Upon taking office, President Joe Biden pledged to bring multilateralism back to U.S. foreign policy, a pivot from the America First doctrine under President Donald Trump.
Here are some areas where Biden has kept his promise to reengage with the world, and some where he may be holding back.
Last week the world witnessed a dramatic foreign policy shift between a president who withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord commitments to one who convened a virtual climate summit of 40 world leaders to show that America wants to assert global leadership to slow climate change.
At the summit, Biden announced he will cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and rallied leaders to declare their own ambitious targets in the run-up to the U.N. Conference on climate later this year in Glasgow. The U.S. is also doubling its annual public climate financing to help developing countries by 2024, renewing the so far unmet pledge by developed countries to increase climate financing to at least $100 billion per year by 2020.
But the global effort on climate change will depend on its largest emitters. Citing the challenge of achieving carbon neutrality in such a short time frame while maintaining its rapid economic development, Chinese President Xi Jinping stuck with Beijing’s initial target of 2060. India, the world’s third largest emitter, and Russia, the fourth largest also made no new commitments on reducing emissions.
Nuclear arms control
Under Biden, the U.S. has revived arms control efforts, part of the president’s plan to downgrade nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy and to extend the New START treaty with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The administration has returned to indirect nuclear negotiations with Iran, an about-face from Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Signed by Iran and world powers, the JCPOA placed restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Negotiations have been difficult, partly because the Iranians are demanding all sanctions be removed — something the administration is unwilling to do. With many forces inside Iran’s political establishment, regional powers including Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Republicans in Congress rejecting the deal’s revival, Biden’s slow, step by step process may be a liability, said Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and professor of politics at the University of South Florida. “The longer these negotiations take, the more these forces have the chance to sabotage the process and derail it,” he said.
On North Korea, Biden is strengthening alliances with Japan and South Korea to help restrain Pyongyang, rather than personally courting Kim Jong Un as Trump had done. Still, the central challenge is having a decades-old U.S. policy that demands the North Korean leader give up all his nuclear weapons in one fell swoop, despite no indication that he would, said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. “Working well with allies won’t change the fact that our policy needs to be grounded in realism and in sound diagnosis of the problem,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s not clear we are headed there yet.”
In July 2020, President Trump formally withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization, accusing the U.N. body of being under China's control in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While Biden rejoined the WHO in the first hours of his presidency, some 100 days later he has yet to offer a comprehensive strategy to speed up global pandemic recovery efforts.
On vaccine sharing, the Biden administration is operating on a strategy of “oversupplied and overprepared” to ensure that it is prepared to vaccinate children and deal with emerging variants. Only this week did the White House announce it will begin sharing up to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, unused in the U.S. because it has not yet been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
But with some 230 million doses administered and 29 percent of Americans fully vaccinated, the Biden White House is under pressure to do more, including to support the temporary waiver of TRIPS — Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights — to be discussed at a formal meeting at the World Trade Organization on April 30. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said so far there has been no decision on a waiver, which would allow countries to make generic versions of the vaccines.
Mathew Kavanagh, director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative at Georgetown University, said it “looks incredibly stingy” and “geopolitically dumb” for the administration not to get behind vaccine patent waivers, especially considering aggressive Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy.
“The administration says it’s serious about multilateralism but is so far ignoring calls from WHO, the U.N., and African, Asian, and Latin American governments to share the vaccine science,” Kavanagh said.
In March, Biden and other leaders of the Quad countries — Australia, India, and Japan — launched a financing plan to boost COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution for countries in the region, with a focus on Southeast Asia, where the Chinese have been aggressively pushing vaccine diplomacy efforts. The initiative is in addition to the $4 billion that was approved under the Trump administration to support COVAX, the U.N. mechanism to ensure vaccine access to middle-and lower-income countries.
Meanwhile, Biden is criticized by conservatives for not continuing Trump’s push for reforms at the WHO. The world deserves an accountable and effective World Health Organization, said Brett D. Schaefer, the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. “By failing to tie U.S. membership and funding to reform, Biden squandered key leverage and made this outcome less likely.”
Americans of various political leanings, not just Republicans, have embraced Trump’s populist anti-globalization narrative. That means there now appears to be little political will to strike new international trade deals.
In Congress for example, there is little appetite to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the 11-country free trade deal spanning Asia and the Pacific. In the meantime, Beijing last year finalized its 15-nation trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. RCEP members make up nearly a third of the world's population and account for 29% of global gross domestic product.
Analysts say China’s emergence as a major U.S. competitor means the Biden administration may need to include trade agreements as a larger part of its foreign policy approach. Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said there is a need to reassure America’s trading partners that Washington will be a reliable partner if they face economic retaliation from China. Otherwise, he said, “they will continue to hedge against the prospect of America as not being sufficiently reliable as a partner,” and that could mean less cooperation on U.S. policy priorities.