, the former Sanders adviser at the University of Washington.
Biden has clearly heard these concerns. “It’s past time to end the forever wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure,” he said in July 2019.
“We should bring the vast majority of our troops home — from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and ISIS. And we should end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen,” he continued. “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”
How he’ll do that, though, is unclear.
Biden told the New York Times he’d “bring American combat troops in Afghanistan home during my first term. Any residual US military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.” But he’ll only have the political space to do that if he’s able to strengthen the Afghan government and weaken the Taliban so they reach some kind of permanent ceasefire and deal.
Husain Haqqani, formerly Pakistan’s ambassador to the US who interacted with Biden in an official capacity, thinks he knows how the former VP might try to do that. Biden once called Pakistan “potentially the most dangerous country in the world,” namely because it has nuclear weapons and supports the Taliban in Afghanistan. “He was right from an American point of view,” Haqqani told me.
That’s why Haqqani, now at the Hudson Institute, says Biden will likely place sanctions or other harsh measures on Islamabad to compel it to sever ties with Taliban fighters. “He will push on Pakistan far more than his predecessors,” the former ambassador said.
Whether or not that works, those close to Biden told me that as much as he’d want to bring US service members home from Afghanistan, he wouldn’t do it until he was sure a few thousand troops would suffice to handle the counterterrorism mission there. “It’s really going to depend on where Afghanistan is,” said GMF’s Chollet.
Trump told Axios earlier this month that he plans to have fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by Election Day — down from a current total of about 8,500 — which wouldn’t give Biden much wiggle room.
As for Yemen, a war in which the US got involved during the Obama administration, Biden has stated unequivocally that America will no longer play any role. “I would end US support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in a questionnaire. But he’d do more than that: He’d punish Saudi Arabia for it, too.
“I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said in November 2019 during the fifth Democratic debate. “I would end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children and they’re murdering innocent people. And so they have to be held accountable.”
So Biden would look to end the wars the US is already in. But would he get the US involved in another one? Perhaps, but only under a strict set of conditions.
“We will use force to defend our vital interests, but it should be a last resort,” the former Biden aide said. “We need to make sure that there’s a clear mission, that it’s achievable, and have informed consent of the American people — and where possible bring the people with us.”
The former staffer noted Biden “is very proud” of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS, which began under the Obama administration and was effectively continued by Trump. Biden believes that was the right kind of mission for the threat, and no longer wants to get bogged down in another major war unless absolutely necessary.
Indeed, the staffer said, “Biden is not a believer in the transformative, nation-building role of our military” and is “skeptical of intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia.” However, bringing forces around the world down to zero makes no sense because there are threats, Biden believes, mainly terrorist threats that a few thousand troops could handle (just like in Afghanistan).
Between winding down America’s wars, revamping diplomacy, and focusing on global health and economic issues at the start, some experts expect Biden to lower defense spending. “I think the defense budget will go down,” said GMF’s Chollet. “There should be cuts to the defense budget, and there will be cuts.”
Even so, Biden is unlikely to end the forever wars — despite his claims — but is surely looking to downsize them quite a bit.
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