Looking ahead to the election’s impact on U.S. foreign policy

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will make important choices about America’s relationships with allies and partners. A Perry World House roundtable looked at key topics for the new administration.

Flags of various nations wave atop flagpoles against a blue sky with clouds
American foreign policy remains a critical issue for the Biden administration. Perry World House held a roundtable discussion to discuss key issues the new administration should focus on.

While health care and the economy were top concerns for voters during this presidential election, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign policy remains a critical issue for the next administration.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his administration will make important choices about America’s relationships with allies and partners in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere; determine the future path of U.S. strategy with Russia and China; conduct diplomacy at the highest level; maintain readiness to respond to security risks from terrorist attacks, nuclear weapons, and conventional warfare; and face the continued global threats of the pandemic and climate change.

Perry World House (PWH) hosted a roundtable discussion on Nov. 10 to look at these topics, moderated by Director Michael Horowitz and featuring Visiting Fellow Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Wolk Distinguished Visiting Fellow Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary general of NATO and retired U.S. diplomat.

Vershbow contended that, with the exception of Vladimir Putin and a few other authoritarian leaders, most of the world was relieved at the prospect of working with President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. “America's friends are reassured by Joe Biden’s experience, his character, and his credentials as a true-blue internationalist,” he said.

Vershbow added that America’s allies and partners are heartened that Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization on Day One of his administration.

“They’re also looking to the administration to jumpstart international cooperation to contain the pandemic as well as climate change,” said Vershbow. “It’s encouraging that the president-elect has already set up a panel on COVID-19.”

Biden needs to show the world that the U.S. is still a functioning democracy, Rubin said.

“The U.S. appears to be struggling to uphold and practice the principles that underlie our constitutional system,” she said. “This fuels the idea of America’s decline.”

The U.S. needs to compete with China, manage Russian interference, and show that the nation is capable of exerting the leadership that the world is looking for, she said, noting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is almost out of office and French President Emmanuel Macron is soon up for election.

“These allies need the U.S. to lead,” she said.

Three people in a Zoom meeting, a man with a blue background and the Penn shield on the upper left, a woman with bookcases behind her on the upper right and a man in the center bottom with a bookshelf to his left.
Perry World House Director Michael Horowitz (upper left) moderated the foreign policy discussion with Trudy Rubin (upper right) and Alexander Vershbow (bottom).

Asked if she’s concerned about Trump’s abrupt firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and what that might mean for the transition, Rubin said it’s not clear what the fallout will be.

She said Esper was on Trump’s hit list because he wouldn’t use the U.S. military to break up demonstrations over the summer, and she wondered aloud if Trump removed Esper because Trump wants to use troops before Jan. 20.

“Bottom line: It undercuts Biden from the get-go, and it undercuts his ability to get started now on dealing with the COVID surge,” said Rubin.

Vershbow said that he was concerned, even before Esper’s firing, that U.S. adversaries might take advantage of a chaotic transition period, anything from Chinese provocations with Taiwan to Russian misinformation.

As for Russia’s reaction to the election results, Putin didn’t feel as strongly about the winner as he did in 2016, because Trump didn’t deliver the concessions he had hoped for, Vershbow said, but he said Democrats are more hardline on Russia, and Biden won’t tolerate things like further encroachment by Russia on its neighbors.

Vershbow said, however, that he thinks Biden is prepared to deal in specific areas where Russia will be constructive, like on Iran and North Korea.

Asked what they think Biden’s national security focus will be, both agreed he’ll maintain some form of great-power competition.

“Biden’s focus is on ‘managed competition’ with China, but that depends on what he can achieve domestically,” Rubin said, adding the U.S. has to increase investment in innovation, technology, education, and infrastructure to compete well.

“China is steaming ahead on technology advances, and the U.S. doesn’t do enough private R&D to keep ahead. To be in the game, there has to be some kind of industrial policy for the U.S. I hope the Democrats will embrace that, and the question is if the Republicans will fight against it,” she said.

Vershbow agreed that Biden will continue the paradigm of great power competition even if his administration brands it differently, and Biden is likely to promote an approach grounded in working with allies and avoiding all-out confrontation with China.

Asked what policy to expect on the Korean peninsula in the next four years, Vershbow predicted North Korea may start off with some sort of provocation, like it has in the past, but he hopes that Biden can return to a more multilateral approach to South Korea.

“Trump might have had a real chance to de-escalate with North Korea, but he squandered it,” he said. “Trump has made it harder to manage because of his extravagant demands of the South Korean government on defense-burden sharing. He’s even threatened withdrawing U.S. troops, which just emboldens North Korea.”

Asked about the Middle East, Rubin said the first move should be the U.S. extricating itself from the “disastrous” war in Yemen.

Vershbow said the U.S. role in that war hasn’t helped to contain Iran, which is the center point of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. He said he thinks Biden will put America back in an “honest broker” position on the Palestinian question, with a consulate on the Palestinian side, but doubts any big breakthroughs are likely.

Vershbow and Rubin agreed that the U.S. needs to focus on racial justice at home to bolster its authority on human rights abroad.

“I think that there will be charges of hypocrisy until we begin to get our own house in order, and that’s not going to be easy with the continued division in our society that this election has revealed,” Vershbow said. “Ultimately, we have to demonstrate the capacity for correcting our mistakes that America has been known for over many centuries. We can show a better face and why the American experiment is still working.”

A video of the virtual talk can be seen on Perry World House’s YouTube channel.