All Eyes on Joe Biden’s Emerging Foreign Policy

Initial Signs Suggest at Least a Partial Return to the Policies of the Second Obama Administration

Despite a series of ongoing legal challenges in certain battleground states, the reality of Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 elections has long been settled in the minds of most Washington observers. Now all eyes are turning towards Biden’s first round of appointments, mindful that the main policy architecture of his administration could be set early on. Initial signs suggest at least a partial return to the policies of the second Obama administration.

RETRENCHMENT FROM CONFLICT, DETENTE WITH ALLIES 

During the campaign, Biden maintained a highly disciplined focus on President Trump’s record in handling the coronavirus, as well as on the latter’s personal manner and temperament. As a result, his policy commitments on international matters generally remained vague and open to a variety of interpretations. Nevertheless, the undertone of Biden’s foreign policy messaging was consistent throughout: a return to the Obama administration’s preference for retrenchment from protracted conflicts in the Middle East, and greater skepticism towards Washington’s traditional allies.

As Biden’s own website promised, “Biden will end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure. As he has long argued, Biden will bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And he will end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”

While Biden himself has not yet weighed in authoritatively, in the view of one Biden aide, the relationship with Riyadh is likely to undergo a re-evaluation. “Our interests are going down and our values are getting further apart,” he said. “Democrats feel there’s no going back to a previous era of US-Saudi policy,” prominent analyst Mira Rapp-Hooper noted, referencing the traditional American-Saudi alliance around issues of commerce and defense. 

Indeed, Biden’s campaign featured criticism of Middle Eastern heads of state perceived as enjoying excessively warm ties with President Trump. By way of example, Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah El-Sisi was told by a Biden tweet in July to expect  “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’.”

AUGURIES VAGUE AND MENACING 

The strategic case for a calculated erosion of ties with Washington’s principal allies in the region has been a mainstay of progressive activism in the U.S. in recent years. But other influential voices are less sanguine of such an approach. Iran analyst Ray Takeyh believes that the recent flowering of Gulf-Israeli ties — and the relationships and policies that enabled them — would be discarded at Washington’s peril. Indeed, Takeyh believes that “more peace treaties are possible unless Biden returns to former President Barack Obama’s path of lecturing the House of Saud that it must share the Middle East with the Islamists on the other side of the Persian Gulf.”

But Biden’s inclinations remain uncertain, making most assumptions about his foreign policy plans premature. As one of his leading contenders for Secretary of State recently told Axios, “A Biden administration [will] engage the world not as it was in 2009 or even 2017, when we left office, but as it is.”