President Biden’s foreign policy: engagement, multilateralism, and cautious globalization

Election night on November 3, 2020, and the days that followed proved to be hours of high drama. Throughout Joe Biden adopted a patient, mature and statesmanlike posture emphasizing that it was his objective to unite the nation and bring the country together, once he had been inaugurated.

This is also the approach we can expect President Biden to adopt in the conduct of American’s foreign relations. Just as President Trump did his utmost to divide the American people and sow fear and mutual distrust, Trump made an almost deliberate effort to fall out with America’s closest allies in both Europe and Asia and antagonize further countries such as China where relations had been on a downward course for several years already. We can expect the Biden administration to steer a cooperative, multilateral and much more stable and predictable course. Biden will attempt to engage with both allies and foes and will not to be tempted to pursue an isolationist or protectionist policy.

Biden is aware of both the advantages of globalization but also its economic pitfalls and risks. The new president can be expected to attempt re-juvenating America’s global leadership position by, for instance, rejoining the Paris Climate Treaty and the World Health Organization and, under certain conditions, the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden is aware of the importance of upholding the rules-based global order and finding a new consensus on crucial global governance issues. Most likely he will attempt to seriously reform the World Trade Organization and perhaps even consider re-joining the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), an economic organization with mostly Asian memberstates, which Trump had withdrawn from during his first few days in office.

For reasons of space, in the following I will focus on America’s most crucial relationships: the ones with Europe and China.

Transatlantic Relations

During the Trump administration, European-American relations deteriorated to an almost unprecedented extent. Unlike Trump, however, Biden is aware of the weight European (and Asian) allies bring to the table and how this strengthens America’s standing and influence in global affairs a great deal. While the Biden administration will also urge Europeans to spend more on defense, it will not question the importance of NATO. Biden will not try to divide the Europeans among themselves in order to weaken the European Union (and by implication the process of creating a more politically united European continent). Trump mistakenly believed that this would provide him with an advantage in U.S.-EU trade negotiations.

There is a good chance that Biden may attempt to revive the negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which had been started by the Obama administration but had been quickly abandoned by Trump. Biden’s balanced and well-grounded mature personality will also ensure that a lack of chemistry and political difficulties with individual European leaders will not lead to the personalization of the entire transatlantic relationship and result in public bickering and griping as was frequently the case under Trump.

The Biden administration will not pay particular attention to the so-called “special relationship“ with the UK. Perhaps influenced by his Irish background, Biden was not impressed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s willingness to sacrifice the preservation of an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in order to obtain a more advantageous Brexit deal with the EU.


While the country was deeply divided during the Trump administration, there existed a rare consensus regarding the necessity of a tough policy toward China. It is unlikely that this will change quickly under the new administration. In view of the many doubts about Biden’s toughness during the election campaign, he can hardly afford to come across as being ’soft’ on China. Still, similar to embarking on a new re-set policy with the EU (as well as possibly toward Russia and some other difficult countries), a new, more constructive approach toward China can also be expected.

Biden’s China policy will be more nuanced, less focused on personal relations with Xi Jinping (or for that matter other strongmen in world politics) and more focused on re-establishing bilateral and multilateral communication and consultation channels with Beijing. It will be a significantly less volatile and more predictable approach. Biden, however, will put a much greater emphasis than Trump on human rights and will expect China to be much less assertive in the South China Sea, toward Taiwan and within the context of the ’Belt and Road’-initiative.

Biden will also look for more opportunities to cooperate with China on issues like climate change, relations toward Iran’s nuclear policy, and perhaps a common approach to African development issues. He will not hesitate to explore other areas of common interest either, such as developing a global cooperative framework for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. Biden will also be interested in re-establishing a bilateral political and economic/trade dialogue with Beijing (while also continuing the new U.S.-EU Dialogue on China). While not being as keen on